A Level Playing Ground



The Indy scopes out a new pre-orientation program for freshmen

The Harvard Undergraduate Council announced a new ‘Harvard Project’ grant initiative that would award $3000 to a student-led project that proposes a solution to a campus problem. The Indy caught up with Savannah Fritz ‘17 who is one of the three finalists for the grant. Fritz has proposed the creation of the Freshman Enrichment Program, a pre-orientation program geared specifically towards incoming freshmen from under-resourced high schools. Both Yale and Princeton have already established versions of such a program on their respective campuses. The program seeks to help incoming freshmen adjust to the academic, social and cultural demands placed upon students in a competitive liberal-arts university atmosphere.

AA:  What motivated you to come up with the idea for the Freshman Enrichment Program?

SF: I was the first ever student from my school district to go to an Ivy League college, and after all the years of dreaming and working and hoping for the crazy impossibility of attending Harvard, the first year knocked me down harder than I could have imagined. I want to reach out to other students whose background might poise them to have an especially difficult transition and remind them they matter and belong here and can succeed here before they forget it.

AA: What, in your opinion, are the primary problems that students from under-resourced high schools face during their freshman year at Harvard?

SF: The problems that students from under-resourced high schools face freshmen year (and even beyond, depending upon how hard it impacts them) range from academic to cultural to social in nature. In terms of academics—and this is the major thing, of course- the sheer gaps in preparation can set a student back while more prepared peers hit the ground running. Those ‘gaps’ can come in the form of material and the lag in content some high schools cover as well as differences in study skills or teaching methods; the immense amount of time many public schools must spend on standardized test prep in the hopes that students pass state-mandated exams decreases the amount of emphasis they can put on critical thinking skills and increases the amount of rote memorization skills their students develop. The spectrum of background preparation that students receive K-12 has a profound impact on students’ academics, but that’s not the whole picture—the culture shock and pressures from family with different expectations can add extra pressures that can set a student back. A friend told me of having depression freshmen fall after coming from a rural public school. The first year can leave unprepared students reeling from culture shock and struggling, and there’s no reason to let them go to face academic and mental health issues without issue-specific peer support that might just be prevention of some of the difficulties. Harvard is hard for almost everyone, and I don’t mean to downplay or belittle the struggles those from private or upper-middle class feeder districts face; rather, this initiative can help alleviate at least some of the issues impacting those who might disproportionately face difficulties.

AA: How do you aim to identify “under-resourced high schools”? Is it not hard to come up with an objective set of criteria to demark something as subjective as the term “under-resourced”?

SF: Absolutely, it is difficult to identify “under-resourced high schools” and it won’t involve a clean-cut, universal metric. Information that the Admissions Office collects about high schools can potentially be helpful here, although issues certainly exist with that model of outreach, too. However, how many AP courses does the school offer? What percentage of the graduating class matriculates at a 4-year college? What percentage of the students are on free and reduced lunch? All these criteria might offer some insight into identifying students. When was the last time this school sent us a student—three last year or one two decades ago? How many graduates do we have from that high school, too many to count or “maybe I think there was one from 1973?”

These factors influence students’ academic achievement and mental health. Let’s do something to catch them before they fall and not after.

AA:  Often, students from the so termed “under-resourced” schools face problems that go beyond their freshman year. How do you aim to develop this program into a sustainable resource that such students can refer to for all four years of their time here?

SF: Preliminary ideas for the structure of the program include mentoring from alums and upperclassmen, dinners, speakers, and group discussion meetings. Upperclassmen can (and should!) certainly remain involved in all of these; hopefully they will maintain a mentoring relationship with their alumni mentor, and will return as a mentor to a new first year. These cycles of mutual empowerment can provide meaning and support to students all four years- targeted towards the transition and the year that will likely prove the hardest, but with educational events and leadership opportunities all throughout their time at Harvard.

AA: Do you feel that the Admissions Office or the Office for Student Life could be interested in funding the project itself? Have you had the chance to float the idea for such a program before the administration?

SF: Absolutely, I hope the Admissions Office, Office of Student Life, Freshman Dean’s Office, or Advising Programs Office will take an interest in developing these programs. Ultimately to be the most successful, I think one of these or perhaps another university office should control and coordinate the logistics of FEP so that it has a reliable institutionalized structure as well as the support and guidance of those who know more about education issues and providing meaningful programming than I myself as a twenty year old do.

Aditya Agrawal ’17 (adityaagrawal@college.harvard.edu) hopes this can be a resource for the Class of 2019.

Editor’s Notes:

2/19/15: Fritz ’17 won the award!