Building Community

Building CommunityCreating the Foundation at Sarah Lawrence’s Summer Institute

By Suzanne Walters MFA ‘04

Like many students, Lisa Bissonnette ’07 felt overwhelmed by her first year at Sarah Lawrence. She wanted to be active in campus life, but wasn’t sure where she fit in. Then, before the beginning of her sophomore year, she attended Summer Institute, an intensive five-day workshop funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

SLC has large goals for the institute: to create a cohesive group of students who are motivated to improve campus life and to foster communication among students, faculty and the administration.

For Bissonnette, the results were a lot more personal: “It completely changed the way I think about myself and the world,” she says.

And this year is different. Bissonnette works in the admission office, sits on an appropriations committee for the student budget and knows almost everyone on campus. “I know how to get things done, or at least whom to ask,” she says. She works to give new students—and herself—the support and community that she was looking for when she came to SLC.

H Alex Harrison ’06 has attended the institute for the past two years (as a residential adviser, he is required to go—R.A.s make up half of the 50 participants, and club leaders, student government folks and other motivated students make up the rest). Harrison calls the program “Camp Sarah Lawrence” because of its packed activity schedule, arts and crafts, shared living quarters, ropes course and, yes, sing-a-longs. Unlike most summer camps, though, Summer Institute is trying to change the world.

Building CommunityPrograms like it are popular at many colleges, but Summer Institute is uniquely Sarah Lawrence. Faculty members teach many of the workshops, enriching the already close relationships between students and teachers. Sonia Varma Arora ’05, a senior who has attended Summer Institute for the past two years, says that she has taken classes with faculty whom she was inspired by at the institute. In fact, the institute has influenced her whole educational focus: She has concentrated her classes and activities on diversity issues, which were a theme of last year’s program. “I always cared about issues of diversity and inclusion, but Summer Institute showed me that I could really engage with them on a daily basis to bring about change,” she says.

In keeping with the Sarah Lawrence pedagogy, Summer Institute also emphasizes the arts, which “give students different contexts for understanding the themes of the institute,” says Associate Dean Cathy Kramer, who coordinates the program. In a dance workshop, for example, students created a series of movements that reflected their personal experiences at the institute: introspection made physical. Later, they taught their movements to others, assembling them into a larger dance piece that symbolized complex ideas about community and individuality.

For some participants, though, dancing one’s feelings in front of other people also created self-consciousness and potential for embarrassment. “You feel profoundly uncomfortable at least once a day,” says Bissonnette. “I think they plan it that way.” Risk-taking leads directly to trust—in yourself and in the people cheering you on.

After a few 16-hour days of soul-searching, problem-solving and public daring, everyone is friends with everyone else. Not only does this benefit participants’ social lives, but it helps them organize events on campus. “I know the co-chairs of every club, which makes it easy to find co-sponsors for new events,” said Harrison.

Building Community“You can’t be afraid of the student body president when you’ve seen her fall off a ropes course,” Bissonnette added.

The five summer days create a cohesive group of students who don’t just talk about changing campus life—they actually do it. It’s a good thing, too. The institute was founded in 2001; before that, Arora says, “Everyone complained that there was nothing to do on campus.” People speculated that Sarah Lawrence’s individual nature discouraged community spirit. But in the past four years, the number of registered clubs on campus has more than doubled, and an official student programming board was formed to coordinate campus events. “Summer Institute completely changed the life of this campus,” says Arora.

The changes aren’t just in the number of clubs but in the whole feel of the College, claim the institute’s participants. Kramer explains, “Summer Institute students tend to become active members of the community—not just by founding clubs or joining student government, but by being the people who make eye contact and say ‘Hi’ to everyone when they walk across campus.”

So it seems that being individualistic and being part of a community aren’t mutually exclusive. “If you want community on campus, you can find it,” Bissonnette says. “You just have to make a commitment not to spend all your time in your room.”

Arora adds, “Community activity is infectious—and Summer Institute people spread the fever.”

Active Citizenship

In 2001, Sarah Lawrence received funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop the Summer Institute. The program was so successful at building community on campus that in 2003 the foundation expanded its support to include several related projects. The resulting First-Year Institute encapsulates the themes of Summer Institute in a one-day orientation program for incoming students, while the Democratic Arts program addresses activism and social change in a weekend-long retreat during the school year. Together, these programs offer comprehensive training in active citizenship. “Students can prepare for a wide range of activities both on our campus and in the larger community—whether it be Yonkers or Costa Rica,” says SLC president Michele Myers.