Administrators unveiled their plans for long-term, major adjustments to the ethnic counselor program to the News on Monday, laying out a proposal that would incorporate the role of the ethnic counselor into that of the freshman counselor, who will become responsible for providing enhanced community support for cultural affairs on campus.
Dean of Freshman Affairs George Levesque emphasized that the proposal — aspects of which will not be implemented until the beginning of the 2009-’10 academic year to allow time for piloting and review — remains general and that many of the final details will depend on student and faculty feedback.
“I absolutely believe that what we’re talking about is increasing and broadening the support for students whose social and cultural adjustment is the greatest for whatever reason — first generation in college, low-income, whatever it is,” Levesque said.
Under the new program, students would become increasingly aware of extant cultural resources on campus, along with gaining knowledge of new support structures to be rolled out under the restructure.
The current freshman counselor program includes 90 residential counselors — who students call freshman counselors — and 13 ethnic counselors — whose responsibilities include counseling and lending an ear to students of minority backgrounds experiencing difficulties adjusting to college life — distributed throughout the 12 residential colleges.
With more boots on the ground, Yale College Dean’s Office administrators plan to address overstrain and other weaknesses, such as ethnic counselors’ sometimes-nebulous role within the college community, in the ethnic counseling program. To that end, administrators intend to expand the number of students equipped to deal with issues once designated for the ethnic counselor.
If the plan is implemented as proposed, the ethnic and residential counselor positions will merge, and since the resultant freshman counselors will be greater in number, the size of each advising group will decrease. In addition, the plan calls for the creation of a peer mentoring system, in which students from groups ranging from cultural houses to the Women’s Center, for example, will serve as guides for freshmen who identify as part of their respective communities. Finally, the Dean’s Office the proposal seeks to create intercultural educator positions within each college for interested students to increase the cultural resources and programs available to all students in their college.
The changes have been discussed in the Dean’s Office since initial, halting steps to reform the program were taken in 2003. That spring, a committee comprising students, administrators and faculty set out to perform a routine review of the ethnic counselor program. But a few months into the committee’s yearlong project, it was hit with the first of three major administrative turnovers as then-Dean of Branford College Nicole Parisier, its chair, departed. In the years that followed, the departures of Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72 and former Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg also effectively stalled the work of the body.
Now — with the resources of a dean entirely dedicated to freshman affairs and the arrival of new Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry — Levesque says he is confident that “the timing is right to look at this fresh.”
Levesque said the current ethnic counselor program suffers from a lack of personnel, since the number of counselors has remained the same since the programs inception in 1972 — a time when the student body was substantially less diverse than it is today. In addition, he said, current ethnic counselors often feel isolated from the residential counselors because of their different responsibilities and backgrounds.
“I think the advantages and disadvantages of the [ethnic counselor] program have been recognized for a long time,” Levesque said.
Beginning this spring with the freshman counselor class of 2009, aspects of the existing ethnic and residential counselor training regimen will be combined to yield eight supplemental training sessions in addition to the current curriculum. The revised training process will address different topics in diversity education and introduce next year’s counselors to the network of cultural support on campus.
“We’re trying to change the model of only one counselor who is specially trained,” Levesque explained. “We want to change freshman counselor training to make sure that all freshman counselors are sensitive to cultural issues. We’re making every freshman counselor a residential counselor and an ethnic counselor at the same time.”
But for the class of 2012, this spring’s subtle training changes will not immediately be apparent in 2008-’09. Both administrators and current counselors have stressed the need to be judicious in the process of changing the current counseling program, which some counselors noted does not provide the type of foundation in cultural awareness given to ethnic counselors.
“I think it will take time, and I’m glad they’re keeping the ethnic counseling program intact for next year,” said Melissa Campos ’08, who is the ethnic counselor for Hispanic students in Davenport, Branford and Berkeley colleges. “To do it in one year, I would worry that maybe not all the residential counselors would be equipped and as culturally sensitive, just because the programming at Yale doesn’t facilitate that at the moment.”
