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.