Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service is a student organization that promotes training, workshops and peer mentoring to improve mental health on campus. The group implemented new services in fall 2021 to promote mental health amid several structural and operational changes. These were necessary as Cornell’s Office of Risk Management determined that EARS peer counseling was not covered under the University’s general liability insurance.
In February 2021, Cornell Personnel Administration suspended the peer counseling service indefinitely and gave the organization a mandate to rework its peer support programs to ensure responsible services.
According to Ben Feldman ’24, the Reimagine Task Force chair of EARS, proactivity was required to reimagine EARS and build new mental health initiatives.
“The entirety of this past summer was spent doing exactly that: Pioneering a new model for peer support,” Feldman said. “It’s a more proactive posture that we’re taking, which is part of the reason why EARS dropped its anonymity policy this year in an effort to make ourselves more visible in the community as advocates of mental health.”
Both EARS and the mental health advocacy group Cornell Minds Matter transitioned from a place within the Office of the Dean of Students’ Care and Crisis Services to Cornell Health’s Skorton Center for Health Initiatives during the spring 2021 semester.
EARS developed a new Peer Mentors program and created new Empathy Chairs, a workshop series that trains individuals in a course on the basics of empathy and active listening, which they will use to support communities on campus.
Patrick Mehler ’23, empathy chair trainee and Sun Columnist, appreciated the skills in empathy and creating safe environments for students that he had gained during his time with EARS.
“Completing the EARS Empathy Chair program was an incredibly eye-opening and informative process,” Mehler said. “I learned so much from the EARS staff about how we can be more empathetic in our organizations and create safe spaces for all Cornellians to share what’s going on in their lives.”
In addition to the growth of new EARS programs, there have been challenges with structural design. Feldman described several difficulties with space and training.
“In addition to training an entire new class of trainees, we had to retrain our staff members in this new model,” Feldman said. Feldman also discussed the logistical challenges EARS had to overcome, including finding a new space for its operations.
EARS offers drop-in peer mentoring during the spring 2022 semester. They now have increased their service hours and are located in Willard Straight Hall, rooms 604 and 605.