Take the average Yale student. As soon as some people hear these words, they imagine an affluent WASP who graduated from Andover and spent his summer biking across the country. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but this is not the real Yale student. We come from innumerable backgrounds, and some of these backgrounds are very hard to reconcile with the atmosphere of an Ivy League university in New England. Statistics show minority students have significantly lower retention rates, and somehow, minority students tend to have a more difficult time adjusting to the Yale environment.

Enter the ethnic counselor program.

In 1972, just as the number of minority students started to surge, Yale responded to the significant difference between Caucasian and minority retention rates by implementing an on-campus program that gave minority freshmen an automatic support system. Many aspects of the program have come under increasing scrutiny over the years, culminating only eight years ago in an attempt to merge the ethnic counselor program with the residential counselor program. Today, ethnic counselors are fighting to expand and improve their program in the face of unwavering administrative disapproval.

Counseling the counselors

With the formation of a review committee this semester, the ethnic counselor program is due for some serious restructuring. The committee, which reports directly to Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead and is chaired by Branford College Dean Nicole Parisier, is currently doing research among various constituencies at Yale to find out what is wrong with the ethnic counselor program and how it should change.

“By next October, they’ll have concrete recommendations for the ethnic counselors for the next year,” ethnic counselor Chiraag Bains ’03 said.

In activating the committee last semester, the directors of the cultural centers, Assistant Deans Pamela George, Saveena Dhall and Rosalinda Garcia, worked with Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg to come up with a proposal, which they then submitted to the counselors for feedback.

The committee of administrators and students, which is charged with gathering input and feedback from undergraduates and making recommendations for change, will meet for one year, with its later meetings open to the public.

A small but representative committee was the goal. The original plan included six people: a residential college dean (who would be the chairperson), an assistant dean, and four students — a residential counselor, an ethnic counselor, and two other students. The final committee was more expansive, including faculty and students from every major ethnic group.

Besides Parisier, the committee includes George, two professors, a residential counselor, ethnic counselor Richard Nobles ’03, who recently replaced Ingrid Fuentes ’03, and five other students: one black student, one Latino student, one Asian student, one Native American student, and one Caucasian student. These five students are not seniors, since the committees will last through the next semester.

Parisier said the committee has met three times so far this year and was only in its initial research stage.

“Right now, we’re just getting to know each other,” Parisier said. “We’re trying to understand how the program works and what defines what works well and what doesn’t work so well. [The goal is] to define the problems that need to be solved for the freshmen and ethnic counselors.”

Parisier said there was no particular reason she knew of for the committee to begin this year. She said all programs at Yale come under revision from time to time, and this just happened to be the time for the ethnic counselor program.

But Trachtenberg said the reason for the committee’s formation was the insistence of the counselors themselves.

“There are things about the program the ethnic counselors found deficient or weren’t comfortable with,” Trachtenberg said. “They’re writing their own agenda. It will be a very comprehensive review.”

In particular, Parisier said, that agenda will include the Native American ethnic counselor question, perhaps the key issue in the ethnic counselor debate.

Brodhead declined to comment on the Native American counselor debate because he did not want to preempt any of the recommendations of the committee. But he said he wished the ethnic counselor program were not a necessary transitional tool for some minority students at Yale.

“We try to speak to a certain need,” Brodhead said. “Yale doesn’t think of any student first as an ethnic student. The thought was the ethnic counselors program could provide extra support to groups that we hope some day won’t need it.”

But until that day comes, Parisier’s committee will continue exploring the pros and cons of the ethnic counselor program to learn what has been effective thus far, and what still needs work.

Unlucky 13

Currently, there is no Native American ethnic counselor at Yale — well, none that Yale happens to be paying. Instead, Native American freshmen turn to Native American peer adviser Wizipan Garriott ’03.

The Yale College Dean’s Office does not compensate the Native American peer adviser, as it does all other ethnic counselors. The peer adviser earns $5,200 annually, much less than an ethnic counselor, and his salary is paid by the Native American Cultural Center, along with a federal work-study grant.

“Wizipan is paid for 10 hours a week,” Bains said. “He works more than that.”

