From Move-In Day to Graduation, Class Deans Have Students Covered

Liz Braun
Liz Braun

Over the years, Swarthmore has developed a rich, multilayered student support system for which the College's class deans now represent the first line of defense.

Dean of Students Liz Braun notes: "Class deans are a key part of our overall support structure for students in helping them to navigate the college experience. They provide everything from one-on-one advising, to referrals, to programming for the class as a whole."  She adds, "They focus on the 'whole student'--on all aspects of a student's development both in and outside the classroom."

Recognizing that each class year has its own attendant set of issues, and wanting to provide students with a clear point of entry to the full array of student services, Braun put in place the class dean organization so that each year would be overseen by a specific dean. "The class deans provide a clearly identifiable person on campus that students can go to for support and guidance," she states. "We have so many resources here on campus that sometimes students may not know where to begin. The class dean gives them an easy place to start to get help and advice."

This system is beneficial both to the students and the deans. Junior class dean Karlene Burrell-McRae remarks that this model allows deans "to be grounded in the issues impacting a particular class and find ways to be proactive instead of reactive."

First Years:  Making the Transition

Karen Henry 87
Karen Henry '87

The class dean for first-years, who are facing the initial adjustment to the Swarthmore environment, is someone who went through this experience herself, Karen Henry '87. Given her status as an alum, her nearly two-decade-long employment by the College, and her familiarity with the general environment--Philadelphia is her hometown--Henry is a strong guide for those new to the College.

"The major tasks for the first-year involve successfully transitioning to the social and academic demands of the College," observes Henry. Braun elaborates: "First-year students are just settling in,exploring the curriculum, learning the resources, developing independence and self-care skills, and negotiating new relationships."

Henry notes that it is not just the students who may find the class deans a useful resource. "The class deans are the first point of contact for students, staff, faculty, and parents if there are any issues involving a student in this class. The class deans will answer any question and refer a student to the appropriate resource on campus." In her additional role as gender education adviser, Henry supports and advises the Women's Resource Center. 

Sophomores: Majors on Their Minds

Alina Wong
Alina Wong

Sophomores are thinking seriously about their majors and often considering the possibility of study abroad. Their point person for advice in mulling over these decisions will be Alina Wong, who has worked extensively with sophomores elsewhere in the past and who brings tremendous enthusiasm to her job. She enjoys getting to know the broad range of issues individual students grapple with and advising them accordingly. With her more seasoned perspective, she can both encourage students to think about the future and relieve them of concerns that can be deferred for a while. Wong is also the director of the Intercultural Center.

Wong points out another advantage to having class deans, "Because I work with the class, I will also be aware of general issues or concerns and can suggest ways to address them collectively," she says. "One student may not be aware that others are having the same questions or challenges.  If I see a pattern, I can do something more broadly."

Juniors: Expections Increase

Karlene Burrell-McRae
Karlene Burrell-McRae

Karlene Burrell-McRae's considerable energy will be focused on juniors, many of whom are studying abroad or returning from that experience. She also provides support for academically troubled students and works closely with the Career Services and the Fellowships and Prizes offices.

Burrell-McRae describes the third college year as one in which "students are traveling abroad, settling into a major, attempting to better balance their academic and personal lives, thinking more about summer internships in a particular field, narrowing down decisions about graduate or professional school or taking time off to work. Although you can consider many of these issues at any stage, they become more salient during junior year. As junior year signals the halfway point, the expectations from many to begin 'acting like an adult' increase."

The junior class dean has extensive experience mentoring and developing student leadership potential in her other role as director of Swarthmore's Black Cultural Center, which, she stresses, is open to all. Her understanding of the concepts of diversity and inclusion is unusually broad and includes areas less frequently discussed, such as socio-economic class differences.

Seniors: Preparing for Life After Swarthmore

Myrt Westphal
Myrt Westphal

Finally, as students ease into their final year, they can rely on veteran Dean Myrt Westphal for launching assistance.  In this culminating stage of college, students reflect on the past and prepare for the post-undergraduate future.  Senior year can involve preparing an honors thesis or comprehensive project and applying for fellowships, prizes, grad school or jobs. Westphal's long Swarthmore experience dovetails well with her job as senior class dean:  As current associate dean for student life, she supervises housing and resident assistants, all student activities and the student judicial system.  She feels strongly that clear communication, built on respect and kindness, has worked well as her modus operandi, both as a dean and as a parent. 

While the class dean system provides an unambiguous starting point for students seeking guidance, it maintains some fluidity:  Braun explains: "Many [deans] maintain ongoing relationships with students even as they 'hand them off' to the next class dean." Wong agrees: "Although classes are assigned to one dean, we hope [students will] build relationships with all of the deans and create a strong network of support."

Braun observes, "The class dean relationship to individual students is really based on what the student needs. Deans can provide guidance and support related to everything from academics to personal issues to preparing for life after Swarthmore."