On the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirteenth Street E., in front of the New School University Center, two metal folding chairs are facing each other. On the back of the empty chair is a piece of printer paper that reads “Parsons Professor: Free Advice.” On the other side of the empty chair sits Roger Stevens, a sculptor and part-time professor at Parsons.
Stephens sits in front of the University of California twice a week and gives free tips to any student at the new school who takes a seat opposite him. Stevens, a former student at the new school himself, had given his permission to the students via Zoom when classes were moved online. When students and faculty returned to campus, he decided about halfway through the semester to continue delivering sessions in person.
“When we went away, it bothered us a lot,” Stevens said. “I was watching my kids struggle in high school, in an enclosed space, and these kids [my students] Really struggled.”
He recalled receiving phone calls from his students asking for guidance — whether they should take an intermission year, whether they should transfer, and other questions about school-related topics. During these phone calls, Stevens would do his best to offer advice based on his own experience as a student at the new school, his role as a teacher and his insight as a father — and that’s how his “advising professor” began, he said.
After meeting with a former student outside the university center one day in August, Stevens decided to see if other students around the university could use his advice as well.
“I sat here with one of my new students who was me [hadn’t] Seen in 2 years – he’s a beginner now. We started talking, and he was talking about being a trendsetter, the pros and cons [and] Stevens said. “While we were here, I was like, ‘You know, I’ll sit down as soon as we finish talking, and see if anyone [else] He wants to talk to.”
He took out a piece of printer paper and a pen from his bag, put the sign on the back of the chair, and immediately the people sat down and started talking to him.
Half of the people who sat started crying, they seemed to be fine[ed] Stevens said. “Everyone needed someone to listen, which I mostly did. I don’t know if I was qualified to give any real advice, but at least they seemed to be responding.”
After that first day, he realized how important his counseling sessions were to the students, and decided to make it a weekly event. Stevens sits in his chair every Wednesday and Friday during the two-hour period between his classes, waiting for students to come and go.
“People sit down and I say ‘What’s up? Almost all of them are like, What are you doing? Like, free advice? I [ask], ‘Yeah what’s up?’ Then within minutes or seconds it just turns on, and they just talk,” Stevens said.
He listens to each student – often with a queue of people waiting – and talks about what they want, academically or personally. There is no time limit for the conversation. Students are free to say what they want and continue to do so for as long as they feel they need to.
“It seems that there is [a few] Stevens said. “A general sense of anxiety among freshmen about being in New York City, being in school, [and] Having trouble socializing – especially with wearing masks. After an 18 month period of not really seeing anyone, [some ask] How do you adapt to the world? [with other] human beings.”
Then there are the students on the other end of the spectrum, Stevens said, “…the senior students who are about to graduate like, ‘I’m not ready, I don’t know what to do for a living.’” I don’t know how to start. “
Students often come to Stevens to discuss problems in their classrooms, problems with roommates or significant others and how to deal with the ongoing pandemic. Sometimes, when a student deals with Stevens with a heavier subject, he encourages him to turn to a more qualified specialist.
“I am a first pass, perhaps, in broadcasting some of their issues,” he said.
Stephens’ more formal and discreet setup—compared to a licensed therapist—may be integral to his appeal and eventual usefulness to the new school student body. Stevens believes that his sidewalk desk provides an opportunity for empathy and communication that is more comfortable and easier than talking with a professional.
“It’s not a 30-minute therapy session,” Stevens said. “No one takes notes on it.” “They seem quite comfortable.”
She was standing in line to chat with Stevens, a first-year student at Lang, who said she felt she needed someone to talk to about the mental health issues she was struggling with.
“I already know what I should do deep down, but I just need someone to tell me,” said the student, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss personal matters. “It sounds silly but that’s the way my brain works.”
Stevens is not intended to replace a licensed professional, however, and does provide another option for students to talk about their struggles. The process of speaking with a counselor through Student Health Services at the new school comes with much more steps and a longer waiting period than speaking with Stevens. In the meantime, outpatient treatment can be expensive and not covered by all health insurances.
During Stevens’ interview with Free Press The New SchoolA pair of students approached the professor. The pair – both his former students – took a second to stop and talk to Stevens.
One student, third-year illustrator and illustrator at Free Press Stevens “was very personal with everyone and was really able to attend to everyone’s needs” in the class, Michael Shukron said.
Chakroun said Stevens would be teaching the entire class, which was held over Zoom, while standing, because he often showed a passion for the subject and a dedication to his students. Once, after a student showed an interest in graffiti, Stevens gave an entire lecture on the subject, Chakroun said.
“He was well informed and always there for you if you need more information [on the subject]Choukroun said.
He was not shocked to learn that Stevens was advising students outside the University of California.
“No [surprise me]Shaqroun said. “His eccentricity mixed with his ability to be there just for the sake of the students… I am not at all surprised.”
Many students who took a class with Professor Parsons still seek his advice. Stevens said former students network a lot and look for career advice or simply guidance in navigating their young lives.
“I love the fact that these kids — and they were kids when they came — [are] They are now starting their careers and still care about calling the teacher,” Stevens said. “I would love to be there for them. I wish I had someone like this.”
Stevens noted the differing relationships between professors and students when he joined Parsons from 1994 to 1999.
“When I went here, most of the teachers showed up, they taught and they went,” Stevens said. “The idea of having a mentor never crossed my mind. Now that I’m an adult and see how hard it is to become an artist, I have a lot to share.”
Stevens views each of his students as more than just someone developing a semester-long fling. He said he wanted to be there for them as long as they needed, or whenever they needed – an asset at their disposal.
“It makes you invest a lot because I’m not thinking ‘Well, I’ve been with this guy for three months, one semester, and I’m never going to see them again,'” Stevens said. I tell them ‘You can use my email, I’m your tutor for life. You don’t have to tell me, but just so you know, I’ll always be glad to hear from you.’
A queue formed in front of Stevens’ chair as he met him, and everyone in the line was looking forward to talking to him. At least one student was waiting to see Stevens a second time. He said it was not uncommon for students to keep coming back to talk to him.
After only a few weeks working as a pseudo-therapist, Stevens had a large list of clients. While he doesn’t know how long it will last, he said helping out in any way possible has been a rewarding experience.
“One of the most reassuring thoughts I try to convey is that they are not alone in their struggle,” Stevens said. “I think it’s as if everyone around them is totally together. They are dressed really well and seem to come and go from class and talk to friends. I tell them this is a ubiquitous problem – struggling to get a foothold here.”
After our interview, Stevens attended the students waiting for his input one by one. Stevens isn’t trying in his chair to be a therapist – he can’t diagnose or provide expert expertise. Instead, many students give something they seem to have lost before meeting the professor outside of UCLA. Stevens gives them space to express their grievances and express their inner thoughts and fears. He receives an ear and is a sympathetic friend. More than anything, Stevens never hesitates to remind students that he stands by them, and he means it. For some students, that’s all they really need.