Listening and Becoming
If you include my graduate school years, I have been teaching college students since 1998. For almost twenty years I have had the pleasure of learning with and from my students, and I hope, of course, that they have learned from me. I've made a lot of mistakes during this time, but I have also had some of the successes that remind me why I teach--the rewards that make the challenges worth it. One of my favorite aspects of teaching on a college campus is the constant newness--with each semester I encounter new classes, new students, new ideas, and new challenges.
One of my most recent experiences, however, is not new. I have students come to me seeking guidance constantly. They are overwhelmed. They are dealing with mental or physical illness. They are struggling with sexuality issues. They are in abusive relationships. They are dealing with PTSD. This is part of my job. To listen. To help when I can. To know when I can't. To assist students in getting the help they need.
Interestingly enough, I have seen numerous articles on teachers as mentors cross the feeds of my various social media networks lately. A student recently wrote an open letter to faculty asking them to be more empathetic to students with mental illness. There are interesting articles about college as a period of transition, a vortex of academic and social pressures, that can lead to more serious bouts with anxiety and mental illness. And numerous studies point to the fact that mental illness among college students is on the rise. The response to students' mental health needs varies. Most colleges offer free on-campus counseling to students. Professors have the opportunity to participate in trainings to declare themselves open to discussing specific issues with students--to provide various kinds of safe spaces. But there are also conversations, some of them merited, about the problems associated with asking faculty to serve as faux therapists to their students. And there are professors who want to make it very clear to their students that they are their professors and NOT their therapists.
I try to make myself available to students, and I hope my students know that I am always willing to listen to them. I also know when I need to work with students and campus resources when it is time to get help I am not qualified to give. So a recent experience with a student who came to me for help, overwhelmed me with sadness. A young man in one of my classes came to talk to me this week. He was overwhelmed. He had struggled with anxiety and depression in high school. He had even written about these struggles in one of his essays for my class. We made decisions about his classes, and I told him I felt like he needed to speak with someone about his anxiety. I offered to walk with him to the counseling center on campus to make an appointment, and his relief was obvious. I called the counseling center and told them I was walking over with a student. We walked across campus together and talked about school, his family, and his concerns. When we arrived, we were told that the counseling center was not taking new clients because they did not have the staff and unless this was a true emergency my students would need to be placed on a waiting list. They would call him at some point in November, they said.
I am not sure that I have ever been so angry on behalf of a student. This young man was so courageous and strong. He came to me and asked for help. He courageously went with me to seek that help. And then he was essentially told "we are sorry, but we can't help you right now." I was stunned, but we put my student on the waiting list. We walked outside, and I apologized to him. I gave him my cell number and told him he could call me if he needed me--what a pitiful attempt to make things right on my part.
I am not writing this post to take a stand on academe and mental health issues. Nor am I writing to shame my institution--I understand budget cuts and lack of staffing. But I feel a real need to decompress and to make public my concerns about the need for all institutions to pay more attention to how they can create college communities that better respond to students' needs and overall well being. We ask students to attend college and to experience "becoming." It is a transition period of significant change and growth. Often students need varied types of support as they learn who they are and become young scholars.
We need to do better helping them become.