Peer liaisons still tweaking program

It has been just over a year since the Yale College Dean’s Office announced it would scrap the ethnic counselors program in favor of peer liaisons, and the new cultural mentors are still trying to figure out their relationships with residential college deans and freshman counselors.

Administrators promised last year that the peer liaisons program — in which freshmen have the option of requesting to be paired with an upperclassman affiliated with one of the cultural houses — would offer guidance to new students without overworking the mentors. Cultural house affiliates said the almost-six-month-old program has succeeded in mentoring freshmen but still has some kinks to be worked out, including inconsistent communication with residential college deans and freshmen counselors. Another problem, according to freshman counselors, peer liaisons and freshmen interviewed, is that inclusion in the program is optional and freshman counselors rarely refer their freshman charges to peer liaisons for further counseling.

Murphy Temple
"The freshmen who feel that they need to use a peer liaison will reach out directly." - Aneesh Raghunandan ’11, Peer Liaison

Still, both administrators and students said that because the program is new, it will continue to improve by better connecting peer liaisons with freshman counselors at the start of the year.

“I think it’s going pretty well,” said Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry, whose office oversees the program. “We’re still evaluating it.”

VOLUNTARY BUT VAGUE

Whereas ethnic counselors were freshman counselors specially trained in cultural counseling and automatically assigned to dozens of freshmen, the 40 peer liaisons mentor freshmen who opt into the program.

Liaisons can be affiliated with the Afro-American, Asian, Latino or Native American cultural centers, as well as the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Resources, the Office of International Students and Scholars, and the Chaplain’s Office, and freshmen can request to be paired with any number of liaisons.

“I think the beauty of this new model is that students can affiliate wherever they wish and in multiple places,” Director of International Students and Scholars Ann Kuhlman said.

Affiliating the liaisons with one of the seven centers has reduced the workload for cultural mentors, Native American Cultural Center Director Kirk Hooks said.

But they added that because peer liaisons do not live in freshmen dorms, knowing exactly what role a liaison should play can get confusing, especially in relation to in-dorm freshmen counselors. A lack of delineated authority makes it difficult to explain the purpose of peer liaisons, said Kira Newman ’10, a peer liaison with the LGBTQ Resource Center.

Blair Benham-Pyle ’10 a freshmen counselor in Davenport College, agreed that while peer liaisons should play an important role on campus, their responsibilities are not always clear.

“The biggest problem we’ve been encountering is not knowing exactly what the peer liaison program is supposed to do,” she said, adding that she has not personally referred any of the freshmen she works with to a peer liaison for help.

A MORE ENGAGED PROGRAM

The creation of the peer liaison program was announced in December 2008 in conjunction with the elimination of the ethnic counselor position — a move aimed at improving the University’s diversity counseling network. At the time, administrators said ethnic counselors were strained under the old system, and promised that the addition of peer liaisons, as well as 12 more freshmen counselors, would result in a net gain of counseling resources for ethnic students at Yale.

Alan Wesson ’11, a peer liaison with the Afro-American Cultural Center, said he thinks ethnic counselors were useful — even if they often had to reach out to assigned freshmen who did not want to use the resource.

Wesson — a New Orleans native who went to a mostly white high school in a predominantly black community — said that as a freshman he did not initially expect that an ethnic counselor would be a valuable resource. But he said his ethnic counselor ended up being helpful — something he would not have realized if the program had been optional.

Now, freshmen might opt out of the peer liaison program without realizing how beneficial a relationship with a peer liaison can be. Wesson said he has made an effort to continue reaching out to students that have not officially requested to be matched with a peer liaison.

“I’m optimistic about it being a good resource,” he said of the peer liaisons program, adding that he maintains a relationship with 10 of the 14 freshmen he was asked to contact at the beginning of the year.

Hooks said that though the peer liaison program was well-conceived, administrators are currently working to “debug” it.

“I don’t mean it’s an ineffective program,” he said. “We’ll probably see some real upgrade and some changes that everyone will be happy with.”

Those upgrades will include joint liaison and freshmen counselor training, as both liaisons and cultural house directors said lack of communication may have stemmed from the fact that freshmen counselors and peer liaisons were trained separately for this academic year. Kuhlman added that the current peer liaisons are focusing on increasing their presence during Bulldog Days, and that next year’s liaisons, who will be chosen in the next few weeks, will concentrate on contacting freshmen before they arrive at Yale next fall.

A CULTURAL RESOURCE

Kuhlman said that because the ethnicities of Yale’s international students do not always fall within a particular cultural house, the new peer liaison program is especially beneficial to non-American freshmen. The same goes for the LGBTQ Resource Center, Newman said, which has not had a freshmen-specific outreach program in the past.

The peer liaison program also allows for more flexibility between freshmen and their mentors, liaisons said. Freshmen are not necessarily limited to just one liaison but can interact with the entire LGBTQ community through study breaks and weekly lunches, Newman added. Aneesh Raghunandan ’11, a peer liaison with the Asian American Cultural Center said he has become close with some freshmen with whom he has similar interests even though the freshmen were originally paired with different liaisons.

Karmen Cheung ’13, one of the freshmen Raghunandan mentors, said her peer liaison serves not just as a cultural resource but also as another upperclassman she can turn to for general advice.

“Peer liaisons are almost like another type of freshmen counselor,” Cheung said. “They’re upperclassmen mentors that you can go to if you have any problems or if you want to get to know the community better.”

She added that she does not necessarily see a need for her freshman counselor and her peer liaison to collaborate; but if they did, she said, “they would come up with really cool events.”

Despite communication problems between liaisons and freshmen counselors, Andrea Feuer ’10, a liaison with La Casa Latino Cultural Center, said the fundamental goal of the program is to help freshmen adjust to life at Yale.

“By nature, we care about them and want to help them,” she said. “If you don’t want to guide them and you don’t want to spend time with them, you’re not going to join.”

Counseling for minority students first began in 1972.

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