Sunday, September 15, 2019

Design Team Challenge comes to a close



For the past three months, five teams composed of Trinity students have been considering ways to refine and improve Trinity’s current mentoring networks. The program, referred to as the “Design Team Challenge”, was aimed at improving the first-year experience and engaging students of trinity more with the faculty, Hartford, and all of the opportunities that the college has to offer. Further, the teams were tasked with redesigning the basement of Math Hall, which will be vacant with the departure of “The Cave” next fall. The teams were given three months, small budgets, and an introduction to all of the resources that the college has at its disposal. On Thursday, all of the teams presented posters detailing their various plans in Vernon Social, at a science fair style exhibition that drew a number of people from the Trinity community, including students, faculty, and administrators.

Each of the five teams had very distinctive plans for the new mentoring network, and many people turned out to hear just what they were. In attendance at the catered event were president Berger-Sweeney and several members of her cabinet of other Trinity administrators, as well as trustees, consultants, architects, and faculty members. Further, many Trinity students came by as well. The purpose of the presentation was to garner feedback on the merits and weaknesses of the disparate proposals, to help the teams prepare for the final presentations of their ideas to the President on Sunday, Mar. 8.

The first team’s idea, “The Trinity Network”, would consist of two upperclassmen meeting with small groups of 15 – 20 freshmen at orientation each fall. These upperclassmen leaders would serve as mentors, guiding their group through acclimation to Trinity life, as well as continuing to hold events throughout the first year. Orientation would be expanded to include walking tours of Hartford, in addition to programming and events connected to Hartford – with the goal of increasing student contact with the city that may expand into more involvement for all students in Hartford. More vents would be hosted around Hartford an on campus throughout the year, with the goal of creating and maintaining relationships between first year students and upperclassmen, This emphasis on connections between myriad students and to the city is a theme that is consistent across many of the plans. Team One’s plan for the basement of Mather is a new late-night dining option (in place of “The Cave”), complete with a study space and printing, a game area, and a yoga studio.

Team Two had a different model, based around a system of “C.O.O.P.S.” (“Cooperation, Organization, Optimism, Participation, and Success”), which are groups of roughly 120 students (divided by dorm) would be broken up into smaller groups for orientation, which would be expanded to include programming in Hartford, most if not all of which would integrate faculty. The C.O.O.P.S. would integrate R.A.s, PRIDE leaders, faculty, and other college resources (including academic resources such as the writing center) into student life. A “C.O.O.P. Council”, five freshmen elected by their COOPmates to represent them, would help to put on events and hear any questions, comments, or concerns. These councils would network with RAs, PRIDE leaders, the Student Government Association, faculty, and other Trinity resources to help effectively manage their COOP.  Another aspect of this plan is to expand on the “Big Sister” program that is already in place here at Trinity, by adding a parallel “Big Brother” program. Each spring, a number of upperclassmen would be chosen to act as the “Big Sibling”, and would be matched with between one and five incoming freshmen, and over the course of the first year guide them through the social, academic, and institutional environment of Trinity. The second team’s plan for the Mather basement is a sports-bar oriented late-night dining option, which would host different local restaurants from around Hartford, rotating on the basis of availability. A bowling alley would also be part of this plan.

The third team’s idea, the “Trin Nets”, aims to revamp all existing Trinity mentoring and orientation programming, while adding supplemental programs where necessary. June Days would be changed, emphasizing the social component of the day, while minimizing time spent in placement testing. The orientation program too would be modified, including a capella performances at freshmen matriculation, and condensing all of the academic and disciplinary presentations condensed into one day (with a field day to relax afterwards), with the other days devoted to more social activities. New seminars would be introduced, helping to get students more engaged intellectually. These new seminars would meet and have regular classes for the first semester, then would engage in a community project for the second semester. The seminars would integrate museums and other venues of Hartford into its curriculum, and the second semester projects would also involve work in Hartford, or with its institutions. The “Nets” would arrange meetings with freshmen and Trinity academic and career resources, from the Writing Center to the Career Development Center.

Team Four advocates for “Nests”, groups of students composed of a diverse array of first year students. These large “Nests” are broken up into four seminars per group, and with these smaller groups, events will be coordinated, many of which will hopefully involve Hartford. The Nests will also be involved with orientation, with small groups (distinct from the seminar groups) of Transitions fellows, career development fellows, and transitions fellows will be integrated into meetings amongst the Nests, helping to increase the exposure that first-year students have with such useful resources. Mather basement will be used as a study space and student lounge, with late-night dining options.

