Cornell’s nearly 50-year-old Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service (EARS) will begin offering a new model of support this fall, including peer mentoring, training and outreach. It also aims to integrate trained student mentors into diverse communities across campus.
The shift follows the Office of Risk Management’s February determination that while EARS – a student-led organization founded in 1972 – could continue its training and outreach work, it could no longer offer peer counseling.
“This served as a wake-up call for our organization,” said Ben Lederman ’23, EARS co-president. “EARS was never just about peer counseling, but we needed to expand our outreach and make our peer-to-peer model more applicable to everyday conversations.”
The shift from “peer counselor” to “peer mentor” is not just semantic. It represents a significant change to the nature of support EARS students can provide, and the manner in which the support is delivered.
These changes will result in more balanced power dynamics between students; mentorship that will be available only to Cornell students; and a focus on listening, empathy and exploration of resources. Rather than offering structured counseling sessions, peer mentors will address topics common to the student experience, such as adjusting to college or graduate school, dealing with stress and making social connections.
Another important shift is the end to the history of anonymity among EARS members. Positioned as visible role models, peer mentors will engage in casual, supportive conversations. Publicly sharing their EARS involvement, rather than remaining anonymous, will increase mentors’ visibility as role models and advocates for student mental health, and reduce stigma around seeking help, support and connection, EARS leaders said.
“I’m proud of the way the EARS students have stepped up and made these necessary changes,” said Abi Dubovi, mental health promotion program coordinator in the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, and staff adviser to EARS. “The new model will allow EARS members to meet students where they are, build peer relationships and integrate EARS-trained students into diverse communities on campus.”
In addition to the peer mentor positions, EARS will pilot two additional positions this fall – empathy chairs and liaisons. These positions will expand the organization’s outreach to Cornell undergraduate, graduate and professional student communities.
By promoting and embedding empathy, support and listening skills within highly visible, accessible and diverse spaces, EARS hopes to have a broader, community-based impact to support campus culture change, EARS leaders said.
“This is an opportunity to grow and adapt to the needs of the community by integrating ourselves directly into the very structure of student life,” said Angella Lee ’23, a member of the EARS community board.
Empathy chairs will be visible and trusted members of existing student groups on campus, such as clubs and teams, who will serve as point persons for promoting effective listening, empathy, communication and well-being. They will work to ensure that students can find a sense of belonging within their respective groups, and will actively promote well-being resources.
EARS liaisons will be current EARS members who can help provide resources for peer listening, empathy and well-being to student groups that would like to incorporate this leadership role, but don’t have a member who has completed the requisite training to be an empathy chair.
The reimagined EARS model supports several of the key areas and recommendations identified in Cornell’s Mental Health Review, including promoting social connectedness and resilience and encouraging people in need to seek help.
Sharon McMullen, assistant vice president of student and campus life for health and well-being, said the new EARS model can be a positive force for change on campus.
“The final report of the Mental Health Review underscores the need for significant culture change at Cornell,” said McMullen, who serves on the Executive Accountability Committee for the Mental Health Review. “The new EARS model aims to expand outreach and social connection to students with diverse interests, backgrounds and identities, including those with identities that have been marginalized. It also offers concrete opportunities for student organizations to support campus-based student resilience, social connection and help-seeking efforts. This kind of active engagement is exactly what our campus needs at this time.”
“EARS has been on the front lines of working to improve mental health in the Cornell community for 49 years,” said Ben Feldman ’22, EARS’ Reimagine Task Force chair. “Now, with a mandate to reimagine the services we provide, we’re more determined than ever to adapt and serve our peers.”
EARS will continue offering training and workshops in active listening, empathy and communication skills to the campus community. Through its peer mentoring, training, outreach and student leadership-development programs, EARS will continue fostering empathy, advocating for mental health and well-being, and ensuring that any student can find connections at Cornell.
“Our new model is just the beginning,” Lederman said. “As we see more and more people reaching out to our peer mentors and training to support others, I truly believe we’ll begin to see the advancements that many have been hoping for.”
Jennifer Austin is director of communications for Cornell Health.