Katie Sims / Sun File Photo

EARS will close its doors to counseling, but training will continue.

March 14, 2017

Counseling Group EARS Celebrates Supporting Students Throughout 45 Year History

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Founded in 1972 by Prof. Emerita Florence Berger, hotel administration, and a group of wives of faculty members, Empathy, Assistance and Referral Services celebrates its 45-year anniversary this week.

A more informal approach to counseling has been EARS’ essential mission since its foundation, according to Associate Dean of Students and EARS Director Janet Shortall.

The History

When EARS began in 1972, it operated with volunteer counselors — two thirds of whom were the wives of faculty members, The Sun reported in 1972. Other counselors included graduate students in education-related fields.

Originally, EARS was aimed to serve married students as a “supportive counseling information referral service,” as Howard Kramer, associate dean of students and EARS director in 1972, told The Sun in 1972.

However, by 1980, EARS served members of the community in all types of situations, The Sun reported in 1980. This mission comes across today in EARS’ motto: “no issue is too big or too small, we’re here to listen.”

By 1980 EARS had also shifted its focus toward peer counseling and community outreach. Unlike in 1972, marital problems were no longer the greatest issues that EARS addressed — by 1980 EARS was closer to what it is today, and its role was shifting to one addressing academic concerns and loneliness.

Unlike other services on campus today, EARS operates on an entirely walk-in and call-in basis — a foundational component of EARS. When EARS originally began, it was open Monday through Thursday nights on North Campus as a “drop in service,” Kramer told The Sun in 1972.

Though it started on North Campus, EARS, by 1980, moved to Willard Straight Hall, where it remains today.

EARS Today

Today, EARS aims to combat the prevailing attitude among students that they do not have time in the bustle of busy schedules to seek assistance. According to Shortall, this may make them reluctant to set aside time for their mental health.

“The most challenging aspect of what I experience in the Cornell culture is that you’re such highly ambitious [students] … that sometimes it’s a little hard to take a step back and really look inward to see how you’re doing in the balance of the whole of your being,” she said.

Shortall also said that EARS counselors emphasize the importance of self-care and personal time.

“If you take some time today to really look inward and give yourself some care and nourishment, truly just like getting a good night’s rest, it really can better equip you to deal with all aspects of your life,” she added.

In addressing any problem, big or small, EARS counselors can urge students towards a more proactive approach in self-reflection, according to Shortall. But she admits that, because “we’re used to just pushing on,” students may hesitate to seek services.

“We’re in an environment that is so rich on so many levels, but that sometimes people don’t slow down until they’re really hurting,” Shortall said.

She added that counselors have often heard their peers speaking informally about their struggles, yet they frequently clip their stories with “‘but it’s not like I need counseling or anything.’”

EARS counselors — whose identities must remain confidential — commented on the necessity of providing such a service for the Cornell community.

“EARS is essential on this huge campus that often over-stresses its students and can be very cold and impersonal,” an EARS counselor said. “As a peer counseling service, EARS helps build connections between students and offers a place for students to feel connected.”

From their unique frame of peer-to-peer counseling, EARS is able to offer a “middle-ground” between professional counseling services and informal counseling, not in competition with other health services on campus.

“[Counselors] bring both the appreciation and experience of being a fellow student but also with the skills they get, they are able to provide a place where students can feel safe reaching out, perhaps as the first step of seeking support or perspective on their everyday life,” Shortall said.

While these appointments can lead to students scheduling with professional counselors, sometimes the mere act of listening is a much-appreciated service to students.

“On a campus where there’s a good deal of pressure to pretend that everything is not just fine, but great, it’s important to have a resource where you can talk through something that’s bothering you without feeling judged or like you’re burdening your friends or family,” an EARS counselor said. “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

In this way, EARS offers a setting “where someone isn’t going to jump into your story or tell you about their life, where you actually really get heard,” Shortall said. This can allow students to be “more in contact with what’s happening inside.”

However, this important act of listening that counselors provide requires extensive training. EARS counselors — of which a current 56 are active — receive 80 to 90 hours of training in a three-level training period and a rigorous counseling test at the training’s end.

45 Years Later

When EARS began 45 years ago, its then-director Kramer told The Sun that although the center may not be receiving as many students as expected, “one person per night would be worthwhile.”

Indeed this aspiration still rings true today for EARS counselors, where, according to Shortall, “not a day goes by that counselors don’t receive someone coming in the door or calling on the phone who really needed to talk to a peer.”

“Everyone struggles with stress, but they should not struggle on their own — they should know that someone is there to support them and listen to them if they need someone to talk to,” said a current EARS counselor.

In celebration of their 45-year anniversary, EARS will be holding a party on Friday from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. at its office at 213 Willard Straight Hall.