August 26, 2021

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: RE: “EARS Returns, Providing Mentoring Instead of Counseling”

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To the Editor:

This fall, Cornell’s Empathy, Assistance, and Referral Service (EARS) will launch its newly reimagined model. Last February, the University’s Office of Risk Management determined that EARS is no longer able to offer peer counseling. Since then, we have worked tirelessly with Cornell administrators, advisors, EARS members, alumni and other key stakeholders to reimagine the future of our organization. After months of crafting a new model of peer support and outreach, we, as the Co-Presidents, along with the rest of the EARS Executive Board are thrilled to finally share the future of EARS with the campus community.

As we made changes to our service model, we looked at the most effective ways to serve Cornellians. Before folks even seek out counseling services or their mental health reaches the point of crisis, many simply look for a place to be heard, to process and to connect. EARS has never been a crisis service and with our new partnership with the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, we are better equipped to connect individuals in crisis and those seeking clinical care to the appropriate resources. This allows us to redirect our energy toward ensuring that EARS continues to offer non-crisis, individualized peer support. After all, that’s what we’re here for.

We’re most excited to share our Peer Mentoring service. It’s free, in-person and there are no appointments necessary. Peer mentoring covers various topics (e.g., adjusting to college/grad school, social connections, stress) at several locations across campus. 

At first glance, this may sound similar to our former services; however, there are key differences between “Peer Mentoring” and “Peer Counseling” in terms of relationship, focus and scope. This change is not just semantic. By shifting to Peer Mentoring, we hope to remove the implicit power dynamic in a “counselor-client” relationship. We are your peers and hope you can feel more comfortable with us now that the formal titles are gone. If you need counseling, we’ll refer you to professional resources.

As Peer Mentors, we’ll have casual, unstructured conversations that better support our intended audience: the Cornell student body. In line with other fundamental changes, EARS is dropping its anonymity policy. We’ll be publishing photos, bios and drop-in hours for our members on our website so that you can get to know our student-peers. You can look for mentors you feel connected to, which will hopefully make your time with us more valuable.

In addition to Peer Mentoring, we’ve created two new roles to better serve communities on campus and bring our peer support “closer to home.” First, we will be offering students the opportunity to train and become an “Empathy Chair”. An Empathy Chair is a visible and trusted member within a student group––club, organization, athletic team, residence hall––who promotes the core EARS skills of active listening, empathy and well-being. Empathy Chairs will be at the forefront of mental health advocacy. They will ensure that any student can find a warm and welcoming community within their respective group(s) while actively promoting resources for well-being. To be certified as an Empathy Chair, you will need to complete one semester of EARS training (offered every semester) and a brief orientation. We will be offering our first training for Empathy Chairs in the Fall of 2021, and piloting the program in the Spring of 2022.

The second role is “EARS Liaison” which carries out the same responsibilities as an Empathy Chair. They are active EARS members who will serve a community without an Empathy Chair. EARS Liaisons will “fill in the gaps” and ensure that the mission of EARS is as wide-ranging and inclusive as possible. We’ll be piloting the EARS Liaison service in the Fall of 2021.

These changes reflect EARS’ commitment to embed empathy into the Cornell student body. We hope they will allow us to do so in a manner that was more meaningful, diverse, and community-based than before. Our services will be found in more locations; our training program can attract and uplift more diverse voices; and our members can further enhance their peer support and outreach skills through additional educational opportunities. In the end, EARS hopes to revolutionize the culture of mental health on campus.

We envision a not-so-distant future where student organizations, sports teams and residence halls have at least one person who can support others with empathy and Peer Mentorship. In this way, mental health and well-being can become more mainstream and less stigmatized across Cornell’s diverse population––breaking down cultural barriers in the process.

How can you support these ambitious goals? Come by Peer Mentorship hours and chat with someone who gets what you’re going through. Sign-up for EARS training and become a Peer Mentor, Liaison, Empathy Chair––or just become a better listener––we’d love to have you! But most importantly, recognize that the EARS mission to spread empathy and connection is one that starts and continues with each of us. In the end, it’s up to us to help grow the mission of EARS. And with the outpouring of support from the Cornell community we’ve received thus far, we have no doubt that it will.

Benjamin Lederman ‘23 and Felisha Li ‘21

EARS Co-Presidents