OPINION: Pomona should recreate sponsor groups for sophomores in fall 2021

Students stand on a road next to green trees under rocky mountains.
Usually, first-year students at Pomona College go on Orientation Adventure, an orientation trip that promotes bonding between first-years. (Courtesy: Outdoor Education Center)

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a member of the Pomona College class of 2025 who is currently on a gap year. He asked me about my experience with sponsor groups, tight-knit communities of first-year students who live in the same hallway and participate in weekly activities together. 

For a moment, I didn’t know how to answer his question despite being a first-year Pomona student myself. It seems to me that sponsor groups are a long-forgotten remnant of what was supposed to be our first-year experience at Pomona before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This is an issue. Some form of make-up sponsor groups that offer similar opportunities to those of a typical first-year experience at Pomona is crucial in providing the class of 2024 with the central aspects of a residential liberal arts education.

I believe my current virtual sponsor group is a perfect example of how groups like this are particularly susceptible to the perils of virtual experiences: meetings are few and far between attendance is meager and the most integral part of sponsor groups — living together in one common area — is missing. Ultimately, it’s been ineffective at creating a sense of community for its first-years and catalyzing social connections between the student body as a whole.

The nature of sponsor groups as they exist now is by no means the fault of the sponsors or the staff who oversee the program but simply due to the nature of virtual learning that will last until the end of this semester, at the very least.

However, if Pomona’s campus reopens in the fall, which has become more likely with the rollout of vaccines and cases in Los Angeles county diminishing, it is imperative that Pomona offer some form of sponsor group-esque opportunities for sophomores so they can adjust to residential college life and form a cohesive community.

Last semester, I wrote an optimistic op-ed about college even though I was spending my first semester online. While I still hold that attitude and am actively trying to reach out to others to socialize by joining clubs and organizing study sessions, there are certain social aspects of being on campus that simply cannot be replicated via Zoom and must be made up. When the class of 2024 goes to campus, it will not be as if we have had a normal first year and can continue our Pomona experience as such.

First, the spontaneous interactions that are the hallmark of a residential liberal arts education are missing. The 1 a.m. conversations and meals together in the dining hall are not possible in a virtual environment. Time differences, responsibilities at home and the non-spontaneous nature of communicating over Zoom and messaging apps prevent us from truly being immersed in the social life that the college offers.

This issue is exacerbated by the fact that, while we are at home, individuals have unequal opportunities to interact with others beyond attending classes — many of my peers have been able to recreate some form of community by living together or meeting up if they are geographically close to each other. 

However, for students who are more isolated due to economic hardship or living in different states or countries, there have not been many opportunities to create intimate social relationships with others.

It becomes crucial, then, that when we go to campus in the fall (fingers crossed), there are the same opportunities that we would have had this year to begin our residential college life. The sense of community is lacking between students, and we need to ensure that all students are provided the opportunities for socializing that others may have had this year.

It is neither necessary nor practical to completely recreate sponsor groups. 

Assuming no action is taken, the living situation for sophomores would not be conducive to traditional sponsor groups, as there are no restricted residence halls for sophomores like there are for first-years, who are required to live on South Campus.

However, a toned-down version of sponsor groups would be feasible and serve as a great opportunity to provide us with typical first-year experiences that we lacked this year. Currently, rising juniors and seniors are being tapped to head sponsor groups for the class of 2025 this fall, according to a Feb. 25 email from Josh Eisenberg, dean of campus life. Rising sophomores should also be included in sponsor groups of their own, led by students who have already been on campus.

At Pomona, certain residence halls are already primarily drawn by certain years. It would not be impossible to arrange for certain hallways to be sophomore-only with junior or senior sponsors overseeing the group. The crucial aspect of sponsor groups to recreate is the chance to form a community with your peers, catalyzed by spontaneous interactions from living in close proximity with them. 

Additionally, sponsor group activities do not have to be as pervasive in sophomores’ day-to-day lives as they typically are for first-years. After all, we will be in our second year as Pomona students and will be familiar with the academic side of college. However, occasional social activities together, such as weekly dinners, could do wonders for creating lasting relationships.

If my ideas resonate with you, whether you are a first-year student at Pomona or not, know that realizing this vision is our responsibility. We can talk to our class president and arrange meetings with the dean of campus life. We can also join the wide variety of identity-based peer mentor groups at Pomona to provide ourselves with the ability to meet other people and create community, regardless of whether or not we are on campus.

This year has not been easy on any of us, and our first-year experience at Pomona has been anything but typical. However, there are certain aspects of being on campus that we need to recreate when campus opens — the most important of which are sponsor groups that create community and lasting relationships.

Phillip Kong PO ’24 is from Toronto, Canada. He enjoys playing fantasy basketball.

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