March 2, 2021

GUEST ROOM | E is for Empathy: A Reintroduction to EARS

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Last week, the University announced that Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service would no longer offer peer counseling, as this kind of service is not insured by the University. EARS, however, will still continue as an organization, though now without the peer counseling service that we are best known for.

Confusion, outrage, disappointment and dozens of questions like “Why?” and “How?” and “How do we fix it?” spread over Zoom calls, Facebook posts and even Reddit threads after the news broke. These responses are understandable. After all, how do you reconcile a peer counseling organization with no peer counseling? Or, as one Cornell Redditor put it, “Isn’t peer counseling the whole point of EARS?”

And to this Redditor and anyone else wondering, what I say is this: EARS is more than peer counseling. EARS, at its heart, is about empowerment, empathy and community. Our mission is to empower our peers to create a more empathetic community at Cornell. We provided peer counseling not just for the sake of having peer counseling or just because we liked to sit across from you on the blue EARS room couch asking, “What do you want to talk about today?” (although I did love it; peer counseling changed my life). 

We do this work because we believe that everyone deserves to have a space at Cornell where they can be heard without judgement and with empathy. In my three years with EARS, first as a trainee, then staff, and now as a co-executive coordinator, I’ve seen — over and over again —  how EARS makes space for people to be a bit more human (and messy, and kind and open) and a bit less alone. EARS is an assurance that there are people here — people who you might not know, but who are in your classes and clubs and teams, and who you pass by every day — who want you to have someone you can lean on. EARS is an affirmation of caring for your community.

Two years ago, even before the strain of the pandemic, 42 percent of students were unable to function academically for at least a week due to depression, stress or anxiety. A sense of community is not the entire remedy to the systemic mental health issues we see on our campus  — however, a sense of community is a key factor in mental wellbeing, as it can provide belonging, support and purpose. Whether or not we want to talk about it, Cornell is a place where we need community — where we need to have people we can lean on, just as others need to lean on us sometimes. That’s not changing any time soon. 

So our mission remains. EARS still has work to do to foster empathy and community — and we still have the hard-earned skills and knowledge to do it — so we will figure out how to do it without peer counseling. Our trainings and workshops for students, staff and faculty will continue, just as we find new ways to empower students in fostering empathy and community. That’s the commitment we’ve made to ourselves, to one another and to the Cornell community.

Which brings me to a complicated question. Is EARS just giving up on peer counseling? 

In short, no. 

As the University looks into academic policy, mental health infrastructure and other critical structural changes, it must also invest in students as key collaborators and agents of change. University backing of peer-to-peer support programs can encourage students “to create a culture of caring and protection on college campuses,” some experts say. This very same cultural change is the basis of Cornell’s Mental Health Review, whose final report asserts how critical a “campus wide, public health approach to student mental health” can be. Peer counseling is a powerful tool that can do exactly this. 

If you want to see this investment in peer counseling — if you believe, like we do, that peer counseling still has a place at Cornell — then please show your support by signing our petition and sharing your opinion via this form. Bringing back peer counseling will take time and community support. The Cornell community has leaned on EARS, now EARS leans on you. 

Our mission persists. Our work continues. As long as there is a need for empathy and community on this campus, there is EARS.

Jeannie Yamazaki is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a co-executive coordinator for EARS. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com.