“I Personally Don’t Feel Safe On Campus”
First-year counselors navigate the unexpected role of enforcing public health guidelines
As a first-year counselor, Grace Kang ’21 lives in Saybrook College with the rest of on-campus and first-year Saybrugians. During Camp Yale, she met with her first-years nightly over Zoom to prepare them for the start of classes. They played socially distanced dodgeball, and she and other FroCos anticipated water balloon fights in the future. Even duty, the thrice-weekly events hosted by FroCos on party-heavy nights, has started back up again virtually.
In this sense, the responsibilities and overall experience of being a FroCo this year closely resemble those of counselors in the past. However, in others, it also diverges with significant, even risky, implications, according to interviews with six FroCos across six residential colleges. While a few FroCos spoke of a largely positive experience so far, six said they felt underqualified, unsafe, confused and frustrated with what they claimed were broken promises and misrepresented contractual expectations surrounding their responsibility as first-year counselors.
In July, 98 accepted FroCos for the 2020–2021 school year and 27 past FroCos signed a petition addressed to Yale College Dean Marvin Chun, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Hannah Peck and Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd, detailing their concerns about expectations for the upcoming year. “We do not feel that living on-campus would be the safest option for personal, mental, and physical health purposes,” the petition read. Ultimately, their central demand, the ability for FroCos to live off-campus, was rejected.
“I acknowledge that you did not sign up to be FroCos during a pandemic,” Chun wrote in his July 7 response, “and so the residence requirement puts many of you in the position of having to make a difficult choice.”
FroCos for the 2020–2021 year heard of their acceptance to the program in March, months before Yale’s July 1 announcement officially detailing plans for the hybrid fall semester. Before Yale’s announced its COVID-19 reopening plan, the March 19 contract that they were sent did not describe expectations of additional responsibilities or anything COVID-19 specific, other than the fact that spring FroCo training would be postponed until the fall.
In the July 1 email sent to all FroCos, Boyd and Peck provided additional updates to FroCos, “We know that the plan for this fall is not what you imagined when you applied for a FroCo position. But we also know the many excellent reasons you applied to be a FroCo in the first place — and that the warmth and guidance you can give the first-years are all the more necessary, and so may be all the more rewarding.”
Later in the email, they wrote that, in thinking about whether or not to continue to stay on as a FroCo, seniors should remember that “you each are students first.”
The email proceeded to answer a variety of questions that FroCos had raised, including how the new policies affect financial aid’s interaction with compensation (they don’t), how FroCo compensation might be affected by working remotely (a 12 percent reduction), how housing might work (new housing assignments) and whether FroCos could live off campus, a major point of contention (the answer was no). Working as a FroCo remotely is only an option for students with health concerns or familial responsibilities at home, according to the email.
“We are sorry if that wasn’t clear earlier. It had not occurred to us that any of you would want to live off-campus in New Haven — that option is one you already gave up, choosing instead to accept the role of FroCo,” Boyd and Peck wrote. “Even with this year’s social distancing, your physical presence is a core responsibility. Plus, we have heard from generations of FroCos of the deep bonds they form in living and working together.”
For many accepted FroCos, including Irene Vázquez ’21, this decision on off-campus living, the culmination of a rigorous petitioning effort on the part of both current and former FroCos, came as a disappointment.
Vázquez initially applied to be a FroCo both because she wanted to give back to the Berkeley community and because she was counting on the room and board reduction. FroCos living on campus receive reduced room and board as compensation, which this year ranged from $7,936 to $11,337, depending on residential college and FroCo group size.
When it became clear that on-campus life would be drastically different than that of a normal near, Vázquez decided that she wouldn’t feel safe in the dorms. “At that point, they said we wouldn’t be required to enforce the Community Compact and wouldn’t be required to have in-person contact with first years,” she told the News, referring to Yale’s COVID-19 regulations for students. “It felt accommodating, like it would include the ability to move off campus.”
