Yale Daily News

On April 6, the Yale College Council announced via social media that Disability Peer Mentors, who have previously worked on a volunteer basis, will now be compensated for their mentorship through a new partnership with the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.

Undergraduate mentors will be compensated $18.50 an hour, and $50 stipends will be made available to mentors from graduate and professional schools. Students with significant financial need can also request a stipend of $300 a semester in addition to the hourly wage, according to the YCC announcement.

“This year we had an opportunity to really focus the administration’s attention on a simple fact: we were providing community building and liaising services for free, whereas other affinity groups were paid for the exact same work,” Disability Empowerment for Yale Vice President and YCC Accessibility Chair Joaquín Lara Midkiff ’23, who is also a member of the News’ Editorial Board, wrote in an email to the News. “This was fundamentally inequitable. And spoke to the university’s trepidation around acknowledging disability as a cultural group.”

The Disability Peer Mentor Program seeks to guide both incoming students and students new to disability through the resources available to disabled students at Yale by pairing them with student mentors, according to the DEFY website. Students of any class year experiencing mental illness, chronic illness, learning disability, temporary disability or physical disability can be matched to a mentor, even if they have not been officially diagnosed.

According to Josie Steuer Ingall ’24, a member of the DEFY board and next year’s DPMP coordinator at the Poorvu Center, the DPMP has been in operation for five years, and, in conjunction with DEFY, has sought funding every year since its founding.

“We kicked our advocacy into high gear around this issue about two years ago, and after finally being granted a meeting with Dean Chun at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, we were promised funding for that year, which did not materialize,” Steuer Ingall said.

Steuer Ingall added that no members of DEFY “had any idea” why the DPMP never received the promised funding.

In a statement to the News, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun said that he “regret the delay” in funding the DPMP.

“The program for students with disabilities relied on identifying supervisors for the peer mentors, and that took more time than I had expected,” Chun said. “That work is now done, thanks to the Poorvu Center and the Office of the Secretary and University Life.”

Before obtaining funding for the DPMP, disability advocates were able to start a new peer liaison program focused on students with disabilities.

While Steuer Ingall described the new program as “super exciting,” she pointed out that it is not necessarily responsive to the experiences of all disabled students, since peer liaison programs are specifically geared toward first years and students can develop disabilities at any point during their time at Yale.

According to Lara Midkiff, since “between thirty to forty percent of all mentees are not first-years,” there was still a demand for continuing peer mentorship beyond a peer liaison program.

“A few weeks after winning the peer liaison victory, we were still scrambling to find a way to institutionalize the DPMP and make up for what was still clearly an outstanding equity issue,” said Lara Midkiff.

It was at this point, according to Lara Midkiff, that Karin Gosselink and Sarah Cussler, who are associate and assistant director, respectively, of the Academic Strategies Program at the Poorvu Center, reached out to DEFY leadership about institutionalizing the DPMP through Academic Strategies, which would grant funding to peer mentors.

From there, Lara Midkiff said that the Yale College Dean’s Office approved a budget for the DPMP within a few weeks.

“Academic Strategies’s mission is to help all Yale undergraduates thrive and find satisfaction in their work as students by sharing knowledge rooted both in educational best practices and in the experiential knowledge of peers who have navigated Yale College,” Gosselink wrote in an email to the News. “The volunteer peer mentors were already doing some of this work; by bringing them into the Academic Strategies community, they could receive additional training, operational support and pay for this labor.”

Cussler spoke about the need for an institutionalized disability peer mentor program, explaining that Academic Strategies increasingly refers students for learning accommodations and academic coaching.

Academic Strategies’ partnership with the DPMP program is, according to Cussler, intended to introduce “candor and self-reflection” into conversations surrounding disability at Yale.

“Students with disabilities have a lot of hard-earned wisdom to share with other students,” Cussler said. “Formalizing their role and paying them means that the campus support network becomes more explicit. Disability and neurodiversity become a greater part of the conversation when they are institutionalized in this way.”

Steuer Ingall emphasized the importance of supportive resources to the disability community at Yale, explaining that information about accessibility often determines the extent to which students with disabilities can participate in social and academic life at all.

Fifteen mentors will serve as volunteers for the remainder of the school year, and the application for paid positions for next year closed on April 9. According to Steuer Ingall, the DPMP received nearly three times as many applications for the program this year as it did last year.

Students of any class year can request a disability peer mentor for the remainder of the semester online.

Lucy Hodgman | lucy.hodgman@yale.edu

Correction, Apr. 20: An earlier version of this story referred to Steuer Ingall as “the DPMP coordinator at the Poorvu Center.” In fact, she will be next year’s coordinator. The story has been updated.

Lucy Hodgman covers the Yale College Council. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a sophomore in Grace Hopper majoring in English.