The Avatar Cycle and Institutional Knowledge

A graphic of the same person telling two different people separately "Of course Pomona supports student-led change!" and "Unfortunately, you won't be asked back next year."
(Elodie Arbogast • The Student Life)

Over a decade ago, the animated show “Avatar: the Last Airbender” (and its sequel, “The Legend of Korra”) captured the imagination of audiences of all ages and backgrounds. This was partially for the rare inclusion of social commentary in a children’s show, but also for the show’s depiction of the coming of age journey of the Avatar, which provides a powerful metaphor for the concept of institutional knowledge.

Like Aang, college students embark on their own journeys of personal discovery, self-growth, and a realization of their potential. It takes time, personal struggle, and perhaps most importantly, the right guides.

This is why we have mentor programs, designed to help first-year students through a support network made of older students who have valuable experiences that both frame and shape the first year. However, students benefit not only from the experiences of those currently at Pomona but also from the knowledge, experiences, and work of people long since graduated.

In the context of student activism, institutional knowledge has become much more than simply a means of supporting new students. The value of experience that is passed down by departing seniors is invaluable for driving institutional change that is both wide-reaching and long-lasting.

To administrators truly invested in supporting not only students, but also student-driven processes and student-driven change, institutional knowledge should be of the utmost importance and value. But if that were the way that things actually worked, I wouldn’t be writing this piece.

I spent three years as a part of Pomona College’s Residence Hall Staff, as a sponsor, as an RA, and finally as a head sponsor. I value my time there for the connections I made with students, but the experiences I had dealing with administrators negatively colored my broader Pomona experience.

The Office of Housing and Residence Life, the administrative side of RHS, publicly promotes notions of impactful student involvement, but all I saw was institutional apathy. Administrators smile, nod, jot down some notes, and steer the ship on the same course it has always sailed. It is not static; it is stagnant.

I left Pomona jaded like many of my peers over the disparity between the Pomona of admissions tours and the one I lived. But I find myself drawn back into the fold because OHRL is no longer content to simply wait for activist students to graduate; it is now trending toward an active marginalization and elimination of institutional knowledge.

To cite one example, it is typical for some of the current head sponsors to be part of the head sponsor selection committee. Who better to help with selection of their successors than the students who have first-hand experience in supervision of sponsors and overseeing of entire buildings? However, this year, the committee was made entirely of administrators, who are under no obligation to incorporate feedback provided by the current head sponsors.

Furthermore, the head sponsors were limited in the feedback they could provide; as all three were applying to be RAs, it was declared to be a conflict of interest to be involved with the selection of anyone they could potentially work with. This is coming from the same administration that only last year chose a current RA who was applying to be an RA for this year to be on the RA selection committee.

This marginalization of student voices has serious implications that extend to sponsor selection and how RHS is run because of the leadership roles that head sponsors play within the program.

If students are not constantly pressing administrators for changes that are reflective of the needs of students through open and critical inquiry of the existing system, how can the institution move forward while actively serving students? And why are students who are openly critical of the system not being actively engaged with?

OHRL has shown a marked reticence to engage with those who are most critical of the program, even when that criticism is grounded in the student experience that administrators are supposed to be serving. When institutional knowledge is marginalized or lost, apathy can survive. Political agendas can survive. Administrators can just wait for the most critical students to graduate. RHS remains ill equipped to address the needs of students and better their experience.

Students should be thoughtfully engaged with, not offered token lip service. Processes that are intentionally designed to give off a veneer of student involvement while actually intending to exclude or to minimize student involvement in shaping student communities are not only pointless; they are a farce and a mockery of Pomona’s claim to involve students at all levels of decision-making.

The administration needs to commit itself to also valuing and preserving the institutional knowledge of students. If Pomona truly cares about actively working with and supporting students who are trying to effect change, then it will have to make real, concerted efforts to engage with students in meaningful ways, rather than waiting for them to graduate, and to help students to promote long-term change, rather than trying to hinder it.

Bryan Gee graduated from Pomona College in 2016.

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