An early wave of springtime gaiety swept into the 5Cs last Friday. Eighty-degree sun shone down on the campuses amidst the erecting of tents, unfurling of banners, and serving of suspiciously good dining hall food. (Just kidding about the last one.) It was Valentine’s Day, and Family Weekend had arrived in full force.
For one weekend of the college year, students stop being students and reclaim their former roles as annoying big brothers or grouchy teenage daughters. Try as we might to go to college and leave our homes behind, once a year our families come back to remind us that we’re still a part of them.
But Pomona College, unlike the other 5C institutions, is not content with this mere annual reminder of familialism. It also has the Sponsor Program, which is routinely championed, as the Pomona website puts it, as a “built-in family” at school. Siblings are replaced with “spiblings”—members of the same Sponsor Group—and mamas and papas are replaced with “spamas” and “spapas”—male and female sponsors—that is, until it all comes crashing down on Family Weekend, when your real family asks you who all these people are. How do you explain to your family the very thing that is attempting to replace them?
In struggling with this question, we have to recognize that the underlying problem is graver than most people may realize. In framing the Sponsor Group as a surrogate family, Pomona has perverted the true benefit of the program. The Sponsor Group succeeds extraordinarily well if its goal is to bond a small community of initially nervous, friendless first-years. But if its goal is to replicate the familial structure, as its vernacular would suggest, it cannot help but fail.
Constructing a functional family is tricky business. Many of our biological relationships are less than happy, so to expect a panel from the Residence Halls Staff to group a bunch of strangers into a stable family based on a few survey questions might be a little ambitious.
Indeed, Plato argues that we should not even try. Children, or students, ought to be communally nurtured by society—in this case, the college. Families get in the way of societal unity, and as students in a liberal arts environment, we cannot afford to view the Sponsor Group as organizationally prior to our membership in the community of Pomona and the rest of the 5Cs lest we succumb to division and factionalism.
Structuring the Sponsor Group as a familial hierarchy invites a certain paradox that we would do well to avoid. Right from the first day on campus, students are torn between two identities: one as a 5C undergraduate, and one as a family member of a Pomona-specific Sponsor Group. These two callings are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and the tension is perhaps not immediately palpable, but unhealthy implications result.
Imagine disliking a group member, and then imagine that dislike being equated to disliking a member of your family, if only implicitly. Imagine developing an attraction to a group member, and then imagine that relationship being equated to incest, technically termed “sponcest.” There are things that you do with fellow students that you would not do with family, and vice versa. This bizarre family analogy, entrenched in the collective Pomona consciousness, has distorted the 87-year-old program’s true purpose.
Why the family model? There are so many other types of bonds besides familial ones that it is hard to understand what caused the Sponsor Group system to gravitate toward this particular type some time in the last few years. It is hard to understand why Pomona would embrace the socially conservative model of the nuclear family for its first-year mentoring program when it is so progressive in other matters. It is hard to understand how the word “sponsor” somehow changed to mean mother, father, adoptive parent.
Perhaps this diagnosis is too early to be taken seriously by those who subscribe to the existing system. But it is on days like Family Weekend that I am reminded of the awkwardness of the program, and the odd role that it tries to fill as first-years transition into the 5C community. At its worst, the current Sponsor Program threatens the agency of the individual student to independently build his or her own family. I fear that we are on a path that will ultimately undermine the very integration that the Sponsor Program was founded to encourage.
We leave our real families behind when we come to college. Do we really want to supplant them as soon as we arrive? We need not get rid of Sponsor Groups altogether, but let’s consider excising the terminology of familialism from them in order to preserve the value of a neighborly, Platonic community. And let’s face it: the “sp-” prefix is pretty damn annoying.
Matt Dahl PO ’17 hails from Newton MA and is a committed member of Pomona Mock Trial.