Peer liaisons program yet to be finalized

Months after the University announced it would dismantle the decades-old ethnic counseling program, the foundations of Yale’s new system are taking shape.

Freshman counselor training for rising seniors who will advise the class of 2013 is underway, with a series of sensitivity trainings that form a key element in the University’s plan to collapse the ethnic counseling program into a network of new resources. But the University’s advising structure is still filling out: candidates for “peer liaison” positions, which will connect social groups with campus cultural resources, have yet to be selected.

Dean of Freshman Affairs Raymond Ou said peer liaisons will meet the needs of the student body better than ethnic counselors in a world where the definition of diversity is changing to encompass more than race alone. Freshmen will be given the option of working with a peer liaison affiliated with one of the cultural centers, OISS, Chaplain’s Office, or LGBTQ Resource Center.

Ou cited the automatic assignment of ethnic counselors as one of the primary problems with the old program, saying that some students who are assigned ethnic counselors did not feel they needed one. It was those concerns — together with the fact that ethnic counselors often live far from their freshmen and look after dozens of students — that led the University to unveil sweeping changes to the program in the winter of 2008.

The exact contours of the University’s new advising program — first sketched out over a year ago — are only now beginning to emerge. Peer liaisons will serve every cultural house, the LGBTQ community, international students and the University Chaplain’s Office. They will work between five and 10 hours each week, and they will be paid $11 per hour, according to an application for the post. Each cultural center, Ou said, will get between two and seven peer liaisons.

Ou said Yale directors, professors and administrators are still trying to determine the specifics of the training curriculum for peer liaisons.

For freshman counselors, the position means a new regimen of training, set to run through April 29. In order to fill the void left by ethnic counselors, counselors for the class of 2013 are required to attend one educational session at each of four cultural centers on campus, plus the LGBT Resources Office, the Office of International Students and Scholars, and the University Chaplain’s Office.

In those sessions, rising counselors hear from panels of undergraduates who identify with the center about their experiences at Yale. Rising counselors are also asked to role play, working through scenarios they may encounter next year.

Ezra Marcus ’10, who will be a freshman counselor next year, said the university’s decision to integrate the positions of ethnic and freshman counselor “definitely raises the question of how to reach out to someone dealing with issues you haven’t dealt with personally.”

But, he added, “that’s something you have to do as a froco all the time.”

And that is part of the job, three rising counselors said: knowing when to handle something alone, and knowing when to refer a student to the peer liaison network.

Monica Weeks, assistant director of OISS, said her office will be looking for demonstrated leadership in applicants for OISS’s peer liaison positions. Weeks said she is glad international students will have a support network comparable to that enjoyed by racial minorities in the past.

University Chaplain Sharon Kugler said in an e-mail that she hopes the new programming gets more students to use the resources her office has to offer.

Ethnic counselor Sam Ng ’09 said he hopes the addition of peer liaisons will address some of the issues plaguing the current system. Many ethnic counselors advise more than 50 freshmen, Ng said, making it almost impossible for ethnic counselors to be a resource for all their charges. Peer liaisons will be responsible for fewer students each, he said, which should facilitate one-on-one conversations.

But because peer liaisons will not live with freshmen, Ng said, peer liaisons may seem more distant to freshmen than ethnic counselors, who live in freshman housing. The success of the program will depend on the selection of committed peer liaisons, Ng said.

Two current freshman counselors said it will be hard to judge whether the switch from ethnic counselors to peer liaisons is a positive change until the new system has been implemented.

“It will depend how much respect the administration and the frocos give peer liaisons as official resources,” Jaeyoung Yang ’09 said. “If the frocos treat them as a legitimate resource and actively reach out to and suggest them, then freshmen will trust them, but I could see them getting marginalized.”

Peer liaisons will not have set office hours, but will plan meetings based on their own schedules and those of their advisees.

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