Less than a month after Cornell announced that Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service peer counseling will not return, over 600 students, faculty, staff and alumni have signed a petition to bring back this resource that many Cornellians adore.
According to co-executive coordinator Felisha Li ’22, EARS started this petition after the outpouring of public support the organization received in the wake of the University’s announcement.
“We are hoping to build a basis for bringing peer counseling back,” Li said. “With our petition we have also made space for folks to share their stories about why they value peer counseling or how it has impacted their lives.”
According to the University, the Office of Risk Management and Insurance recently determined that the University’s insurance does not cover peer counseling. EARS co-executive coordinator Jeannie Yamazaki ’21 said she hopes that EARS can work with the University to work through this challenge, but added that public support is essential to push Cornell to reinsure peer counseling.
As EARS staff consider what to do next, Li said they have formed teams to research and strategize, working to better understand the insurance and liability issues that informed the University’s decision.
Li added that EARS staff also plan to connect with peer counseling programs at other universities and with Cornell alumni. Yamazaki and Li said they hope peer counseling organizations at other universities may offer guidance about how to move forward, including how these organizations are insured and supervised.
Though University data indicates that only a small percentage of Cornell students have used EARS peer counseling in recent years, Li said she believes that this may in part be due to difficulties promoting phone-based counseling during the fall.
“Looking at the public’s response to the news, and also just the responses from this petition, it really felt like this data [the University’s numbers] does not reflect the current need for peer counseling,” Li said.
Li said she believes that peer counseling could alleviate the strain on Cornell’s mental health resources, especially as the pandemic has worsened existing mental health challenges for college students.
“With the abundance of mental health issues we currently have, it understandably puts a strain on the limited resources our school currently does offer for mental health,” Li said. “Peer counseling could help alleviate some of that need.”
Nnaemeka Nwankpa ’22, co-chair of Black Students United, is one of the students who has signed the petition. Nwankpa said he sees peer counseling as an important resource for student mental health at Cornell, and has referred peers to EARS in the past.
“Many students are able to be a lot more comfortable around their peers, around people who look more like them,” Nwankpa said. “Eliminating or reducing that avenue for students to pursue, I feel like it’s kind of counterproductive in a sense.”
As EARS staff work to find a way to go back to counseling, they also continue to train students in empathetic listening skills and run outreach workshops focused on empathy, connection and community, including upcoming workshops with the Learning Strategies Center and with the Cornell Veterinary School Wellbeing Committee, Li said.
“Every single group that we do a workshop with, we tailor the workshops to them and we ask them what are your goals, what do you want out of this,” Yamazaki said. “We’re always learning from our peers. The people who we’re working with know best what they need for their community.”
As EARS advocates to bring back the counseling services that aim to support its mission to empower students to create a more empathetic Cornell, Li said she appreciates the support they have received from fellow students and the broader community.
“We are leaning back on our community now more than ever,” Li said. “We hope people continue to have faith in us as we move forward not just with the EARS mission, but also with bringing back an important piece of our work.”