As Your Student Prepares for First-Year Life

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Dear Families and Parents of New Students,

Welcome to Williams! Thank you for sharing your remarkable young people with us. We on the staff and faculty of the college are excited to meet the Class of 2023, who will bring so much from their families and home communities to enrich each other and all of us.

I write today both to welcome you and to share some information that will be helpful for you to have in mind and talk over with your students before they arrive on campus. We know from experience that these conversations help new students make the transition to college, with all of the big and exciting changes that brings in their lives.

First, our community.

  • Your student’s classmates will arrive at Williams from all over the country and all over the world – from more than 80 countries and hundreds of different communities, urban and rural, with many different first languages, cultures and experiences. Many of the young people your student will meet here will have grown up in families and communities that are different from yours. Spending time with classmates from such a wide array of backgrounds is an important part of the magic that happens here: students learn so much from one another as they get to know each other in their dorms, in classrooms, in community service, in athletics and clubs, in the arts, and in places of worship.
  • Those encounters are powerfully educational: it’s rare to learn more in a classroom than you learn by making a lifelong friend whose home life is completely different from your own. It’s good to talk with your student about the opportunity this community presents, and also about how to approach some of the challenges that may arise, even before they leave home.
  • Encourage your student to listen to others with an open mind, give them the benefit of the doubt, ask questions, and answer the questions of others, even if the questions seem surprising or unusual. Encourage them to be patient with others and with themselves, allowing time to develop new relationships, rather than rushing to find “instant” new friends to replace those they had in high school. The opportunity to live among their new classmates is going to pass more quickly than your student can possibly imagine. Help them approach it with openness, curiosity, and a welcome spirit.

Second, our courses.

  • Your students already have made their initial selections for their first semester classes. Of course, there is still an opportunity to add, drop, and change their minds, with the guidance of their academic advisors. Williams students don’t receive department-specific advisors until they declare their majors at the end of their sophomore year. So, if your student is keen on chemistry and gets matched with a history professor, tell them not to worry in the least. First-year advisors work with students to envision the entire arc of their academic career, including many opportunities and requirements that fall well beyond the scope of a specific major. The depth and breadth of Williams’ academic offerings lead many students to choose other majors to the one they think they’ll choose when they first arrive here. That exploration is an integral part of the liberal arts and sciences experience, and one our faculty encourage.
  • Perhaps you have had the chance to talk with your students about their initial choices. At this moment students often believe that “success” in college means knowing exactly what they want to do or “be” (“I want to be an economics major and then go into business”) and then plotting a very specific course to get there (“I’ll start with Econ 110, and Math 150, and complete my Division I requirement with a course that meets on Tuesday mornings…”). While planning is a great thing, it also will be important for your students to be open to new possibilities. Many of the classes we teach here are in subjects your students have never studied before, and in the subjects they’ve already tried in high school the courses here go deeper and broader than they’ve likely ever imagined. Many students find their life’s work and passion in a subject they’d never heard of, through a class they didn’t think they’d love (or even like). Please encourage your students to stretch—to explore broadly, try something they didn’t like in high school, read the course catalog, make lists of things that they’d like to know something about before they graduate. It’s great if they expect to change their minds about what they are good at, and to learn something new about what they are interested in.
  • Nearly all Williams students are challenged by the academic transition from high school to college. Fewer classes, longer homework assignments, and peers who are all really smart combine to create a learning environment that can take some getting used to—particularly for students who are used to being at the top of the academic heap. If your own student feels this way at any point, please let them know that they’re in good company with most first-year students. Encourage them to take advantage of these powerful academic resources, as most students do at some point in their Williams careers.

Third, the social environment.

  • You’ve already done a great deal to help your students make good decisions as children and teenagers, and to encourage them to care for themselves and others as they enter adulthood. Your students have probably had more “rules” as teenagers than they will in college, where they will control their own social lives for the first time. We do a lot of educating and provide a lot of support to help students take on this higher level of personal responsibility.
  • Still, it’s really helpful for you to talk with your students about the challenges and decisions they’ll face in this new social world. You know more than I do about what conversations will be most meaningful to your son or daughter, but here are a few suggestions: Let them know that you expect they’ll explore new things, but that you hope they’ll make decisions that are safe and that they’ll step in to get help if they see someone else who is in serious difficulty. Talk with them about alcohol and drugs, and about how to be safe and respectful in their intimate lives. This isn’t your last chance to impart life lessons of this kind, of course, but it’s an important one.

Fourth, the journey.

  • Your students are already impressive, accomplished, and smart. They’ve seized opportunities and made the most of them. Many such students define success in terms of a journey that goes from strength to strength, with no bumps in the road. But part of making the most of college is knowing when and where to ask for help and guidance.
  • During orientation, we will point out lots of resources on campus for help if difficulties arise, and emphasize that our strongest students are the ones who take advantage of that help rather than avoiding it. Now is a good time for you to remind your student that great journeys always have twists and turns, that learning happens through rough patches as well as smooth ones, and that you’ll be glad to hear from them no matter what part of that journey they may be in.

On a related note, please encourage your student to let us know if they are dealing with health issues of any kind that might require support while they’re at Williams. Our Health Center is fully equipped and prepared to ensure that such challenges won’t reduce the quality of your student’s experience here, and we do this work best when we know in advance what your student’s particular situation might be. Likewise, if your student benefitted from accessibility support services in high school, that support can continue at Williams.

Finally, please accept my warm wishes to you all. You’ll find lots of concrete information and answers to questions on our First-Year website  , and even more on our parents and families website. If you don’t find what you need there, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

I’m looking forward to meeting those of you who can make it to campus at the end of the month. It’s always terrific to meet the families who are behind the amazing young people starting their college education here.

With best regards,

Marlene Sandstrom, Dean of the College and Hales Professor of Psychology