Network advantage

Shruti Kumar

The transition from high school to Northwestern couldn’t have been easier for freshmen roommates Danny Padron and Farid Suarez — and they say they owe it all to Northwestern’s Summer Academic Workshop.

Padron and Suarez managed to develop a lasting friendship during the two-week academic and orientation program, where they attended classes, shopped in Chicago and still found time to take pictures of people with mullets at Six Flags Great America.

“I got a bunch of pictures of mullets,” said Padron, a Communication freshman. “It was awesome!”

The two Latino students discovered they both were assigned to live in Willard Residential College when class started, and by the end of SAW they had switched roommates so they could live together.

“That helped a lot because the first two or three weeks you could tell that everyone was uncomfortable, and we just clicked really well,” said Suarez, a Weinberg freshman. “I feel like everywhere I go in NU, I am the only one of what I am.

“Spending time with people who share similar experiences as me makes me feel a lot more comfortable.”

The Summer Academic Workshop, or SAW, started in 1966 as an academic program and over the years has become more of a social outlet for incoming minority students. Although organizers and some SAW participants said they believe it’s valuable for these students, others expressed concern that the program fosters the problems it’s designed to counter.

Each year during the program held two weeks prior to New Student Week, students attend a three-hour writing workshop and a two-hour computer class every day — with additional social activities in the evenings, such as movie nights and scavenger hunts. The program covered all costs for last year’s 27 black and 19 Hispanic participants.

Apart from facilitating peer relationships, SAW acquaints students in five of NU’s undergraduate schools with the all the resources available on campus, from student organizations to career and health services. Students also meet with faculty and upperclassmen who serve as live-in counselors.

The McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences runs a similar five-week summer program, EXCEL, for its minority freshmen.

Carretta Cooke, director of African American Student Affairs, said programs such as SAW are critical to ensuring a diverse community at NU.

“SAW is an invaluable element for students of color at NU,” Cooke said. “I have seen the academic and social development of the participants and know clearly that this program is an essential program for the university and the students it serves.”

Cooke said the goal of SAW is to ease the transition of participants into their college.

“Freshman year is certainly one of growth and development,” Cooke said. “SAW gives students an opportunity to develop social networks with one another.”

Although SAW fosters social networks, some students — both SAW participants and nonparticipants — expressed concerns that the prorgam creates cliques before other students arrive on campus.

Adrienne Lawrence, a Weinberg sophomore, said she noticed that students who participated already had friends and connections with upperclassmen before school started.

“It made it harder for people who were not in SAW, because (participants) were really ‘clique-ish’ in the beginning,” said Lawrence, who chose to not participate in SAW

There are benefits to not participating in SAW, Lawrence said, because the nonparticipants are forced to be more outgoing when they arrived on campus.

“You had to find your own friends and you didn’t have everything set in stone,” Lawrence said. “Not being in SAW, you had the chance to meet everyone and make your own opinions.”

Although Lawrence said SAW resulted in the formation of groups within the black community, she said she didn’t think it was a cause for greater segregation on campus, added she has since made friends with SAW participants.

“I think if there were people in SAW who wanted to branch out, they did,” Lawrence said. “If there were people who wanted to stay in their same communities, they did that as well.

“I don’t think SAW dictates who your friends are.”

Cooke agreed that SAW participants didn’t separate themselves along racial lines and have been known to get involved in not only cultural organizations but also a variety of student organizations that don’t have a cultural emphasis.

“SAW gives students the skills needed to be part of the greater community of NU,” Cooke said.

Bethany Criss, a Weinberg sophomore, said she didn’t think SAW was a good idea and decided to not participate in it.

“Part of the reason I didn’t want to come (to SAW) was because I felt like there was a stigma associated with it,” Criss said. “There was the expectation that minority students wouldn’t do well and I didn’t want to associate myself with that stigma.”

Stephen Fisher, associate provost for undergraduate education, said he didn’t think it was a problem that students in SAW made friends before school started.

Students blamed other factors for segregation on campus, such as general student apathy and student group programming.

“There are groups like (For Members Only) and African American Student Affairs that put on programs that bring that community together anyway,” said Jessica Clarke, a Weinberg sophomore and SAW participant. “I don’t think SAW causes any segregation — it happens naturally because of programming of student groups.”

Nibette LaFrennie, a SAW 2002 participant, said she was surprised by the program’s social emphasis . LaFrennie, who is Latino, made many Latino and black friends during the program and said she found it interesting to see they were all from different backgrounds but shared similar interests.

“I believe it was designed to be more academic, but it ended up to be more of a socially eye-opening experience,” said LaFrennie, a Communication freshman.

LaFrennie said she and other SAW participants would stay up late every night watching their favorite movies. Such experiences between different minority groups are important in order to dispel misunderstandings between them, she said.

For Padron and Suarez, SAW proved to be a valuable resource, and both said they hope to see it continued.

Suarez, who grew up in Colombia and has lived in Chicago for the past five years, said he never had trouble meeting people into a new environment but still finds it hard at NU. Having friends like Padron has made his transition easier, he said.

“If I hadn’t gone (to SAW), the only difference is that I would have had seven or eight less close friends,” Suarez said.