Vassar Today

Supporting Students

By Claudia Rowe

Take an 18-year-old away from watchful parents, put him or her in a new setting where he or she can do almost anything that comes to mind, and you’re bound to get some strange reactions. Maybe overindulgence, maybe complete confusion; either would be understandable. But no longer are binge drinking, sleepless nights, or erratic eating habits simply acknowledged with a wink and a shrug as par for the course in college. At least not at Vassar.

In 1999, the school opened its Office of Health Education — at first just a lone desk in a dimly lit dorm hallway — where nutritionist Bill Kernan encouraged students to take a healthier, more mindful approach to their lives. Three years later, Kernan’s outpost has grown into a sunny, full-sized office in Metcalf House with an adjoining library and resource center, where dozens of students come to get help with everything from organizing AIDS awareness events to forming sexual abuse support groups. Kernan also counsels young people grappling with substance abuse problems, roommate difficulties, or psychological conditions that may require referral to a professional therapist.

Each year, his net widens. In 2001–02 Kernan began taking his message straight to the students with “house calls” in individual dorms, during which he speaks about nutrition, stress management, sexual health, and drug and alcohol abuse. In these sessions, Kernan can reach dozens of students at a time. Perhaps most gratifying, he said, is the interest among young people who want to reach out and spread the word to others about living more healthfully. When Kernan advertised for six such peer educator positions last spring, he received 43 applications — all from students willing to undergo 20 hours of training and then hold weekly office hours. Those who sign up to work with sexual assault survivors get even more rigorous preparation, and they wear beepers 24 hours a day.

So why, with their heavy course loads, social obligations, and myriad other commitments, would students want to devote that kind of time to others? And conversely, why would someone in need seek out peers, instead of a professional? Tiane Jennings ’03 believes the answer has to do with trust. As a student educator in Vassar’s eating disorders support group, Jennings said she has seen it over and over again: young people naturally respond to the success stories of others like themselves. “A lot of the kids who are educators have been through the same problems,” Jennings said. “Having a peer who’s been through it and came out OK — I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than that.” For Jennings, who also coordinates the AIDS education committee, providing this kind of help has become one of the most important pieces of her Vassar education.

Still, is it possible for a student with limited life experience to truly assist another with complex, even life-threatening problems? Laura Usher ’02 insists it is. She says she knows from experience. Several summers ago, while living with friends, Usher realized one of them was bulimic. Overwhelmed even as she was moved to action, Usher spoke with her housemates. Together, they formed a home-grown support group and met with their troubled roommate. Usher saw firsthand how the simple act of reaching out could change someone’s life. “It was hard, but the way we were able to help her was really amazing to me,” said Usher, who eventually became the student coordinator of Vassar’s Eating Disorders Reach-Out Service. “You can’t always fix people’s problems, but listening to them and showing that you care really can help.”

The Office of Health Education does not operate in a vacuum. Those clients with serious needs are referred to the Office of Counseling Services for professional therapy. If the condition is chronic or impairing a student’s academic performance, the Office of Disability and Support Services may get involved. Together, these three offices, disability, counseling and health education, create a safety net that aims to catch young people before difficulties become crises, and before crises become fatal.

This is not an alarmist scenario. A recent report from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that college freshmen in 2001 rated their emotional health at an all-time low (and this was before the terrorist attacks of September 11); more freshmen than ever before said they would likely seek counseling during the next four years. Meanwhile, news reports continue to publicize campus suicides and alcohol-related fatalities. While still relatively rare, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, after alcohol-related car accidents. A study released in April by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that college drinking results in about 1,400 student deaths a year, with an additional 500,000 injuries and 70,000 cases of sexual assault. Kernan, while generally skeptical of statistics, nonetheless agrees with the gist of these. “Alcohol always was and still is a major issue on campus,” he said. “All campuses.”

On the other side of Poughkeepsie, Marist College had two alcohol-related deaths during the 2001–02 school year, and in 2000, Colgate University, in upstate New York, had four. Although Vassar has been lucky, said Kernan, there’s no reason to think it’s immune from similar tragedies. The best approach, he believes, is honesty. “We have to acknowledge use,” he said, pointing out that underage drinkers who guzzle alcohol behind closed doors are the most likely to binge. “We have to create environments in which there is responsible drinking, so that we minimize covert activity.”

It isn’t only the Office of Health Education that is attracting students. Vassar’s other support services are seeing increases, too. When the office for students with disabilities first opened five years ago, 98 people came in asking for help. Last year, 164 identified themselves as having a condition — most commonly, learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder — that required aid. Many are, however, initially reluctant to seek assistance. “A lot of students come to campus thinking they want to do it on their own,” said Belinda Guthrie, who coordinates these services. “It’s not until they tank that they come in.” Guthrie interviews each student, makes an evaluation, and guides him or her through the process of collecting the appropriate sheaf of documentation. Central to her mission is engaging clients in their own treatment. To Guthrie, this is essential for teaching students how to self-advocate once they leave college.

Only a few years ago, the very notion of announcing one’s psychological struggles, not to mention a full-fledged disability, would have been anathema to students. But times are changing. No one claims that the paralyzing stigmas of old have evaporated altogether, but they are fading. Each year, about 25 percent of Vassar’s student body — some 500 young people — visit Sylvia Balderrama’s comfortable, living room-style office, or those of her staff, for professional therapy. This translates into 48 percent of the graduating class having had at least one hour of contact with one of the school’s six psychotherapists. Those numbers are higher than at comparable schools — not because Vassar students are more disturbed, said Balderrama, but because they are more knowledgeable about the benefits of treatment.

“Our students are bright,” she said. “Even though there is still a stigma attached, most students here know it’s a strength to ask for help, and they know when and how to do it.” Though the numbers are up, Vassar students consistently mention the same reasons for seeking help: depression, academic worries, and relationship woes. In fact, when Balderrama checked the record books, she found the same difficulties listed by Vassar women in the 1970s and even the 1950s, when the college first offered counseling. Some clients need only one visit to feel grounded again; others stay in touch throughout their campus careers. In certain cases, Balderrama makes referrals to private therapists but always with the same goal in mind: to help students through crises so they can get back on their feet, succeed, and graduate healthy.

Rowe is a journalist who writes frequently about higher education. She lives in Ulster County, New York.

Note: This fall, the Office of Health Education will be without Bill Kernan. However, according to Kernan, "The college is fully supportive of the office’s mission and is searching for a replacement."