For that reason, Yale College Council representative Matthew Nickson ’03 said the YCC is backing the Association of Native Americans At Yale’s push to break the administration’s unspoken 12 ethnic counselor rule and create a 13th ethnic counselor. Until then, Nickson said he was willing, though not thrilled, to get one of the Hispanic-American counselors switched to a Native American counselor, the only option open as long as the administration is stuck on the number 12.

Former YCC representative and ANAAY co-president John Harabedian ’04 said he started going to the Dean’s Office two years ago, meeting with many top members of the administration. All that nagging proved to be one of the major reasons for the creation of the ethnic counselor committee.

“It’s been an ongoing battle for 10 years — just going back to fighting to get a peer adviser,” Harabedian said. “That was a huge step for us.”

Harabedian said his Native American peer adviser’s relationship to the ethnic counselor program confused him his freshman year. Harabedian said his adviser was not technically an ethnic counselor, but still served as the head of the program.

“It didn’t make sense. I always considered her an ethnic counselor, but she wasn’t — and she was the head of them.”

Harabedian said he knew the administration gave multiple reasons for not wanting to break the current magic number of 12 for ethnic counselors. But he said he believes the major reason for their resistance is the fear that if the administration gives in, more groups, such as international students, will ask for counselors. But Harabedian said he sees nothing wrong with that.

“I fully support [an international student counselor],” Harabedian said. “I feel if any group needs an ethnic counselor, the University should provide it.”

Harabedian said he understands the committee will not solve all of the problems with the ethnic counselor program, but he hopes students get most of what they have been requesting.

“Hopefully, we’ll come to a compromise between the administration and students — a compromise between the two benefiting students more than the administration,” Harabedian said.

Nickson said Brodhead was stuck on maintaining the current dozen, but that such a limit no longer makes sense.

“Dean Brodhead is not willing to go over the number 12. He’s not against a Native American counselor — he just doesn’t want to take away one ethnic counselor [from another group],” Nickson said. “[But] in order to make Yale an attractive place for Native American students, you should have this program. It’s just not fair to the Native American community.”

Ethnicity across the country

For many students, the importance of Yale’s ethnic counselor program is not readily apparent, since other schools seem to get along fine without one. But each university recognizes the importance of the minority retainment issue.

At Yale, ethnic counselors have a dual role. Not only do they service all minority students in the college to which they are assigned, they also counsel a certain number of students of their own ethnicity.

But what constitutes ethnicity? Continental origin? And if the University’s definition of common ethnicity is valid, does common ethnicity mean common cultures, or common experiences? An Asian counselor could have a Pakistani student, a Chinese student, and a second-generation Vietnamese-American student. These three students would not necessarily have anything in common, except that they are all categorized as “Asian.”

Currently, the number of students an Asian ethnic counselor must handle is between 40 and 50 students — nearly twice what the African and Latino counselors have to handle. Back in the spring of 1995, the number reached 60 to 70 students per Asian counselor.

“Many counselors feel spread too thin,” Nickson said.

Brodhead said the number of counselors has been in place for 10 years and corresponds to the number of residential colleges.

So is it completely unreasonable to ask for more counselors?

At Princeton, 16 junior and senior students are selected annually to serve as minority affairs advisers in four of the residential colleges. MAAs work in formal partnership with resident advisers, collaborating on programming for their designated groups and working closely with the college staff and the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students in developing and implementing culturally diverse programs for all college residents. In addition, MAAs work together with residential advisers to support the ethnic minority communities at Princeton, particularly first-year students, whom they introduce to the network of on- and off-campus ethnic resources.

As part of a new program at Princeton’s Wilson College, RAs and MAAs have fused into Resident Community Advisers. RCAs provide immediate support to minority students. The 16 Wilson RCAs work with two Programming Advisers who have a special responsibility for developing the kinds of college events that encourage a respectful and engaging intellectual community.

In the other direction, many universities — such as Stanford, Cornell and Amherst — do not have an ethnic counselor program. At Stanford, minority students make up at least half of the student body, but advisers are trained to deal with the special advising needs of a variety of students: student athletes, students in the performing arts, ethnic minority students, queer students, international students and students with disabilities. In the other corner, Amherst offers theme housing, while Cornell has a multicultural house as an option for undergraduate residence.