The fifth and final team identifies the need for a “Legacy” of Trinity College. Its plan entails creating “Legacies”, which are groups of first years assembled by dorm, and led by upperclassmen peer mentors, who take a very active role from the very beginning of orientation. After splitting the Legacies up into smaller groups, the mentors guide first years through all of the difficulties and adjustments of college life. The mentors continue to host social events throughout the year. The RAs social obligations would be curtailed, and they would serve largely as disciplinarians. Also, the first year seminars would be made strictly academic. To increase student involvement, an extracurricular points system has been introduced to the housing lottery system. Every time a student attends an extracurricular event, points are deducted from their housing lottery number, providing an incentive for people to engage with student organizations and Hartford. Team 5’s approach to the new space underneath Mather is to create a study space with food service, using the kitchen infrastructure that already exists there.

At the event, each team stood beside a poster detailing their ideas and delivered a presentation to the attendees, who offered their feedback on the efficacy of each program in fulfilling the goals of the Design Challenge. The teams synthesized the advice into their final presentations to president Berger-Sweeney and her cabinet on Sunday.

After all five of the presentations on Sunday, president Berger-Sweeney and her cabinet deliberated briefly. The announcement of their decision was made at a function in the President’s home on Sunday evening. Ultimately, the fourth team, the “Nests” group, was selected as the most practical and effective plan. President Berger-Sweeney (and by extension her cabinet) lauded the plan for its emphasis on Trinity pride, as well as its fusion of academic and social life on campus, vis-à-vis its integration of seminars and other academic programming into the residential and orientation experiences, as well as to campus life on the whole. President Berger-Sweeney and her cabinet noted the merits of all of the plans, and stated that while team Four’s plan was the best (with Team One being a runner-up), the ultimate design of the new Mentoring Networks would include aspects from all of the teams’ various designs.

The students of the winning team all received certificates celebrating their achievement, as well as a $250 Bantam Bucks reward to each of the Freshmen, Sophomores, and Juniors on the team. The seniors each received a $500 stipend, accompanied by the strenuous suggestion that half of the money be given to their senior class donation fund. All students were thanked for their hard work and participation, and every Design Team Challenge participant received $50 in Bantam Bucks, as well as an embroidered blanket. The president and her cabinet expressed their deep gratitude to the participants, stressing the important role they are playing in the college’s future.

With a new, student-designed plan, the administration is moving forward to change many aspects of trinity life, especially for first-year students. Trinity College has faced, and continues to face, many challenges in recent years, past, present, and future. Given the falling retention rate, stagnating budget, and deteriorating relationship with Hartford (to name but a few of the issues being faced by the college), it had become fairly apparent that a change was necessary here on Summit Street. The president and her cabinet approached the issues head-on, and the “Design Team Challenge” is reflective of one of the major initiatives to tackle what some see as insurmountable challenges that threaten Trinity’s continued efficacy as an institution. The involvement of students would suggest (as President Berger-Sweeney has intimated numerous times throughout the redesign process) that the administration values its students’ feedback and believes (at least to a point) that students have a more intuitive grasp of what students would like to see changed, and what changes they would respond well to. This approach is somewhat innovative, at least as compared to decision-making processes of the past.

It is unclear exactly how the ideas put forth in the “Design Team Challenge” will be integrated into Trinity life. While Team Four’s design will certainly be the central framework of the plan, no details have as of yet been shared about exactly what form the raw ideas of all five teams will take. While the Challenge was certainly an interesting step in the right direction in terms of remedying Trinity’s myriad issues, the college still has many obstacles and challenges to face. With any luck, initiatives such as the “Design Team Challenge” will see the college through these trying times, strengthening its existing practices and programs, and adding new facets of student life. The future is uncertain, but for the moment, Trinity has, to borrow the parlance of American politics, pulled itself up by it bootstraps. Its feet are on the line and it seems to be walking in the right direction. Perhaps the college is dusting itself off and steeling itself for the long haul, maybe into the most stable and effective period in its long and storied history.

But, like so many other things in these tumultuous times, it all remains to be seen.

Leave a reply