So, you may ask, “What can a small college counseling center with a limited budget do to provide outreach to students during a worldwide pandemic that has dramatically impacted all aspects of campus life?”
Well, the answer to that question is “get creative”!
As the director of the Counseling Center at Thiel College, a private liberal arts college in western Pennsylvania with a combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment of a little over 800 students, I have had an up-close and personal glimpse into the ways that campus life has been directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The normal, everyday social lives of our college students became strikingly different at the onset of the pandemic. In March 2020, our students returned home to complete the spring semester virtually. Our campus was fortunate to be able to provide in-person learning throughout the 2020-2021 academic year through strict adherence to safety protocols, and for this we were grateful. However, life outside of the classroom was abnormal.
A once bustling campus, filled with the chatter of students in hallways and cafeterias, became unnaturally quiet. Our director of student activities did an outstanding job of engaging and connecting students through virtual events, which helped ease the disconnection that many students were experiencing.
Despite these achievements, I was very aware that there were students struggling under the strain of anxiety, depression and loneliness wrought by the pandemic. I also knew that some of these students were not connected to the campus Counseling Center. Our typical means of providing outreach and connecting with students were no longer feasible.
This led to brainstorming with my colleague and fellow counselor Jodie Witherite, a licensed clinical social worker, about how we could creatively reach students during a time in which in-person contact was limited.
The first thing we did was complete a project that was begun pre-pandemic but seemed to fit perfectly with our need to reach students while remaining socially distanced. Our project entailed developing three public service announcements (PSAs) that focused on suicide prevention and marketed the campus Counseling Center along with crisis resources. We worked diligently with our local suicide prevention committee and our college radio station to complete this project. These PSAs continue to be aired multiple times each day.
Next, we considered a way to bring unexpected cheer to our students and created “Boxes of Sunshine.” These small boxes contained a variety of items that were yellow, such as laptop stickers, banana Laffy Taffy candy, a bag of Lay’s potato chips and other small items that were inexpensive. The front of the box had a sticker of a smiling sun with contact information for the Counseling Center. The boxes were distributed as students entered the cafeteria to pick up their to-go lunches. Students were excited to receive their “Box of Sunshine,” with many expressing gratitude for this small gesture.
Several weeks later, I received a phone call from our vice president of student life asking if the Counseling Center would be willing to host this event again, with additional funds being provided to cover the expense. So, we followed this event with “Out of the Blue Boxes,” which were filled with blue items and distributed on a dreary winter day. “Irish Luck Boxes,” filled with green items, were provided on Saint Patrick’s Day. The students began looking forward to these events and were excited to see what surprises awaited them in their tiny boxes.
The Counseling Center typically hosts an annual “Stress Less Day,” when students gather to engage in stress-reducing activities such as receiving massages by a licensed massage therapist and spending time with a certified therapy dog. With the continued goal of making safety a priority, this event needed to be altered to ensure that students were not gathering in large groups. The result was an event termed “Donut Stress Day.”
Students could stop by at any time during a two-hour time frame. They chose a doughnut of their choice, served by a gloved and masked counselor, took a doughnut-themed craft with them to complete in their dorm room and entered to win a large doughnut-themed basket. This event allowed us to market the Counseling Center in a fun and lively atmosphere but without having students congregate.
We are planning additional events throughout the spring 2022 semester. The first involves distributing sealed bags of popcorn with the phrase “Just poppin’ in to remind you we are here,” along with contact information for the Counseling Center. These bags will be distributed by the counselors as students enter or exit the cafeteria for lunch.
We are also planning a workshop series titled “Coping Through Creativity,” which will use artistic and creative means to emphasize healthy ways of managing emotions and stress. These events will be held in a large room to provide opportunity for adequate distancing. The first session of the workshop series will focus on the benefits of journaling. Students will be given a composition book with a plain front and back cover. They will have the opportunity to decorate their journals as they desire with craft supplies that will be provided. They will be encouraged to make their journals a reflection of their own individuality. They will also be given a handout outlining tips on journaling.
Relying on others
Finally, with the Counseling Center seeing an increase in requests for treatment, along with more faculty members requesting that Counseling Center staff visit their classrooms, we are creating a video to promote positive stress management. It will also serve as a marketing tool for the Counseling Center. This video can then be played in classrooms, during athletic team practices, or at any function in which students may benefit from this information. Ultimately, this should reduce the amount of time that Counseling Center staff must spend away from the office and allot more time for clinical care of students.
Along with our outreach efforts, we also rely upon the good-faith efforts of our dedicated staff and faculty to steer students toward the Counseling Center when a need is recognized. In addition, trainings are provided to our Residence Life staff and to mental health-related student organizations to guide them in how to compassionately approach students who may be struggling with mental health concerns. They are taught how to make a referral to the Counseling Center and the process for seeking help in emergency situations.
The unique challenges of conducting outreach to students on a college campus during an ongoing pandemic has led to the stretching of both our imaginations and resources, which I have actually found quite fulfilling. Although there is no way to say with certainty that our outreach efforts have led directly to our growing caseloads, I’m of the belief that outreach has brought some students through our office doors who may not have entered previously. As we all look forward to life post-pandemic, I hope that through continued creativity, our small college Counseling Center will continue to reach students who may not have sought our services otherwise.
Melanie Broadwater is a licensed professional counselor and a national certified counselor. She is employed by Thiel College as the director of its Counseling Center. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.