Last semester, students and administrators alike were confronted with questions about the roles that authority figures should play in student life on campus — such as if a residential college master should make potentially provocative comments, or if the dean of Yale College should take on an activist role beyond his administrative responsibilities. This soul-searching has extended to students as well, especially within the peer liaison program, which is set to see changes in its stewardship and scope.
Heading into its eighth year of existence, the peer liaison program connects first-year students with Yale’s cultural, religious, international and LGBTQ resources. The program will undergo several changes soon: Director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources Maria Trumpler GRD ’92, who sent a collegewide email Tuesday afternoon encouraging Yale College students to apply to become peer liaisons for the next academic year, will soon turn over the program’s directorship to Kelly Fayard, director of the Native American Cultural Center. Additionally, the Asian American Cultural Center is looking to expand the number of peer liaisons it hires, with other cultural centers considering following suit. Amidst these changes, peer liaisons expressed hopes for better incorporation of the program into Yale’s residential college system and offered different definitions of the role they see themselves playing.
“The [peer liaisons] are a tremendous peer resource, that in some years may be underutilized, and in other periods, like this fall, be overwhelmed,” Dean of Student Engagement Burgwell Howard said. “[The] program is in a constant state of evolution to meet the needs of the student body and the needs of the University community.”
The peer liaison program is traditionally under the supervision of the Yale College Dean’s Office. Trumpler — who only became director of the program last May, after the resignation of former Director of the Afro-American Cultural Center Rodney Cohen — explained that she has been acting as an interim director until the YCDO could find a suitable replacement from within the office.
Howard added that Fayard, who will take over as director of the program from the next school year, is considering a number of important questions, such as the proper student-to-liaison ratio; how students, deans and masters of residential colleges utilize the program; and how the program can become more effective in the years ahead. Fayard could not be reached for comment as of Tuesday night.
As Yale’s student body becomes more diverse, the student-to-liaison ratio has grown, with more students being assigned to each liaison. At the AACC, head peer liaison Payal Marathe ’16 said peer liaisons now have more students than they can handle, and anticipating the addition of two new residential colleges, the AACC is looking to hire two more liaisons for the next school year. Currently, the AACC employs 10 liaisons.
Peer liaisons at the AACC declined to say how much they are paid or how much money the additional hires will cost the center. But University President Peter Salovey announced in November that the budgets for all four cultural centers will double next year, although administrators have repeatedly declined to give the centers’ current budgets.
“It would be my hope that some of the additional resources and support indicated in President Salovey’s email to the community last semester might be earmarked for enhancements to the peer liasion program — to help bolster their numbers, but also to make sure that students working to support other students are well versed in Yale’s resources and policies … [and] have access to great training to better help them support their designated peers,” Howard said, adding that each year small changes are made to the selection and training process to better prepare liaisons for issues they may face during the year.
La Casa Cultural head peer liaison Cristal Suarez ’16 said that while there are no concrete plans for the expansion of the peer liaison program at her house, there is awareness of the need for increased support.
Though the peer liaison program is relatively new and still evolving, liaisons from different cultural centers and offices all emphasized their role in helping freshmen transition to college and, more specifically, to the Yale community. When weeks of student demonstrations and calls for a better racial climate shook campus last semester, many liaisons said they found themselves engaged in a challenging but rewarding situation, which gave them an opportunity to explore the different ways liaisons can function as resources.
“Naturally the whole situation was challenging, but all of the peer liaisons tried to facilitate thoughtful discussion amongst first-years,” Af-Am House head peer liaison Paige Curtis ’16 said. “I wouldn’t call this a ‘challenge’ per se, but it was really important to me that first-year students realize how powerful their voices are on campus.”
Suarez said it was “encouraging” that so many freshmen took part in the conversations and events last semester and continue to participate in these important discussions this semester and beyond.
Mari Kawakatsu ’17, a peer liaison for the Office of International Students and Scholars, said liaisons for international students faced a unique situation last semester in facilitating conversations about racial justice on campus and in America.
“One challenge we faced last semester was that many international freshmen found it difficult to relate to the issues of race and gender that were bought up, partly because of their particularly American nature,” she said.
Many of the conversations about last semester’s events, according to NACC head peer liaison Mitchell Rose Bear Don’t Walk ’16, happened across cultural centers and engaged students from different backgrounds. As a result, Bear Don’t Walk said she thinks the peer liaison program has the potential to include more cross-cultural events and programming. Other liaisons also highlighted room for the various centers and offices that employ them to work together.
“In the future, I would like to see more collaboration between the peer liaison teams of different centers [and] offices, since they currently operate independently of one another for the most part,” Kawakatsu said.
Liaisons are also reimagining other ways the program can better serve students. Ideally, Marathe said, liaisons should be able to support freshman counselors and function as another line of support. Suarez also said she would like to see the peer liason program work more closely with the FroCos and be recognized as an important source of support for freshmen.
“Yale students are often our best advocates and [a] first line of support for other Yale students,” Howard said, adding that liaisons are an important part of the network of support that also includes the residential college system and other administrative resources.
Peer liaisons are affiliated with and available through Yale’s four cultural centers as well as the Office of LGBTQ Resources, the Office of International Students and Scholars and the Chaplain’s Office.