And many Yale students do not like the ethnic counselor program as it is, let alone one that may promote an increase in the number of ethnic factions. One Asian-Australian sophomore’s feelings echoed that of many of her peers.

“If you put down an ethnicity that isn’t Caucasian, you have to go to this meeting — that lasted for a few hours. It felt weird that it was mandatory. They talked about stereotypes, judging people — in that case, why were we the only ones who had to go? If they had made it optional to everybody, then fine. But it was mandatory for us,” she said.

But while it seems like February is “Annual Complain-About-Ethnic-Counseling Month,” many students have benefited from the specialized minority advising and support the expansion of the program.

Julia Gonzales ’05, who wrote an op-ed piece for the Yale Daily News last November in support of the ethnic counselor program and its continued improvement, said her ethnic counselor played an instrumental role in Gonzales’ freshman year.

“My ethnic counselor was great. I didn’t feel obligated to go see her, but she was amazing … definitely one of the top five people I met as a freshman. She helped to open up the campus for me, more so than my freshman counselor did. She just rocked. She explained so much stuff to me. She just taught me so much … and was just a good friend.”

Gonzales said she believes the ethnic counselor program helps minority students “take ownership of this campus.”

“All I know is the ethnic counselor program worked for me. There may be other kids who thought they didn’t need it — but it’s like sex education,” Gonzales said. “If a lot of kids don’t go to sex-ed counseling, does it make sex-ed bad? It should be available for those students who need it.”

Gonzales said the Native American peer adviser’s job has a great deal of work cut out for him. “Not having institutional support flies in the face of everything they’re working for,” Gonzales said.

“Fulfilling a need”

Garriott said it is the students who suffer the most from the administration’s refusal to add a Native American counselor.

“You know what the ethnic counselors do? [I do] the same thing,” Garriott said. “Because of the students I deal with and because of the backgrounds a lot of native people come from, it makes it harder to talk about some issues. There is a different way of looking at things … I know when I came here, it was a culture shock. In many ways, it’s like coming from another country — In my first weeks here, I had never been around this many white people for such an extended period of time.”

Garriott said students coming from a reservation environment are used to living with higher death rates and may know poverty very intimately. Coming to Yale, Native American students may also have special issues regarding religion and spirituality.

“They need certain environments and spaces to pray — and they don’t have that,” Garriott said. “[I’m here] to help in terms of adjustment — or to find creative ways to fulfill religious obligations.”

Garriott said if the committee looks at the issue clearly, it will make the right recommendations at the end of the semester.

“If they think about this rationally and look at the evidence and the situation, I think they will make the change,” Garriott said.

Garriott said while the administration looks forward to “a world in which ethnic counselors are not needed,” the University’s job is to do what is needed now.

And the statistics point to a need for a resource to improve retention rates among minority students. Yale’s retention rate is extremely high, Garriott said, hovering close around 98 percent. But the rate for minorities fluctuates between the high 80s and low 90s.

Garriott said the reason for the low retention rate clearly is not academic.

“The lowest test scores at Yale are legacies,” Garriott said. He also added that athletes have lower test scores than minorities as well.

“There have to be larger social issues,” Garriott said.

Still, the Native American counselor question will not be the only issue addressed. Bains said the ethnic counselors were also pushing for improvement in communication between ethnic counselors and residential counselors about what is expected of them and, more importantly, for residential counselors to provide ethnic counselors with equal access to information.

“Residential counselors sometimes fail to inform ethnic counselors about the counselee,” Bains said. “This is something that’s got to be ongoing.”

Parisier said the committee will begin working with the University and groups like the cultural centers beginning in April.

“The committee is excited about its work for the term,” Parisier said.

Overall, the ethnic counselors’ success in establishing a committee to examine the program in-depth is a triumph in itself. In a world that seems to be getting smaller and smaller as global communities become more intertwined, it is no wonder that many freshmen of different cultural backgrounds can feel overwhelmed. While the ethnic counselor program is not perfect, counselors, students, and administrators alike see it as an asset to minority freshmen that shows potential for further development. n