Interview with Dr. Joan Whitney, Director, University Counseling Center.
Fresh@News: What are some of the issues that you and your colleagues see
for first year students at Villanova?
Dr. Whitney: Let's begin by putting things in perspective. Most of our
students at Villanova come from supportive family backgrounds and have
developed their own strengths before arriving at college. For the most
part they manage the transition from high school to college well, and
they are successful in navigating the predictable stresses of college
life. The Residence Life Staff also provides a good support system for
our students. The Resident Assistants (R.A.s) usually have a good sense
of what is going on in their residence hall, and they deal quite
effectively with many of the issues that students encounter in the
course of day-to-day living.
Fresh@News: When is it appropriate for students to come to the
Dr. Whitney. We typically see students for one of three reasons.
First, some students seek our help with the normal developmental issues
that typically come up in the transition to college. Students face the
challenge of setting priorities and structuring their own time. They
also experience growth, but also stress, as they form new friendships,
sort out personal values and beliefs, and manage their lives in an
atmosphere of greater independence. While they can discuss some of
their concerns with peers, they encounter some issues that may seem too
private or confusing to share with friends. That is when it can be very
helpful for them to seek the support and perspective they can get by
meeting with a psychologist at the University Counseling Center.
Secondly, there are other students who come to us because of crises that
come up in their lives, such as a fight with a friend, the breakup of a
romantic relationship, or concerns related to serious illness of a
friend or family member. During a crisis, students often feel unable
to concentrate on their studies. A focused discussion of their concerns
with a caring professional can free them to gain distance from the
crisis and to return to studies.
Finally, we also see students who are suffering from psychological
disorders. For example, some students suffer from depression, eating
disorders, anxiety, or extreme shyness. We support these students and
help them learn to cope with the uncomfortable condition they are
enduring. Students also enter counseling to understand self-destructive
behavior, and to learn constructive ways of coping with stressful
times. In addition, some of our students have received counseling or
medication at home, and feel reassured to have a professional on campus
who is familiar with the situation and able to step in if symptoms
Fresh@News: What services does the Counseling Center offer to these
Dr. Whitney: Students may schedule an appointment to see one of our
counselors, who are licensed psychologists, specializing in the college
life stages. Our services are free for Villanova students. The
psychologist meets with the student in a private and confidential
setting, encourages the student to talk about issues, and helps the
student find ways to address the concerns. Many students feel satisfied
after only one counseling session, but most students return for five or
six sessions. We do not have the resources to do long-term individual
therapy, but find that five to ten sessions (which we do provide) meets
the counseling needs of most students. For long term counseling, we
assist with referrals to local mental health providers. We also offer
group counseling, where students dealing with a common theme -- such as
eating disorders or adjusting to college -- meet weekly with a
psychologist and five to ten other students who are addressing similar
concerns. A student can have individual counseling and group counseling
Fresh@News: Does the University ever require students to go to the
Dr. Whitney: No. Use of the services is completely voluntary. It is
crucial that students seek counseling when they are ready to share their
concerns. They are at a life stage where they feel very intruded upon
if counseling is "forced" on them. We make sure they know we're here,
by being visible at campus events, giving programs in classrooms and
residence halls. R.A.'s, faculty members, fellow-students and parents
are often the ones to recommend the student seek counseling. Each year,
between 7% and 14% of students seek counseling.
Fresh@News: Can parents find out whether their college student is
Dr. Whitney: State law requires that the student's counseling contacts
are confidential. If we believe the student needs family support, we
ask the student's permission (through signing a waiver form) to contact
parents. Of course we will break confidentiality and notify parents
immediately if the student is in some kind of danger, but that is very
Fresh@News: Fall break is coming up. What are some of the things parents
Dr. Whitney. Expect to have a good time with your student, and enjoy
having him or her home to share their experiences. The classic problem
is that the students have trouble readjusting to living by the parents'
rules after the relatively greater independence of college life. The
student has had seven weeks with no curfew and may not be ready to be
home by a specific time. Usually all that is required is to talk these
things through openly to find an accommodation you can both live with.
In some cases, parents can expect to see students still struggling with
adjustment to college. About this time of the year, some first-year
students talk about transferring to another college, which parents often
find distressing. Generally I would advise parents to listen
sympathetically rather than taking a strong position one way or the
other. Usually by the second semester the students are feeling much
more at home, and the transfer talk drops off. Especially at
Thanksgiving, some students will also complain that they don't feel as
connected to their college friends as they do to their old friends from
the neighborhood (some of whom they may have known all of their lives).
Again, it takes time for attachments to form, so often these complaints
disappear by the second semester. Some students find it difficult to
return to school after break, but are fine within a day of returning.
Fresh@News: Are there particular problems parents should watch out for?
Dr. Whitney. I would look out for significant weight loss or odd eating
patterns, which can be a warning sign of an eating disorder. If the
student seems "like a different person," in a worrisome way, or seems
disinterested in talking about college life, there may be reason for
concern. I would also look out for any indication that the student has
gotten involved with relationships that seem to be unhealthy.
Fresh@News: What can parents do for their children?
Dr. Whitney. Parents need to listen, express concern, caring and love,
and encourage the student to seek help. Parents also can help students
sort out the difference between temporary adjustment problems and issues
that might be more serious. If the student reports that he or she is
not happy, it is generally not helpful for parents to express
disappointment that the student is not happier. The student already
feels bad about that. Supportive listening is much more helpful.
Finally, parents should be sure to follow up. If an issue comes up at
fall break, check in with the student periodically to see how he or she
is doing. Despite what students may say, parents continue to be
enormously important to them, even more important than during high
school years. Parents can also look at the Student Life home page to get
a sense of some of the resources that are available to students:
Fresh@News: What are some of the issues for parents themselves?
Dr. Whitney: The biggest problem for parents is learning when to let go
of their children, while still being available when children need them.
For example, we sometimes see conflicts between parents and their
students about the choice of a major. We will talk to students who say,
"I really hate my major and I am not doing well in my courses, but my
parents tell me that I have to take these courses in order to get a
job." Or in other cases parents are so worried about their children
that they call one office or another to try to intervene for their
student, sometimes before their students have had a chance to solve the
problem themselves. The challenge for parents is to know when it is
appropriate to intervene, and when it is better to let the child make
his or her own decisions. I wish there was an easy answer to this
question, but it definitely comes up all of the time.
Fresh@News: Is it appropriate for parents to call the Counseling
Dr. Whitney: Parents are welcome to call to consult with a counselor
about their concerns related to the student's adjustment. We cannot
divulge anything about their particular son or daughter (even whether
they have been seen at the Counseling Center), but can advise the
parents on the best course of action. If parents have reason to be
especially concerned, they can request that the student come to the
Counseling Center and provide written permission, allowing the
psychologist to speak to their parents about them.
Fresh@News: It seems like the Counseling Center serves many different
student needs. It doesn't seem limited to students in grave trouble.
Is that accurate?
Dr. Whitney: The reason universities have on-campus counseling centers
is that the college years are peak years for emotional and social
growth, and research shows that students who get professional support
are better able to stabilize their emotions. Our main mission is to
help the "normal" student. While we do help students with serious
problems, 85% of the students we see are well-adjusted, and recognize
that social/emotional development goes hand in hand with
intellectual/academic progress. It's delightful to work on a college
campus, where all aspects of students' growth and development interact
with each other.
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