In interviews, current residential and ethnic counselors expressed mixed opinions about the Dean’s Office’s plan. While all ten agreed that the ethnic counseling system could use a face-lift, some are concerned that the Dean’s Office’s plan may not be the best way to do so.
For example, as an ethnic counselor, Campos currently works with 35 freshmen spread across three colleges, while most residential counselors work with groups of roughly 20 within a single college. Counselors serving the Asian and Asian-American communities face even heavier burdens, sometimes working with groups of up to 60 freshmen.
Joshua Williams ’08, one of three ethnic counselors who counsel black students, said he thinks reducing the counselor-to-student ratio is critical in intensifying the relationship between the two parties. But he thinks there are two ways to make the groups smaller: restructuring, as the Dean’s Office is proposing, or simply adding more ethnic counselors.
“I’m not sure how much they considered that … option of adding more ethnic counselors — because that’s something that could help this program as well,” Williams said.
Current counselors are also concerned about the implementation of the new system. One residential counselor, who asked to remain anonymous, said the proposed changes would be beneficial, but only if “done the right way,” which for this counselor means a thorough education for residential counselors in the cultural and diversity issues ethnic counselors currently receive. And even then, this counselor wondered if the same type of people who currently serve as ethnic counselors would be attracted to the new system.
“I’m scared that no matter how much we do, it would never be the same,” the counselor said. “A lot of ethnic counselors [apply] because they, as freshmen, had difficulties or because their ethnic counselors were an important part of their lives. These people don’t care as much about setting up class schedules — I think some of them do, but I also think they do it for much more personal and nobler reasons.”
But Ezra Stiles College Freshman Counselor Jamal Fulton ’08 disagreed, saying that the skill sets for the two positions “aren’t that different.” If he were given the choice to reapply to the new system, he said he would still do so.
Said Fulton: “I’m on board.”
‘The diversity within the diversity’
The second major aspect of the proposal aims to create a system of peer mentors — students affiliated with a cultural house, campus center or other defined demographic resource — who will serve as guides to students of that demographic in navigating the unique resources Yale has to offer. Levesque said the need for this system arose from the obsolete, antiquated assumptions of Yale’s ethnic counselor program, formed at a time when minority students were a rarity in the Elm City. Today’s student body is many times more diverse, and old groupings that lump Saudi, Japanese and Pakistani students, for example, into one category — Asian — are no longer adequate, Levesque explained.
“It goes beyond simple ethnicity,” he said. “We’re trying to recognize the diversity of students and the challenges they face. 35 years ago, there was this sense that students of color often came from poor high schools and were low-income, first-generation college. Much of that has changed.”
In order to transcend racial and ethnic lines, the new program hopes to reach out to other segments of Yale’s undergraduate population, which may also arrive on campus with difficulties adjusting to University life. Administrators are exploring the expansion of the peer mentoring program to include the University’s LGBTQ community, international students and the Resource Office on Disabilities.
While Levesque indicated he would like to see resources made available to low-income and first-generation college students, he said implementing these initiatives would require more finesse because such populations can be difficult to identify.
“By focusing primarily upon race and ethnicity, we can lose sight of other aspects of diversity that are also salient, like economic class, religion, sexual identity or being a first-generation college student,” Levesque wrote in a draft of the proposal that he provided to the News. “These issues may overlap in some cases with cultural background, but they are clearly not coincident with these communities.”
The peer mentor, an upper or underclassmen student working with a cultural center or other support locus, would enter the picture in the fall of 2009. These students would be matched with freshmen in the incoming class who voluntarily self-identify as members of the same demographic group. The peer mentor would then provide additional support and programming for freshmen, reporting to some sort of supervisor — a cultural house dean, for example — once a week. Although the details are still being worked out, Levesque said he anticipates that some cultural houses may retain approximately a dozen of these peer mentors, although the number would vary based on the size of the community.
Mentors would have to apply for their positions and would be paid for their work. The details governing the process of selection would be left to each house, center or group, Levesque said, suggesting that different support structures might ask different requirements of their mentors.