And so, according to Vázquez, she and many others started searching for off-campus housing and applying for leases. Some students, she said, had already signed leases by the time the July 1 email came out. Ultimately, the Yale College Dean’s Office told those students they should find subletters for the fall.
In response to the July 1 email, a coalition of 125 FroCos from current and previous years, as well as some individual college heads and deans, circulated a petition addressing their concerns about their new roles in the pandemic.
The five-page petition, which primarily outlined the request for an off-campus option for FroCos, also discussed the 12 percent compensation reduction for remote FroCos, as well as discrepancies between the implicit and explicit expectations of FroCos.
“We understand that the university will be taking all precautions possible to reduce the risk of transmission and ensure the safety of on-campus students while preserving as much of the in-residence experience as safely possible,” the petition reads. “We, however, reserve the right to make that decision regarding our safety for ourselves, a decision that has been provided for every other Yale College student, particularly upper-class students. A personal choice for safety and a choice to serve as a FroCo should not be mutually exclusive.”
On July 7, in response to the petition and Zoom meetings with FroCos, Chun sent an email to all 2020–2021 first-year counselors. “For fundamental reasons, I regret that I cannot accommodate your central request. FroCos must live on campus among the first-years,” he wrote. “There are many practical reasons for this, but most critical is your role as mentors. The faculty and student leaders who commit to living on campus together with the students are essential to the residential college system. Without this presence, the colleges would be mere dorms or apartments, not communities.”
Chun acknowledged the validity of many considerations raised in the petition, such as the fact that FroCos did not sign up to live on campus during a pandemic. He ultimately wrote, “I have faith that you will each make thoughtful decisions that are best for you. We often say that you are students first and foremost, and FroCos second.”
Vázquez, in addition to being heavily involved in the petitioning process, also sent emails and corresponded personally with Boyd and Chun. “I would like to move off-campus for xyz reasons, want to be there for first years, but I don’t feel comfortable in dorms,” she wrote to multiple YCDO administrators. “[The YCDO] handled it quite callously, not recognizing concerns people had about moving into the dorms.”
Although without a medical reason, she offered to be a remote FroCo, but the YCDO denied her request. Vázquez ultimately quit, deciding that the dorms weren’t a good option, and without the income from the FroCo position, she couldn’t afford off-campus housing. She is currently at home in Houston.
Vázquez was not alone in her choice. According to a current FroCo, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, the debate over working off campus or remotely led many to quit. “Our team’s understaffed right now,” he told the News. “Instead of the typical eight to 10 FroCos [in each residential college], we’re down to five to six [FroCos] … We didn’t understand why we couldn’t live off campus if our contractual obligations were all remote, but we realize now that that’s because they expected us to keep an eye on on-campus happenings.”
In an email to the News, Boyd wrote that some FroCos who chose not to re-accept the position “may have been influenced by the new parameters of the role.” According to Boyd, while there are fewer FroCos this year, there are also fewer first years, and the average ratio has worked out to be just under 14:1, the same as last year.
A confusing chain of command
Normally, duty is held in a FroCo’s suite and consists of quesadillas, pancakes, Taco Bell (sometimes a combination of all three) and games. Attendees often come in waves, bookending the beginning and the end, but the food is almost always gone by the end of the night — duty ends at 2 a.m. This year, even though party-heavy nights are a thing of the past (or supposed to be, at least), duty still continues, with residential colleges trying to host virtual game nights, icebreaker sessions and more.
According to Boyd and Chun, most FroCos are living in the colleges and sharing their first years’ experiences, “from tornado warnings to courtyard karaoke.” In addition to the usual enforcement of regulations barring alcohol and drugs, this year, FroCos are also responsible for holding students accountable to the Community Compact. The compact requires students to maintain six feet of distance from individuals outside their suites, among other COVID-19 related regulations.
A supplementary document in the July 1 email sent to all FroCos stated that “FroCos will not be expected to have any in-person interactions with the first-years … It will not be the role of the FroCos to enforce social distancing or physically engage with students in emergency situations.”
