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John Harvard's Journal

Help Wanted

5.1.99

When undergraduates heard that Dean of the College Harry Lewis '68 was forming a student-faculty committee to examine the advising and counseling system, a common reaction was, "It's about time." Many of us have complained grumpily-to each other in conversation and to the University in various surveys-that academic advising and personal support services at Harvard are not what they should be. Some students bemoan the indifference or inaccessibility of their departmental academic adviser; others complain that their House lacks a resident tutor in their concentration; many resent the abrupt transition from the proctorial coddling of freshman year to the comparatively harsh world of upperclass independence. At one time or another, I have voiced all of these laments-sometimes with mature objectivity, more often with plaintive undertones of self-pity, as in, "Doesn't anybody at this school care about me?"

To fully understand the logic of the College's existing support structure, one must first appreciate a basic tenet of the Harvard philosophy: students are expected to take the initiative in seeking out what they want or need. If I had a dollar for every time I heard some version of, "Harvard has the best resources anywhere, but it's up to you to take advantage of them," four years of tuition would have been squared away by the end of sophomore year. Although this attitude certainly has merit-how else, after all, will we be prepared to enter the "real world?"-student experience suggests it may be of somewhat limited utility where advising and counseling are concerned. As Thomas Dingman '67, associate dean for human resources and House life, confirms, "Harvard has tremendous advising resources in terms of the people and the money that is made available. But do I think it's hugely successful? No. Do I think it's successful? I'm not sure."

In theory, there are many places within the official College structure where students can turn for academic and personal advice on unsettling issues like roommate tension, career concerns, sexual identity, and depression. For freshmen, the most obvious and accessible resource is the proctor, usually a graduate student, who resides in their entryway. For upperclassmen, the support structure is more diffuse-an academic adviser from their department, resident tutors in the Houses, and sometimes additional advisers who may or may not have interests similar to their advisee's, or even be affiliated with the student's House. Counseling services are available at the Bureau of Study Counsel (BSC) and at University Health Services (UHS), where professionals are on call to assist students with problems ranging from chronic procrastination to eating disorders and date rape.

Still, the mere existence of resources does not ensure their effectiveness, user-friendliness, or utilization. Robert Wolinsky '97, one of the students on Lewis's committee, worries that "There are a significant number of students who don't feel they have anyone to turn to if they are having difficulties or need advice." Moreover, there may be some circumstances in which it is unrealistic to expect students to seek out help for themselves, as Noah Freeman '98 suggests. "Technically, there are people to go to if you have a problem," he says. "But the fact is, if you're really depressed, you're not going to be opening up the Handbook for Students to see who would be the best person to talk to. The problem with this system is that it is based on the premise that you have to ask for help."

Asking for help can be especially difficult for Harvard students, who are often hesitant to forsake their image of omnicompetence. "Many students think they have gotten here by showing how perfect they are," says Dean of Freshmen Elizabeth Studley Nathans. "They practice this very hard and get very good at it, but when they get here, we tell them that it is much more mature to go and get help, and that's a very difficult transition for people to make." One of Nathans's goals for her office's advising staff is to prepare freshmen to assume more responsibility and achieve more independence as upperclassmen.

Yet, perhaps inevitably, many sophomores feel suddenly abandoned in a strange new departmental and House world. Gone is the proctor, the person who (ideally) checked up on your personal and academic progress regularly and was ultimately accountable for your well-being. In his or her place are a sometimes confusing array of tutors and advisers, all of whom are theoretically at your disposal, but none of whom necessarily take a genuine interest in your life in its entirety. "There really isn't any big difference between freshmen and sophomores," says Freeman. "But once you become a sophomore, you're out on your own." Freeman would prefer an upperclass advising system that offered "a somewhat deintensified proctorial experience, in order to give upperclassmen more latitude [than freshmen] while maintaining the presence of someone who knows the student well enough to advise him or her effectively."

The upperclass advising system is far from uniform: its structure, and presumably its effectiveness, vary from department to department and House to House. Harvard's ethos of decentralization ("Every tub on its own bottom") reigns supreme in the House system. Whereas freshman advising and residential life is overseen directly by the Freshman Dean's Office, with Dean Nathans and her staff meticulously matching roommates and proctors before fall term begins and determining Yard policy throughout the year, in the individual Houses, the masters have considerable latitude in shaping the advising and counseling structure. As a result, methods for selecting, training, and evaluating resident and nonresident tutors vary widely. Currently, the only College-wide tutor training is a one-day orientation in September; Houses are free to determine what further training, if any, their staff receives. One of Dean Lewis's goals for his committee is to establish what he calls a level of "minimum expectation" for the House advising system, so that tutors understand their responsibilities and students know what to expect of them.

Tutors' comments suggest they would welcome a more explicit role definition. Alvin Tillery, a government and fellowships tutor in Adams House, remarks that social scientist James Q. Wilson's notion of "street-level discretion" epitomizes the tutors' role. "Tutors have an idea of what their goals in their job should be, but when it comes down to actually fulfilling the goals, meeting the criteria of the job description, you're often unsure what you're supposed to be doing."

Student involvement and input will be crucial to improving the advising and counseling system in a meaningful way, as Lewis recognizes. "Students know best where the shortcomings and successes of the advising system are," says Robert Hyman '98, president of the Undergraduate Council. "It seems integral that students give the committee their sense of what advising is like for them and for their housemates and friends."

The committee might also have something to learn from another student source-peer counseling organizations. These groups, which are supervised by professionals at UHS and BSC, offer overnight hotlines and evening drop-in hours for students who seek a sympathetic listener. As Jeremy Vander Weele '96, a peer counselor for Room 13, points out, "Peer counseling is unique in that people can talk to someone whom they don't know...there's a level of anonymity that you don't have with a tutor." As a result, peer counselors are privy to the wide range of problems and situations students encounter in their personal lives-an important perspective to share with the committee.

Peer counselors' intensive week-long training process might also serve as an example for tutor orientation, suggests Nadja Gould, a UHS clinical social worker who oversees the peer counseling groups. "I think training for tutors should be at least as demanding as that for peer counselors, and it isn't," she says. "Tutors need to be trained in basic listening skills, to know how to identify depression, to know about how to approach someone they think may be in danger of hurting themselves or others." Gould herself is one of the professional counselors affiliated with specific dorms and Houses; she is available to answer questions from masters and tutors as well as to counsel individual students.

But would more undergraduates consult better-trained advisers? As Room 13 counselor Cricket Sheppard-Sawyer '97 observes, "There are lots of stigmas attached to seeking help, including the fact that people are often concerned that something will be put on their record that will cause them trouble later on." And as Dean Nathans acknowledges, individual variability is difficult to eliminate. "We can put systems in place that make good advising possible," she says, "but in the end, good advising comes down to how one person interacts with another person." Still, there is undoubtedly a consensus among students and administrators that the system is in need of re-evaluation. Whether that means fundamental restructuring or just tinkering around the margins may depend upon whether the model of student as independent seeker of help is realistic when help means personal support.

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