Levesque and Gentry both expressed hopes that such a model will also allow underclassmen interested in serving their cultural community and advising freshmen to gain valuable experience both before and during senior year. The hope is that by that time, if such students take on the duties of being a freshman counselor, they will be more prepared for that job.
The third part of YCDO’s agenda will aim to increase the wealth of cultural offerings available to all students on Yale campus, regardless of race or ethnicity, through a cohort of intercultural educators in each residential college. These students will be charged with bridging the gap between Yalies of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds by initiating interracial and intercultural dialogues within the colleges.
Teams of three to four students — although there would be no set quota — will be selected by their college’s master and dean to work toward raising the level of intercultural dialogue and awareness in the college by organizing events or hosting speakers. But the proposal leaves the specifics of implementation largely to the educators themselves.
“The intercultural educators as we envision them are not going to be individuals telling the master and dean or college council, ‘This is what you need to do now,’” explained Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway, who served on the Freshman Year Advisory Committee that generated the proposal. “But they will be saying, ‘We have this great opportunity to have such-and-such speaker, or this event is coming to campus and would Calhoun be interested in hosting it?’.”
Holloway also stressed that the role of the educators will vary from college to college.
Through feedback to the Dean’s Office this semester and next year, ethnic counselors hope to use the intercultural educator program to integrate positive elements of the current system with the new one. Ethnic Counselor Funmi Showole ’08, the resident counselor for Silliman College, said her hope is that the visibility of the ethnic counselor position — and the accessibility it entails — will remain via a line in the proposal that ensures that at least one freshman counselor per college is either an intercultural educator or acts as a liaison to the team.
“This will ensure that there is some kind of visibility,” she said. “Because it’s hard, as a freshman, when something happens and you feel like you need to talk to someone about your race. Maybe there’s someone of color on your freshman counselor team, but you don’t know if they’re going to be invested in having those kinds of conversations.”
Overseeing these educators would be a loosely centralized authority — “we’re not sure whether there will be a person or a committee,” Levesque said — that would serve primarily as a means to pass ideas from team to team.
“We want program sharing,” Gentry added. “We want to be able to do in Saybrook what worked in Berkeley, for example. Those cultural educators would interface with others.”
The educators’ role in the colleges bears resemblance to a proposal put forth by the Coalition for Campus Unity in November, partially in response to racist and homophobic graffiti found on the walls of residential colleges. But whereas the Council of Masters rejected CCU’s plan, they responded with a measured positive to the changes floated by the Dean’s Office.
“There were small but important differences between the … reporting structure for the CCU versus the YCDO, and the sense of where’s the proposal coming from,” Holloway said. “It’s not a matter of politics here, mind you, it’s just a matter of who is responsible for maintaining and running the colleges. And the Dean’s Office proposal had a lot more institutional structure and logic to it.”
Holloway emphasized that the restructure had been in the works for some time and was not a response to hate speech spray-painted on University walls in November. Showole confirmed that she had been in contact with the YCDO about the changes prior to the incidents.
More than a ‘changing of the guard’
While Levesque said the Dean’s office is “committed” to the broader changes outlined — a merger of the residential and ethnic counselor positions, the creation of a peer mentor network and the establishment of intercultural educators — they remain open to feedback and would welcome input from students.
“We have chosen to make this announcement now in order to signal some of the changes that are on the horizon and to allow ample time for suggestions as we prepare to implement them,” he told the News. “I fully expect these programs to evolve and some of the details to change, but whatever we do, we want to maintain the spirit of these initiatives: improving and broadening the support we provide to students who face significant social and cultural transitions when coming to Yale and bringing more intercultural education into the daily lives of all students.”
And at the end of the day, Showole believes that the restructure could be much more than a simple changing of the guard.
“This proposal isn’t just about changing the freshman counselor position or changing the ethnic counselor position,” she said. “This is really about changing the culture at Yale so that we have a culture where students aren’t afraid to talk about diversity, they’re not afraid to talk about race and they really understand the ways in which ethnicity plays a role in their life within the residential colleges.”
“To make a change in the entire culture on Yale’s campus,” Showole said, “it makes sense to begin with the freshmen.”
-Raymond Carlson contributed reporting.