Saturday, January 11, 2014

Adrianne Ramsey - Sarah Lawrence College

My name is Adrianne Ramsey and I am a first-year student at Sarah Lawrence College. After reading so many college testimonials over the years, I will admit I am a little shocked that I am sitting here writing my first one. While I am still figuring out the world of college, I hope that one will find a “lesson”, whatever it may be, within my words.

Sarah Lawrence has an interesting and somewhat complex academic system. First, students take three five-credit courses each semester, and “conference” makes up a big bulk of the coursework. In short, students meet with their professors every other week for thirty minutes (conference) and discuss an individual project that they will create for the class. The project, which for most students is a very long paper, is worked on over the course of the semester. Second, all first years are required to take a yearlong seminar (First Year Studies) in a subject they are particularly interested in (course choices are submitted to the academic committee during the summer). The professor who teaches your FYS is your don, who is your academic counselor for the next four years. Dons help students navigate which courses they want to take, provide them with advice, and make sure they are keeping up in their FYS. Third, Sarah Lawrence prides itself on having an open curriculum, which means there are no general-education requirements and students can virtually take any classes that they are interested in.

My FYS is a Fiction Workshop, and I wrote two short stories that were 10-12 pages each for my conference work. In addition to my FYS, I took two semester long courses, History of Photography from the 19th to 20th Century (a lecture course) and 18th Century British Theatrical Literature (a seminar course). For my photography conference, I wrote a 7-page paper about how documentary photography aided the American Social Reform Movement (1880-1936). For my British Literature conference, I wrote a 20-page paper on gender and narrative tone in the novels Oroonoko (Aphra Behn) and Princess of Cleves (Marie-Madeline de Lafayette). 

The first semester of college was quite an adjustment period for me, not only in terms of academic rigor but also figuring out what direction I wanted my education to go. My lecture class was accessible because there were 40 students, but my two weekly seminars consisting of 12 students each was an extreme change of pace from my high school classes of 35 students. I loved my don and the close discussions that went on during my fiction class, but they were initially very intimidating. When we began to read our stories aloud, I saw that majority of my classmates were abstract writers, meaning that they provide many detailed scenes and do not immediately let the reader know what the arc of the story is. I am an expressionist writer, meaning that I like to get to the point and always let the reader know what is going on. I was completely blown away by my classmates’ stories and would always dread reading mine. I would pray that everyone else would get over his or her shyness so I could read my story last. These insecure feelings didn’t sit well with me. I consider myself to be a very confident writer and am usually very proud of my work, but in this situation I felt that my stories were minimal, lackluster, and mediocre compared to my peers. When we began to discuss readings, it took a while for me to break out of my shell and contribute. Things began to change when I started to write my first story for conference. I believe that first conference story was the turning point for me in terms of becoming confident in my writing again. I really began to work harder on adjusting tone and dialogue, providing the right amount of details to where I didn’t confuse the reader but didn’t make everything entirely obvious, and going deeper into the minds of my characters. It was an enlightening experience and also helped me to speak up much more in all of my classes. When I began to work on my second conference story, I felt much more confidant. I thought to myself, I can do this. My don was also very supportive and helped to boost my confidence over the course of the semester.

I had two very different reactions to my semester-long courses. First, I came into college thinking that I wanted to take many world literature courses. But halfway through my British Literature class, I regretted that wish. While I hate to simply say that a class is “boring”, I am not exaggerating when I say that every discussion was painfully dry and those times I spent working on my conference project were some of the lowest points of my first semester. I don’t hate the concept of literature classes; I really do love reading. I just had a professor who led class discussions very poorly and did not provide enough historical context of 18th century Great Britain. Thus, British Literature was not a joyful experience for me. However, I refuse to say that the class was a “waste of a semester” because it wasn’t. I was able to successfully finish a 20-page paper and realized that I would rather not pile on a load of literature courses. Second, I was pleased to discover that my art history professor was down-to-earth, brilliant, funny, and, to put it shortly, awesome. At Sarah Lawrence, lecture classes have “group conferences” in place of individual conferences in which 10-12 students discuss a subject in accordance to the class for an hour. My professor ignited the conversation and guided it if it digressed, thus prompting students to think as critically as possible. In class I learned about the origins and scope of photography in France, America, and Great Britain, and in conference explored many different aspects of photography, such as discussing spirit/trick photography and looking at images from D-Day. When I took film photography in high school I had always wanted to learn the history behind the medium, but didn’t know where to begin. Writing papers for my photography class was a synch because I was fully immersed in the subject. As I read the required readings/essays for lectures, I developed a strong drive not only to finish the reading, but to also read in a way that made each piece meaningful and relate to my interest in photography.

Sarah Lawrence doesn’t have a designated time for midterms/finals, but the last three weeks of semester are bunched into what is called “conference week”. This was the time when I saw my peers bleary-eyed, sipping endless cups of coffee, and spending the night in the library working on the conference projects that they had procrastinated on all semester. My roommate spent 20 hours in the library working on six different papers and didn’t sleep for 2 days. Fortunately I had been working very hard on my conference projects all semester and was able to finish them a week before the semester ended. I realized what academic strategies weren’t going to work for me and cut them out early. Honestly, as long as one stays balanced, organized, and keeps track of all their deadlines, making it through conference week/finals is relatively simple. I worked and studied hard, and it definitely paid off and I plan on staying at this ideal academic level.

Extracurricular wise, I definitely stepped back a lot. In high school I participated in ten activities; this semester I wrote articles for our school newspaper The Phoenix and am still in the process of writing articles for our school blog SLC Speaks. At the beginning of the semester I was very self-conscious and annoyed with myself for not joining a lot of clubs. I felt like I was doing homework all the time, which was true. I didn’t understand how so many people were able to balance being in so many clubs and having so much conference work. However, looking back I am happy that I chose to focus solely on academics and hope to join more activities next semester. 

My college experiences were not solely academic based; dormitory life played a big part. At the beginning of the school year, I lived in a six-person suite. This consisted of a triple, a double, a single, a common room, two bathrooms, and a kitchen equipped with appliances. While this is luxury (especially for first-years!), nothing stayed peaches and cream for very long. Four of my roommates ended up moving out of the suite due to their own personal issues. One even left the school and returned home shortly before the semester ended. Luckily, my best friend Isabelle moved into my room. It is a slumber party every night, which provides a very positive environment for the both of us.  Although so many people moved out of my suite, it was common for me to hear from friends who did not really connect with their roommates or returned to their rooms feeling as if they were entering a battlefield. The best advice I can give regarding not only roommates but also students is to have a default attitude of being patient, respectful, and welcoming. I often made strong friendships with people I probably would not have befriended in high school. Random conversations or situations also sparked friendships. Bottom line is, have a pleasant and positive attitude towards others because it will make your overall day-to-day experiences nice and your overall experience rewarding. 

College is an amazing experience, and you don’t have to be at Sarah Lawrence to know that. Being in any college is an incredible accomplishment. Your experiences and struggles in college will be your own. There may be times where you feel like nothing is going right, you don’t belong, and you want to go home. But trust me, things will get better. It’s a blessing to be in college. Stay true to yourself and your passions, and continue to chase after your dreams!

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