In a few weeks, juniors across campus will find out if they made the cut for the prized freshman and ethnic counselor positions. They will move to Old Campus, host alcohol-free “Dawson’s Creek” parties, and impart their wisdom on impressionable freshmen. I too applied for this position — not because I wanted to spend every waking hour with loud, immature freshmen, but because I wanted to share my experiences at Yale and help freshmen make the same adjustments I eventually made. Because I am interested in culture and race and felt I could help freshmen understand Yale’s cultural milieu, I applied to be an ethnic counselor. However, I am white and was summarily rejected.
Yale’s policy of separating ethnic students to help them adjust to a supposedly white world only reinforces the feeling that ethnic students are different. Cultural Connections is the worst offender. From the day freshmen arrive on campus, the ethnic students already have Cultural Connections friends, so in the first crazy days of Camp Yale, they spend time with these familiar faces. White students get the feeling that the ethnic kids already have cliques, especially when they see a dinner table full of Cultural Connections friends where white people have apparently been excluded.
Ethnic counselors also reinforce the racial divide by suggesting that ethnic students need to adjust to the life of white people but not the other way around. Ironically, it is sometimes the white students who have the most adjusting to do. Many ethnic students who grew up in America have already had the experience of dealing with a white majority, but many white kids, some of whom grew up in white suburbia, have had significantly less experience living in close proximity to ethnic students. Why should they be denied access to ethnic counselors? The ethnic orientation programs are certainly an excellent way to teach freshmen about race and diversity, so why aren’t white students required to attend the talks on diversity and prejudice that all ethnic freshmen are required to attend? Especially if white students contribute to ethnic tension, they should be all the more required to attend in-depth orientations about diversity.
Furthermore, the divide between ethnic and white students is often hazy, and the process by which freshmen are designated “ethnic” reveals some of the problems with the system. My freshman year roommate from Laurel, MD, wrote “Portuguese” on her Yale application because her father was born in Portugal. Despite the fact that Portuguese is a European nationality, she received a Latin American ethnic counselor, whom she naturally never went to visit. My roommate sophomore year also had an ethnic counselor, but as a wealthy Asian-American from New Jersey, she also never went to visit her. Clearly the ethnic counselor program needs a better way to determine what students need an ethnic counselor than by simply assigning one if they checked any box other than Caucasian on their application.
Meanwhile, many white students, especially those from the rural areas of the South or Midwest, have a much harder time adjusting to life at Yale than my Asian-American friend from New Jersey. The prevalence of clubs like the Texas Club and Pop, the Midwestern club, shows that many students find the culture at Yale significantly different from their own and find comfort in people who share their own identity. Yale should offer support for these students in the same way that if would offer support for an ethnic student who hardly identifies with his or her ethnicity.
I can already hear the Dean’s Office panicking at the thought of spending money for even more ethnic counselors. After all, there are already 12 counselors for the roughly 500 ethnic students at Yale; there is hardly room for a Native American ethnic counselor, much less a white one. But by proposing that Yale open its mind to white ethnic counselors, I am also suggesting that perhaps the entire system of freshman orientation for ethnic students needs to be reevaluated. Regardless of how much money Yale is willing to spend on diversity programs, it should stop separating white students from ethnic students on the assumption that ethnic students have more adjusting to do. Such a change in perspective would help the retention rates of ethnic students by allowing them to discuss diversity issues with white students as well as with other ethnic students. More importantly, it would give white students the same tools to deal with ethnicity and culture that it currently provides for ethnic students.