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Color Blind Mentoring

Back in March, when the University was reeling from three undergraduate suicides in the span of a month, President Skorton made certain that students "knew how to ask for help". Meanwhile, the alumni body, frazzled and frayed by such tragic news, went to work brainstorming possible remedies for the Cornell community.

So an expansion of one of our school's little gems of a program might be in the cards given the tragedies of the spring. The Alumni-Student Mentoring Program offers:

to create personal and professional relationships between current students and alumni mentors, who act as role models and provide guidance to the undergraduates. Our belief is that a close and continuous connection with an alumnus will help in the recruitment, retention, graduation and overall success of the students that choose to participate in the program. Students who choose to have a mentor will learn about coping with, and succeeding in, life at Cornell and beyond from alumni who themselves have shared that experience with all its challenges and all its promise.

Sounds like a good program, no? There's only one small problem:

African American, Asian American, Latino, and Native American first year students are particularly encouraged to participate.

Not only that, but it doesn't appear that the program does any recruiting of students or alumni outside of these ethnic groups. It's pretty telling that myself, a pretty engaged alumnus who works a lot with admissions, alumni affairs, and various other on-campus departments has not once received any correspondence about this program.* And that includes an exhaustive search of my email archives back to 2004.

Now, I can understand why the program may have originally started as being geared towards ethnic minorities -- on average students from those backgrounds probably could benefit from a mentor more than the average white student.

But that's not to say that a white student from an impoverished background, a broken home, or dealing with certain other issues (e.g. homosexuality, academic stress, or feeling out of place on campus) couldn't have a strong need for an alumni mentor as well.

After all, it was three white students who took their own lives this spring.

Not that I should directly tie the lack of this program for white students to the tragedies of this spring. That's a bit unfair. But it's fairly unfortunate that an ostensibly great program -- one that has the potential to build a lot of good will among alumni and to improve the Cornell experience for students -- isn't color blind.

*N.B. For those of you who think I am Asian, that surname at the bottom of the blog post is Polish-Catholic. Not Japanese.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on July 17, 2010 (#)

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