Meet First-Year Dean Goldsmith

by Maura Henninger | 7/15/98 5:00am

For most Dartmouth incoming freshmen, the end of senior year marks a time of festivities and tearful good-byes to friends heading off to school a month earlier. It is also a time when scores of envelopes from the College fill the mailbox with all sorts of information about freshman year.

Most of this information originates in the First-Year Office in Parkhurst Hall, the administrative building. Heading into his sixth year at the helm of this office is Dean of First-Year Students Peter Goldsmith.

The First-Year Office exists, Goldsmith said, to help students through transitions of every nature: academic, personal, emotional and social. But for as much mail as they send home, the First-Year Office, Goldsmith thinks, can sometimes fall short of preparing students for the range of challenges they face.

But the freshman deans, which in addition to Goldsmith include Assistant Dean of First-Year Students Stephanie Hull, Assistant Dean of Freshmen Gail Zimmerman and Assistant Dean of the College Steven Cornish, are a valuable source of information for new students, and their job is to ease the transition to college life.

Goldsmith said deans deal with every problem freshmen face -- as small as giving permission to bring a car to campus and as large as major academic difficulties. Deans, he said, are one of a first-year student's most valuable resources, especially in terms of navigating the tricky curriculum and major requirements.

Most meetings with students involve questions and problems arising from the new-found freedom students find without the outside discipline of parents and teachers.

"Students need to discover new sources of discipline internally and naturally. In the process of exploring one's freedom, students may discover that exploration in excess can have dire consequences for their academic lives," Goldsmith said.

With the term system, he said, it's especially easy to have the perception that there isn't anything to do in the first few weeks of the term. It's a process for each student, he added, some come in organized, for others it takes a little longer.

"Dartmouth has enough of a safety net to make mistakes. It's hard -- but not impossible -- to screw up big time during the first term," Goldsmith said.

However, the First-Year deans serve as much more than problem-solvers, as it is often perceived. As Goldsmith points out, the dean's office is often looked at in the same way as the high school principal's office.

For example, many more students consult the First-Year Office because of homesickness than one might think, according to Goldsmith.

"My perception, which is very personal, is that Dartmouth students aren't good at giving license to one another express doubts and fear to one another," Goldsmith said.

The First-Year deans try to fill that void for students, he said.

"Our philosophy is to look at the entire student. If a student comes in with a problem, we take the opportunity to talk about the things that are far more interesting to us, such as their academic goals and hopes," Goldsmith said.

Students can approach the freshman deans in a number of ways. The most common way is by making appointments by BlitzMail.

In addition, the deans attempt to involve themselves in all events during the freshman year, especially the Dartmouth Outing Club's freshman trips. Goldsmith spends all nine nights at Moosilauke Lodge speaking and socializing with students; the other deans spend at least a few nights at the Lodge.

"It's important to us deans that students realize that we're very human, that we too have lives of our own. At the same time, we're also careful not to intrude on students' lives," Goldsmith said.

In fact, the responsibilities of the First-Year Office extend beyond students. Goldsmith said he regularly interacts with parents about their concerns, questions and comments.

During the freshman year, Goldsmith sends home a series of letters advising parents about the changes they will observe in children, obstacles they will face and how to respond.

This is a double-edged sword, according to Goldsmith -- encouraging students to be independent and getting their parents to let them.

"We really try to strike a balance between helping parents figure out how to be constructively involved without being over-involved," Goldsmith explained.

Goldsmith comes to the College with seven years' experience at Princeton University where he worked as director of studies of one of the residential colleges.

Before that, he earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Chicago where he also worked in the administration and taught after graduating. At the College, as he did at Princeton, he continues to teach courses in Anthropology.

As if he didn't have a full plate with his College responsibilities and two young children, Goldsmith just authored a book titled "Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records" about folk music and its relationship to the American left.

Having already worked as Dean of First-Year Students for more years than his two most recent predecessors, Goldsmith isn't thinking of leaving anytime soon.

Acknowledging the numerous transitions the administration faces in the next year, Goldsmith said, "Colleges, like people, need to change and acknowledge that, though it might be difficult, these changes will bring new and positive insights and growth."

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