An updated contract sent to FroCos on July 18 contained some shifts in the language surrounding enforcement expectations for FroCos. While the document from July 1 explicitly stated that FroCos would not be expected to act in an enforcement capacity, their contract did not.
“[FroCos should] immediately address any first-year violations of the Undergraduate Regulations and the Community Compact, and report such violations to the head/dean/appropriate body,” the updated contract stated. “FroCos are not expected to intervene in-person, they can often intervene virtually and productively in non-disciplinary ways. In situations where the behavior cannot be ended or resolved though the FroCos’ virtual engagement, FroCos should work with their Deans and/or the Public Health Coordinator, as appropriate, to assist. Your college’s Public Health Coordinator will be a good resource to support any students struggling to live up to their Community Compact commitments.”
When they arrived on campus, all FroCos interviewed by the News said that they did not expect enforcement of public health guidelines to be one of their main responsibilities. Some did not expect it to be a responsibility at all, pointing to Yale’s emails from the summer. FroCos also cited confusion — which is still ongoing — over the proper mechanisms for enforcing and reporting violations of the compact. Now, though, FroCos feel expected to enforce the compact in person, despite Yale’s assurances otherwise.
“The unspoken expectation that we didn’t realize is that we also have to be in-person to keep an eye on whether or not [first years are] social distancing, and gently remind them when they’re not following the community compact,” the anonymous FroCo said. “That was something that … is nowhere to be found in our contract, but it became clear that it’s expected of us.”
The FroCo added that, when he tried to report violations of the Community Compact to Public Health Coordinators (PHC), as obligated by the contract, the advice from the PHC was often: “If you feel comfortable, go down there. Because we don’t have the bandwidth to do that right now.”
In interviews with the News, FroCos gave conflicting information surrounding enforcement expectations of Yale’s COVID guidelines, noting confusion as well as a shifting chain of command and, in some cases, no chain of command at all.
“Responsibility-wise, [enforcing the Community Compact is] not our role. We’re not supposed to physically intervene to shut stuff down,” said Sam Essig ’21, a FroCo in Grace Hopper. “The PHC is supposed to do that, but we’re figuring out alternatives because I don’t think that’s their responsibility either.”
A female FroCo, who requested anonymity so as to not affect her relationship with her first years, gave a different perspective of how FroCos should be enforcing Yale’s guidelines.
“I was under the impression that I wouldn’t have to police first years’ compliance with the Community Compact. I had originally thought our PHC would be the one to handle that,” she said. “I also thought that if I witnessed an interaction I was concerned about, the PHC would be the one I would contact. The most recent communication that we’ve gotten is that the FroCos are going to be the first point of contact when there are concerns about the community compact — more of an enforcement responsibility than I had expected.”
The communication that she described was an email from Boyd sent to all FroCos and PHCs on Saturday, Sept. 5, entitled “For this weekend: clarifying PHC and FroCo roles.”
FroCos interviewed by the News described multiple incidents from the previous night, Sept. 4, that night of first years gathering without masks that required intervention.
“Last night was a challenge,” Boyd’s email began, “with many people working hard to respond to compact violations and public health emergencies. It seems the PHCs likely got the worst of it, but I recognize that there were issues all around.”
Boyd also acknowledged that both the roles and the differentiation between FroCos and Public Health Coordinators are still being negotiated.
“Collectively, we are also grappling with capacity,” Boyd wrote. “We simply do not have the resources to react in the moment to every possible policy violation.”
The email detailed the chain of command: FroCos are the first mode of response, in a virtual capacity, then PHCs, in an in-person capacity. After that would be Yale Security and, if all else failed, the Yale Police Department. The FroCos and PHCs are described as “immediate response teams,” a dramatic shift from the July 1 email to FroCos, which emphasized that FroCos would serve a mentoring, not disciplinary, role.
The anonymous female FroCo mentioned that she and other FroCos in her residential college recently had to intervene to stop a first-year gathering — an intervention that happened in-person. “We’re hoping to bring it up with our PHC,” she said, adding that “it unfortunately seemed out of the scope of the responsibilities of her role.”
