Despite concerns, freshmen warm to counseling proposal

In 19 months, Elis taking their first walk through Phelps Gate will be inundated with sources of support. But one long-standing fixture of this network — the Ethnic Counselor — will be missing.

Two weeks after Yale administrators announced that the freshman counseling program would undergo major changes in 2009 — including the merging of ethnic counselors into other advising positions — the implications of the plan have had time to ferment in students’ minds. Current freshmen have expressed reservations about the upcoming end of the ethnic counseling era, reflecting on the importance of having more than one senior adviser. Still, most freshmen interviewed said they see the logic behind the planned improvements to the program and will keep an open mind until it is fully developed.

Silliman ethnic counselor Funmi Showole ’08, standing, shares a laugh with freshmen Arziki Adamu and Constance Collins.
Andrea Hernandez
Silliman ethnic counselor Funmi Showole ’08, standing, shares a laugh with freshmen Arziki Adamu and Constance Collins.

The three-pronged Dean’s Office proposal will transfer components of the ethnic counselor role to that of the freshman counselor. It will also lead to the creation of “peer mentors” — paid, non-freshman advisors assigned to students to help them with ethnic issues, as well as issues of sexuality, religion, disability status and nationality. A third aspect of the proposal would create intercultural educator positions in each college, through which students would promote cultural resources for all students in their colleges.

Freshmen praised the current ethnic counseling program for fostering connections between freshmen and upperclassmen with a wealth of both personal experience and training for specifically ethnic issues. While a freshman counselor can be a great resource and friend, students said, there are cases in which consulting an ethnic counselor is more useful.

“I would feel less comfortable consulting my freshman counselor about an issue regarding race than my ethnic counselor, given that my freshman counselor is of a different race than me,” Sillimander Lorraine Boakye ’11 said.

The experiences and backgrounds of ethnic counselors make them uniquely well-suited to answer questions about race, culture and ethnicity, Head Ethnic Counselor Funmi Showole ’08 said.

Still, the task of an ethnic counselor extends far beyond racial issues, because they can advise freshmen on academics, social issues and anything else related to college life, she said. Not only do ethnic counselors receive the same training as freshman counselors, she said, they receive additional training focused on race-based issues.

“You can’t necessarily make someone a good EC,” Showole said. “A lot of the things an EC does, they’ve done throughout their Yale experience. They’ve helped to mentor students in regard to race and ethnicity; they’ve addressed the issue of bigotry on campus. That is what makes a good EC — the fact that they have that background and depth, not two weeks of training that they go through.”

Regardless of advisers’ backgrounds, training and experience, students emphasized the importance of making additional student advising beyond freshman counselors available during freshman year.

Dean of Freshman Affairs George Levesque said the peer mentor program will act as a fitting complement to the freshman counselor, because some freshmen will undoubtedly form closer ties with either their peer mentor or freshman counselor.

“[The peer mentors and freshman counselors] will have different roles, and they are not in competition,” he said in an e-mail Wednesday night. “In our view, it’s much better to have redundancy than inadequacy.”

Some of the current gripes with the ethnic counselor program include the sometimes-nebulous role of these counselors and the large numbers of ethnic minority students single counselors are often asked to mentor, according to interviews conducted with freshmen and counselors by the News at the time of the policy announcement.

The program’s new “peer-mentor” position differs significantly from that of the ethnic counselor, in that sophomores and juniors will be eligible to act as peer mentors, whereas currently only seniors can serve as ethnic counselors. This shift of the counseling role to include underclassmen has earned mixed reactions from freshmen.

Some freshmen said there is merit in having a senior fill the role, given the time they have spent at Yale grappling with the same issues that freshmen face.

“The seniors have a lot of hindsight and a lot of experience to share. They also take a more maternal or paternal approach,” Alexa Chu ’11 said.

Still, many freshmen said they see significant benefits to allowing underclassmen to take on the role of peer mentors. Not only can sophomores and juniors be more approachable, students said, but they will also remain on campus after their advisees’ freshman years.

While students said it will be important for University administrators to carefully consider student opinions when sculpting the new program, overall, they are receptive to change.

There are currently 90 residential counselors — known as freshman counselors — and 13 ethnic counselors distributed throughout the 12 residential colleges.

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