Bridging the Counseling Gap

Help for Troubled Students Should Also Come From Within the Houses

As much as we might wish it were, Harvard is generally not a warm and fuzzy place. While friendly and good advising and support services can be found at Harvard, they are the exception and not the rule.

Much of that is by choice. Many professors teach here instead of at smaller schools because of the freedom and anonymity Harvard offers. Whereas students at small, liberal arts schools often pride themselves on being able to baby-sit for their professors' kids, I've talked to professors who came here precisely to avoid that kind of after-hours involvement.

Many students choose Harvard over small liberal arts college like Amherst or even smaller Ivies like Princeton because they see Harvard as more of a real-world experience than these boarding-school-like country idylls. The students are right, to a great extent. Administrators and house officials will not baby you here, or even pay you much attention, aside from sending you letters if your study card is late or if you have not completed your graduation requirements. Many if not most students at Harvard relish that nearly total independence.

But in the past week, Harvard's Iaissez-faire attitude toward its students has been called seriously into question. With the murder by Sinedu Tadesse '96 of fellow junior Dunster House resident Trang Phuong Ho '96 and Tadesse's subsequent suicide, students and usually implacable administrators at the College have found themselves asking difficult questions:

Why did Tadesse stab Ho 45 times, why did she hang herself afterward and most important, why did it happen at Harvard?

Tadesse has carried the answer to the first two questions to her grave. As much as we may speculate, we will likely never know her motives.

But the third question deserves intense scrutiny, for it brings up the idea of prevention: there is no way Harvard can absolutely prevent anything like Tadesse's murder-suicide from occurring in the future--and it is impossible to say whether Harvard could have prevented the murder itself--but College administrators can make sure Harvard's existing institutions provide students with more support.

That support is most important close to home-in this case, in the 12 undergraduate houses.

Each house has close to 20 residential tutors living on the same floors as the students and eating in the same dining halls. But with the exception of some prominent tutors in each house, many students say they never see their residential tutors and say their tutors hardly know their names.

Admittedly, tutors have lives of their own. Many are enrolled in demanding medical, law, business or other graduate school programs that require much of their time. But if they know their year will be too hectic, they should not accept appointments as tutors.

Tutors should hold study breaks for their tutees once a week or twice a month and make appointments to meet with each tutee once or twice a semester. Tutors should know by talking with students what their concentrations and their extracurriculars are, and they should have an idea of what students are thinking of doing after college. Even if tutors know these details through transcripts or folders, if they do not communicate with the student, that knowledge is useless.

By establishing their presence in this way, tutors would at least make themselves available to students who wanted to talk. It is discuss academic or personal problems.

The common argument having tutors reach out more to students is simple: Harvard students don't want help.

"If we know that a student is having a particularly difficult time,..we try to make sure we're around," says Hiteshkumar M. Hathi, assistant senior tutor at Cabot House. "But it's a fine line. You don't want to be pushy. It's their life."

Of course, it is their life. Students at Harvard are legal adults, with the accompanying rights. But when students enter Harvard, they experience an extensive advising system through their first-year proctors. During their sophomore year, unless they concentrate in a particularly friendly department, they have little or no advising. That huge drop in advising between the first and second year is bound to take its toll on students who would like a little more guidance but don't want to ask for it.

Many Harvard students, as invulnerable as they may seem, do have issues they would like to talk about with someone removed from the everyday routine of their life. But there is a big difference between thinking that talking to an adult about academic and personal issues might be nice, and actually seeking out an adult with whom to talk. At Harvard, finding a tutor, professor or teaching fellow with whom to discuss your life is often more a matter of luck than of any institutional advising structure.

As a result, instead of seeking out adults for advice, students often to fellow students. That is healthy and as it should be. But when I was talking with friends the other day, we all noticed that a lot of people at Harvard, even the nicest ones, don't always have time to listen to your day. Often, we're all so caught up writing our next paper or finishing our latest extracurricular task that, even when we really want to listen to a friend, we end up half-listening while making a mental list of everything we have to do.

Of course, this doesn't apply to times when friends call with a pressing problem. Then, we drop everything and listen. But that only happens once in a while, and in the meantime, we go back to thinking about the next duty we must fulfill.

Some students do seek out counseling through UHS or the Bureau of Study Counsel, but because Harvard is such a high-powered, intense place where self-reliance is the highest virtue, saying you've sought counseling can be perceived as a sign of weakness.

"No matter how diverse the population at the Bureau of Study Counsel or UHS [University Health Services] may be, there are always going to be people, even middle-American folks who feel that going to seek help is not something you do," said Alexandra Barcus, Lowell House senior tutor for six years. "That used to be very much the idea, that you never went to a psychiatrist."

One well-adjusted adult I have spoken with at Harvard said she has gone to counseling at points but have never mentioned it among colleagues because it would be a stigma.

For Harvard students, it is also a stigma. After all, few people tell their roommates or even their closest friends if they go to Room 13, ECHO or Response. It defies the Harvard image of the flawless, utterly capable person who balances extracurriculars, academics, friendships and romance with ease and finesse.

It would be difficult for Harvard to make the idea counseling less shameful, due to the nature of Harvard students. But with a stronger support system in the houses, perhaps fewer students would need to seek counseling, or at least they would be reassured by tutors that counseling is acceptable and then referred to a capable professional.

The discussion of a stronger support system in the houses is not complete without a mention of the increasing numbers of mental illness cases at Harvard.

"We have many more in the College [now] who are living with illness," said Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III at an information meeting Thursday about the Dunster House murder-suicide.. "Having more people in care carries a risk."

To lessen that risk, the College should make sure that these students living with documented mental illness have extra attention paid to their needs. Tutors should set up appointments with them and keep in contact with the students' psychiatrists or doctors.

It is cruel, useless and maybe false to say that more attention to students in the houses could have prevented last week's deaths.

As Barcus says, "My understanding from UHS and so forth is that the people who are most bent on suicide are going to be very sure nobody knows about it, because if they let anyone know they'll be stopped."

Tadesse may well have been one of those people. But in the future, the College could do more to help students at points along the way. By emphasizing the importance of a support system in the houses, College administrators could at least try to avert further tragedies.