I graduated from Yale in May. As my name was called to walk across the stage, members of my family cheered, and I felt great pride. It was a humbling moment, especially knowing how I had come so far from my Mexican-American neighborhood on the west side of San Antonio. It was a moment I hope to always remember.
I strongly believe this moment would not have been possible without the help of my ethnic counselor.
When I arrived on campus, I experienced much of the culture shock many Yale students feel. In my classes, my residential college and my entryway, I consistently felt I didn’t fit in, and I attributed my uneasy fit to my background, which I felt — which I knew — was different from that of many Yalies. When I needed someone to talk to about these issues, I went to my ethnic counselor. I didn’t feel anyone else would understand, since none of the other freshman counselors came from similar backgrounds, and none had reached out to me like my ethnic counselor did.
A month before I arrived on campus, I received a handwritten letter in the mail from my ethnic counselor, followed a short time later by a phone call to ask whether I had any questions about moving in. I didn’t fully understand the program, but I remember feeling comforted and reassured by the letter, for it came from someone who had a background similar to mine. In the weeks before school started, when I was most apprehensive about leaving home, it was helpful to know that there was someone like me who had made it through and was willing to help me along the way. I often feel I might not have finished that first year without the help of my ethnic counselor.
In the coming weeks, the Yale administration is planning to make changes to the freshman counseling program. The new program would eliminate the ethnic counselors and combine them with the existing freshman counselors. I understand the rationale behind these changes, because the current program has limited effectiveness.
The amount of responsibility carried by ethnic counselors is overwhelming, and the diversity of the counselor teams is often insufficient. The existence of the ethnic counselor program meant that the other freshman counselors did not require training to prepare for issues related to race or ethnicity, and it meant that the counselor teams did not always need to reflect the racial diversity of the colleges. As an ethnic counselor my senior year, I saw these problems first hand. I served on a team of freshman counselors in which I was the only student of color, and I had many more responsibilities than the other counselors.
I agreed with the need to reform the program. I supported the efforts to replace the ethnic counselor program with a separate support system and to expand the diversity and cultural training of freshman counselors. But the most critical elements of the ethnic counselor program needed to be preserved. Reforms needed to include a committed resource to mentor and counsel incoming students of color by pairing them with students from similar backgrounds. Without this, I believe many students will fall through the cracks.
The plan for the new counseling program that the administration is implementing eliminates the ethnic counselor program without preserving any of its most significant benefits. It blends the ethnic and freshman counselor positions and provides diversity training for all new counselors. While this new training may be beneficial (it is currently unspecified), it is clearly a loss in resources for students. It does not provide for any new mechanism to provide mentoring or counseling to students from diverse backgrounds based upon race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
The new plan also does not require input from the deans of the cultural centers on campus in the selection of counselor teams. These deans are uniquely familiar with the students from these communities, who often are not as involved with their residential colleges. Their involvement is critical to creating freshman counselor teams that are diverse and responsive to all members of the Yale community. Finally, the new plan was created without any input from students, who will be most affected by these changes.
By eliminating the ethnic counselor program without maintaining any of its key features, by not including input from the deans of the cultural centers in the selection of freshman counselors, and by implementing this new system without taking any input from the student body, I feel the administration’s actions will hurt the freshman counseling program.
As students and alumni, we must respond to these new plans and call for further necessary changes. Reforms to freshman counseling will affect the quality of the Yale experience for future generations of students, so they must be made properly. After all, it could determine whether the students who enter Phelps Gate as freshmen will be able to walk across the stage at Commencement.
Robert Sanchez is a 2008 graduate of Saybrook College and a former ethnic counselor.