One of the rituals of discussing life as a Pomona freshman with friends at the other colleges is the explanation of the Sponsor program. For those first few months on campus, at least (sometimes for all four years), Sagehen references to “sponsors” and “spiblings” and “sponsor group dinners” draw blank stares from every non-Pomona person in earshot. So, to save all of you from the other 5Cs the trouble of asking – and to save my Pomona peers the trouble of repeating themselves – The Forum has asked Your Faithful Pomona Correspondent to explain the Sponsor Program, once and for all, in print.
In short, your sponsor group is your hall. As the Pomona website will tell you: “the groups are coed and consist of 10 to 20 first-year students who live in adjacent rooms in the residence halls, along with two sophomore sponsors who help them learn the ropes of campus life.” The program is almost entirely student run: each year, a predominantly student committee picks a new group of four “head sponsors” – always juniors or seniors – who in turn organize the process by which the 56 “sponsors” – almost always sophomores – are selected, paired, and placed throughout the dorms. The four head sponsors are also responsible for sorting incoming students into rooms and sponsor groups. They read every housing form and try to organize freshmen by sometimes obvious and sometimes mysterious criteria. Some sponsor groups will have a majority of athletes; some will have a lot of musicians; some will have nothing obvious in common.
The head sponsors are paid for their time, but sponsors are all volunteers, willing to end their summer in mid-August to go through two weeks of 12-hour/day training before the school year begins. This training includes everything from mediation training to team building to first aid. These two weeks are generally understood to be grueling and tedious. Nonetheless, an average of 35% of each year’s freshman class applies to be a sponsor when the selection process begins each spring. Though there are exceptions, of course, most Pomona students end up with a few close relationships that began in the sponsor group.
The positive light in which most Pomona students view the sponsor program speaks to its success at making some important aspects of freshman life easier, but the institutionally-endorsed nature of the program also gives rise to some difficulties. 2009-2010 Head Sponsor Zach Barnett points out that “because the sponsor group is expected to be so close and to get along, and because the students in a sponsor group often do get along so well, this tends to intensify feelings of exclusion and alienation for those who don’t.” The problems of exclusion and alienation have historically applied more to students who identify with minority groups, and issues of this sort have sometimes led to sponsor program clashes with the mentoring groups on campus.
The strangeness of the Pomona sponsor program seems to some like an indication of its frivolousness. After all, Pomona is one of a tiny group of schools with similar programs. Most schools, and larger schools in particular, sort incoming students into rooms without considering the social life of the hall without any apparent detriment to student happiness or success. CMC, which ranked first on a recent Daily Beast list of the Happiest Colleges, simply mixes first years in with the general population and allows older students to take on mentoring roles organically.
Despite these issues, the sponsor program is very popular, seen by most as an integral and formative part of the Pomona College experience, which is why Pomona students like myself so often go to the trouble of explaining it.