Although the administration has decided to end the current ethnic counselor program, there are still decisions to be made. While maintaining patience through the process, we should discuss the changes and make sure the administration does what is best for the student body.
Few would argue the ethnic counselor program is perfect. The program sometimes makes students feel singled out for a box they checked on their admissions application. It does not address other crucial dimensions of identity, like religion, nationality or sexuality. And ethnic counselors have to look after more than 30 students scattered over three colleges, navigating an unequal, two-tiered system.
Even with its structural difficulties, many counselors have nonetheless gracefully dodged obstacles in order to serve and support their freshmen. Many freshmen welcome their assignment to an ethnic counselor they can identify with, and later speak of the essential support their counselor provided that crucial year.
We must find the best way to fill the void the ethnic counselors will leave. Future students must not be hurt by the changes.
The administration has implicitly, though tentatively, accepted the most important changes that would make the elimination of the program tolerable and, for some, good. The plans are not written in stone, but rather are still being developed in the College deans’ office.
One key program, a peer mentoring program, will fill the direct mentorship void left by ethnic counselors and will address other identities besides ethnicity. Mentors would be based out of each cultural house, the LGBTQ community, OISS, and the Chaplain’s office. Every freshman counselor team would receive an additional freshman counselor (in addition to the converted ethnic counselor) to decrease the risk of any new student falling through the cracks. Additionally, freshmen counselors would receive training to help them advocate for groups of which they are not members, thus better serving their frosh.
One of the most important changes to the program, however, is a fundamental change in the job description, which will mean a new set of necessary qualifications for freshman counselors.
Freshman counselors are often students who are active or well known in the college: master’s aides, intramural all-stars or college council members. This is important for fostering college spirit, creating a community among the incoming classes and simply for having freshman counselors who know the college well.
But we need students who know all the different parts of Yale College. This bias tends to exclude those who found community outside the residential colleges, and it consequently does a disservice to freshmen who will do the same.
Therefore, we need freshmen counselors who have a wide range of experiences outside their comfort zones. These new counselors should empathize with and understand the reasons many freshmen feel shocked and isolated from Yale culture. We need freshman counselors who will not be uncomfortable with deep differences, but who will instead engage them humbly and enthusiastically.
Many freshman counselors already have these qualities. But a serious consideration of these needs, the needs of Yale students, must be built into the future program and guaranteed. Students do not just want a freshman counselor program with affirmative action. We need freshman counselors who represent the diversity of the Yale community and who are advocates for all students — Latino/a, transgender, international, etc.
A part of this innovation in the program will be changing the freshman counselor job description, and another part should be changing the counselor selection process. Freshman counselors are usually selected by the each college’s master or dean. Even with the most unbiased administrators, the process favors the faces they recognize and the people they know best. Students who rarely interact with administrators are less likely to apply, and less likely to be selected. That is why we must include voices in this process that better know students who are not as involved in college activities, and that will help ensure that students with varied experiences are recruited. Thus directors of different special interest centers should be included in the freshman counselor selection committee.
If these changes are not implemented, we are in danger of regressing. Students who are much more involved in communities outside the residential colleges will feel discouraged from applying to a program that does not fully address their community’s needs. Already many students who wanted to be ethnic counselors did not apply to be freshman counselors this year. Consequently, the freshman counselor program might soon be out of touch with the various minorities on this campus.
The administration has been moving on these changes, but students’ voices should be heard. Especially given the current budget crunch, needed changes may be ignored or cut. Things are happening quickly: prospective freshman counselors have already applied, and many are in the process of interviewing. So now is the time to discuss what the campus needs. This is a dialogue that should happen between administrators and students, and should happen now.
Jonathan Jimenez is a junior in Calhoun College and the Latino ethnic counselor for Berkeley, Branford and Calhoun colleges.