As a Cornell alumnus, it grieves me to hear that Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service will no longer offer peer counseling, given Cornell’s general liability insurance does not cover peer counseling. Although I graduated five years ago, I cannot imagine that the importance of empathetic listening and training has diminished, especially given the COVID pandemic.
I first came to Cornell for the 2012 Revisit Weekend, in the shadow of a series of student deaths. The campus was subdued, with upperclassmen whispering furtively behind the excited faces of the admitted students. Black metal fences lined the bridges between North and Central campuses –– a brutal daily reminder of fragility of life and importance of mental health.
I joined EARS as a freshman and ultimately became an EARS counselor and trainer. We believe in “any person, any issue.” Everyone matters — period. EARS focuses on education, empathy and empowerment. EARS teaches people to listen empathetically so they may be empowered to help themselves and others. EARS is never meant to be the sole beacon of mental health care at Cornell. Instead, it collaborates with Gannett Health Services, Counseling and Psychological Services, Care and Crisis Services, crisis hotlines and so many more organizations to provide a comprehensive safety net for Cornell students and staff. EARS is meant for the front line: offering peer counseling, with the understanding to refer and escalate care as needed for safety and support.
If the well-being of Cornellians is not significant enough by itself, then consider the immeasurable amazing things EARS-supported and EARS-trained Cornellians do out in the world. I do not know the exact number of individuals who utilize EARS (training and/or counseling) or what those individuals do after leaving Cornell, but I would say a significant number of us were inspired to serve and have dedicated ourselves to service.
EARS fundamentally shaped my Cornell experience: I built lifelong friendship, learned empathetic listening and self-care, and reaffirmed my dedication to serve. As a resident physician at the front lines of the COVID pandemic, I have staffed the intensive care unit, where I transferred more patients to the morgue than to other parts of the hospital.
Medical school taught me the medical knowledge needed to treat patients, but EARS gave me the mental fortitude and empathetic skills to communicate with patients and their loved ones in the face of despair and death. And at the end of the work shift, it is the strong emphasis of self-care by EARS that reminds me to take care of myself so I may continue taking care of others.
I would strongly urge Cornell administration to reconsider and reassess its decision on peer counseling. The well-being of Cornellians is of the utmost importance, above politics and finance. Cornell is my beloved alma mater. While Cornell may not always have my unconditional support, it will always have my unconditional love. And it is this love that beseeched me to advocate for the well-being of my fellow Cornellians.
As Samuel Beckett wrote in Unnamable, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” To my fellow Cornellians — no matter what happens with EARS and peer counseling, remember: even Ithacan blizzards must give way to spring.
Kristin Hsieh is a member of the Class of 2016 and a former EARS counselor.