According to Boyd and Chun’s email, PHCs respond to medical and public health emergencies and support undergraduates struggling to live up to the commitments they made in the Community Compact. “PHCs respond in person, but always maintain social distancing. … Over these first few weeks, the PHCs, FroCos, and Yale Security have been working together to figure out how best to align their different capacities and roles in this new environment.”
For the anonymous male FroCo, however, the new enforcement expectations add a damaging dynamic to the relationship between the first years and the FroCos. “What’s hard is that rather than now being leaders and people who offer support and only intervening when [they’re] doing things that are illegal, we also need to intervene because of health and not following a Community Compact we were never meant to enforce,” he said. “It puts us at risk and breaks the trust they have in us as community builders and leaders.”
According to three FroCos interviewed by the News, the Yale Police Department told all FroCos that YPD officers would not be enforcing social distancing, adding another layer of confusion. In Boyd’s Sept. 15 email sent out to all FroCos and PHC’s, however, Yale Police were mentioned as the final link in the chain of command.
When asked how this chain of command would realistically work — if YPD was not enforcing the Community Compact — the anonymous female FroCo paused for a few seconds. “I do believe that we were told that YPD would not be involved in enforcement,” she said.
In an email to the News, Ronnell Higgins, Chief of Yale Police & Director of Public Safety at Yale, wrote that “YPD will defer to the administrative guidance contained in Dean Chun’s correspondence regarding non-compliance with mask and social distancing protocols. Matters of non-compliance as specified in Yale Community Compact can be handled by School’s Health and Safety Leader or the Compact Review Committee. Yale Public Safety fully supports the requirements contained within the Compact.”
None of the FroCos interviewed by the News expressed confidence in their understanding of how this chain of command works.
In their email to the News, Boyd and Chun said that Yale is “guided by public health research into effective harm reduction,” and for many violations, offering support, education, and coaching will constitute the entire response. “More serious or repeated violations will go to the Compact Response Committee, a non-disciplinary body that can require additional education, training, or other interventions; the CRC can also limit or deny access to campus if it deems this is necessary to protect the broader community. Extreme cases of community endangerment will be referred to the Executive Committee.”
For Grace Kang, the Saybrook FroCo, the role has been immensely rewarding, and her first years have inspired her every day. Being on campus also adds a meaningful dimension to the FroCo job, she said. Even so, Kang told the News in an interview two weeks ago that “I personally don’t feel safe on campus.”
“We as FroCos can do our best job when we’re on campus with our frosh. There’s no denying the general sentiment with FroCos that when first years throw parties or people go out of the residential colleges, we all feel uncomfortable and worried that an outbreak will inevitably happen on campus,” Kang said. “It’s unclear if the FroCos are the ones responsible for breaking apart large groups or PHC’s or police.”
For the anonymous female FroCo, this confusion affects her confidence in her own abilities to carry out the implicit and explicit FroCo duties expected of her. When asked if she felt equipped to perform her role, she said no.
“I would like some more guidance on the support structure and I would like some more clarity as to who I’m supposed to be relying on to back this up for us,” she explained. “So I can feel confident that I can do this effectively.”
“I think there’s a really large sense of broken promises,” the other anonymous FroCo said.
Vázquez tied the lack of clarity surrounding the expectation of FroCos back to the petitioning effort to allow FroCos to live off campus.
“One of the things that really bothered me about how [the YCDO] handled things was that they told us ‘you’re students first.’ So give us the same options as other students,” she said. “We’re student workers and should have the same ability to control our labor as other workers, which includes hazard pay.” Vázquez added that the petition for FroCos to receive hazard pay was also rejected.
Boyd and Chun did not address the News’ question about FroCos’ request for hazard pay in their email.
“All the different things they’ve done has been to maximize as many people on campus as possible, and whatever happens to student workers, happens,” Vázquez said. “It’s frustrating to see that desire come before making choices about mental and physical safety.”
Update, Sept. 21: This article has been updated to include a comment from YPD chief Ronnell Higgins.
Madison Hahamy | firstname.lastname@example.org