February 11, 2002

EARS Assists Students With Stress Prevention

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Empathy, Assistance and Referral Services (EARS) has a small office in the basement of Willard Straight Hall. With a desk, a phone, an old couch, and a few bags of potato chips, the space does not look like much. Yet, EARS is on the front lines of the fight against Cornell stress.

“EARS is a student-run, professionally supervised, program that provides training, counseling, and outreach for the Cornell community,” according to the organization’s website.


EARS is not only completely confidential, its services are also free and anonymous, making them unique on the campus. The other main counseling and referral service at Cornell, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), which is run by Gannett: Cornell University Health Services, often comes at a cost to students and the services are not anonymous.

“On a financial level, there are a lot of people who are working really hard to pay for Cornell and just working hard in general. Having a free service to support them is really important,” said one counselor.


EARS asked that none of their counselors be referred to by name.

Students can call the office or come in during scheduled hours to talk about anything.

“The EARS room is all about setting time aside when people can come talk to us, so no one should feel like they’re burdening us,” said one counselor.

The student leaders of EARS feel that one of the organization’s main problems is that the Cornell community is not aware of what the service does.

“If you ask people what they think EARS is, first of all they think we’re associated with Gannett, which we’re not, and then people think we’re only for serious problems,” said Sarah Simpkins, the organization’s advisor. “We get a whole range of issues.”

“A lot of people we talk to think they need to have a problem that can be solved,” said one counselor.

In fact, EARS counselors say that they are not trying to solve people’s problems.

“We’re not there to solve the problem,” one counselor explained. “We’re there to empower people to help solve their own problems.”

Another counselor agreed that “one of the main problems is that people don’t think EARS can help them.”

The organization has increased advertising to counteract such false preconceptions. The Student Assembly recently gave EARS by-line funding of $1.50 per student, which will almost double the service’s budget for the next Student Activity Fee cycle.

Because the daily costs of running the service have stayed the same, the group’s student leaders plan to use the money almost solely towards advertising because they say that “the more advertising we do, the more people call us.”

Simpkins estimates that currently the organization gets somewhere between 325 and 350 calls per semester.

Another frequent misconception about EARS is that the counselors are, as Simpkins said, “volunteers who just show up.”

Students, however, must go through three levels of intense training before they can become counselors.

“A lot of people come up to us during the student activities fair and say, ‘I want to sign up to become a counselor,'” said Simpkins. “They don’t realize there are a lot of steps in between.”

Jon Scagnelli ’01, a former EARS counselor, admitted that he was one of those unsuspecting students not so long ago.

“I didn’t realize there were more than 60 hours of training I had to go through.”

The training itself is divided into three levels, each taking approximately one semester. According to the counselors, the beginning level is focused mainly on basic counseling skills.

“A lot of people don’t go on [after the first semester] because the skills we teach are just good skills to learn,” one counselor said.

“Not everyone is trying to become an EARS counselor,” Simpkins said. “And we want to provide that service to the community.”

She estimated that about half of the people who start the training program go on to the advanced level and about five percent become counselors.

“I have a Masters [degree] in social work, and [EARS counselors] go through more training than most social workers,” Simpkins said.

EARS also provides outreach services for the entire Cornell community.

“We accept requests from anywhere on campus,” Simpkins said. “People use us for workshops on topics such as communication skills, stress reduction, and time management.”

EARS’ main focus, however, is to be a counseling service for the University.

“I love our name,” Simpkins said, “because that’s really the order in which we do things: Empathy, then Assistance, then Referral.”

But the counselors insist that they can only help if people call them.

“One of the most important things is that you can call us,” said one counselor, “yes, you.”

Archived article by Freda Ready