“More Contrarian:” Santa Fe’s January Freshman Program

February 6, 2020 | By Hannah Loomis

Alex Cate, Julia Siminitus, and Kate Morrison (all SF22)

After three semesters as a genetics major at Texas A&M, Alex Cate (SF22) was tired of jostling with almost 200 other students in every course. He decided to leave school, choosing to work instead. After a year and a half, Cate was ready to go back to college, but this time he was looking for a small school with a focus on philosophy. Cate visited St. John’s College in Santa Fe and knew it was right for him. He entered as a January Freshman (JF) in 2019.

Kate Morrison (SF22) attended a demanding high school that pressured her to make an early decision about college. Upon reflection, she realized that she truly believed in education—and that she needed to take time to do something that wasn’t academic in order to get back to what she really liked. She thought: “If I do it now, I’m going to hate college because it’s going to be too much, and I’m not ready.” So Morrison went to Germany for a wonderful year spent working as an au pair in a small town. When she entered St. John’s in January 2019, she felt ready to tackle academics again.

Julia Siminitus (SF22) had a difficult senior year of high school, and she suspected it would be best to wait on college. After an eye-opening 10 months in an AmeriCorps program in the Southwest, Siminitus wanted to attend a small liberal arts college close to home in Vermont; she tried a year at Wheaton College, but it turned out to be a bad fit. Then, her mother—who was reading Colleges That Change Lives—told her about St. John’s. “I almost didn’t apply to St. John’s, because it sounded too good. I thought, ‘I can’t do something I’d like that much. School has to be painful, and this sounds like way too much fun.’” She is another 2019 JF.

January Freshmen—Johnnies who begin their first year in spring semester—tend to be non-traditional students. They are likely to be older than typical freshmen. Many are starting anew after transferring from another college, while others have taken time off from school to work. All told, the JFs form an unorthodox group of students bound together in an experience shared by no one else at the college.

Having such a different experience can cause feelings of isolation. But it can also create strong ties and a sense of community.

The January Freshman program has been on the Santa Fe campus for a long time. So long, in fact, that Santa Fe Dean Walter Sterling doesn’t remember a time when there wasn’t a JF class. What began as an efficiency measure decades ago to boost spring enrollment has become an opportunity for students, faculty, and staff alike.

Each year, a new JF class enters at the end of January and spends the spring semester completing fall semester coursework. They then spend most of the summer in a concentrated second semester program, completing 16 weeks of work in a 10-week block. This allows them to enter their sophomore year—and the rest of their Johnnie career—alongside the previous year’s fall freshman class. Rather than waiting until the following fall to enter school, students who want to attend St. John’s off-cycle can take advantage of the accelerated program to join their peers.

Johnnie Bootcamp

But there can be challenges. JFs enter at a time when fall freshmen have been in the trenches and building friendships for several months. And since JFs are typically older and more experienced than their fall freshman counterparts, the transition into sophomore year can offer additional hurdles.

Morrison found there was a lot of competitiveness in her sophomore year classes this past fall. “I think the JFs were mostly willing to say, ‘I know that I’m starting at ground zero, and I don’t know what I’m talking about. And I’m here because I want to learn and because this education is important to me.’ Not that no one else ever says, ‘I don’t understand.’ But in my classes last year we constantly asked ‘okay, what does that mean? What are you actually trying to say?’”

Siminitus echoes Morrison’s thoughts. “It feels like a high school carry-over mindset for some; ‘I need to show people I’m smart, and prove to you that I’m doing the work.’ But I feel like I need to learn for myself. I’m doing this for me, not to show you something. I think [JFs] all understand the worth of our classroom experience in a different way.”

Another challenge of the JF program is that some of the readings are cut from the summer semester. “The program is accelerated; the second semester is 10 weeks instead of 16,” Dean Sterling says. “We looked at it and decided it was a compromise, but a worthwhile compromise.” Sterling also articulates what is probably the most difficult part of all: “I actually think the toughest thing about being a January Freshman is the sophomore year. It’s the 18-month run without a break.”

But this run of work also demonstrates the strengths of JF students. Asked to elaborate on the nature of January Freshmen, Dean Sterling says: “Johnnies are different; JFs are even more different. Johnnies are contrarian; JFs are even more contrarian. And I think that’s interesting. It gives the class a rich texture.”

The New Orientation Process

Malcom Morgan is the student activities coordinator for the Santa Fe campus. One of his many responsibilities is putting together freshman orientation, including—for the first time in 2020—the January Freshman orientation. After hearing from several 2019 January Freshmen that their orientation experience was less than they’d hoped for, Malcom set out to make some changes. As an important step in this process, he invited a number of students to help him build an improved orientation.

Morgan explains that JFs talk to him frequently about how their experience is completely different than starting in the fall. “They come in, and they’re kind of isolated for a while until they can get immersed into their class as best they can. But then they’re here all summer, basically, and it’s just a different beast with no rest time.” He wanted to make sure each incoming JF had someone to talk to about their time in the Program.

Based on recommendations from the student team, new additions to orientation included: a welcome dinner with President Roosevelt, a game night, and a packed welcome with resident advisors, former JFs, and the admissions, housing, and health center teams. New students had plenty of friendly faces on hand to answer questions, and they were given a tour of IT, the switchboard, and other places on campus. “It was about helping out during a very high-stress moment of being in a new place, and showing that we’re supporting them,” Morgan says.

Morgan’s office also organized the inaugural “T” party—so named for “giving the Talk,” JF to JF. Former and incoming JFs gathered for a tea party, mingling and exchanging information. By the end of the party, new JFs had made steadfast connections with Johnnies ready to give them advice and mentor them through the initial phases of the St. John’s experience.

Advice For JFs, From JFs

Morrison, Siminitus, and Cate have become good friends over the past year. They eagerly offered advice about staying the course on the long road that is the JF first year:

Siminitus: Don’t burn yourself out. It’s a marathon; the first year is a marathon.

Cate: The first two years are a marathon.

Siminitus: Well, I was thinking calendar year. New JFs: 2020 is going to be a marathon, and then you’ll get a short reprieve, and then you have to run the half marathon. So pace yourself, find breaks, find time.

Morrison: Commit to not doing anything. If you’re going to do it, do it. And if you’re not going to do it, commit to not doing it. Otherwise you’re going to spend all your time feeling guilty that you’re not doing it.

Cate: Do something different.

Morrison: Try to be creative and think about places that are realistically going to work, where you can meet other people. Because I hate parties. I don’t like dancing. I don’t like drinking in a big social setting; it’s just not fun to me. So obviously, for me going to a party is not going to work. And so know yourself and come up with some strategies you can use. And I think you kind of need to be willing to be uncomfortable.

Siminitus: The best way to prepare is just to have people who can support you. I tried to meet with most of my tutors within the first month of school, just to establish a baseline, and that way if I was struggling, I knew I could talk to them. Find people early on who will be able to support you when you’re going through something, because something’s always going to happen.