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College Counseling

Addressing the invisibility of Arab American issues in higher education

By Souzan Naser February 5, 2021

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in just about everyone’s life, and it is not lost on me that individuals are deeply feeling the cost of this pandemic. Too many people are grieving the loss of loved ones, recovering from their own illnesses, suffering from food and housing insecurity, and coping with depression, anxiety and isolation. As we begin to settle in with a new presidential administration, we can begin to have a glimmer of hope that our country will take a more aggressive approach to managing the spread and treatment of COVID-19.

For me, the impact of the pandemic has been less severe, and I feel especially fortunate. I was reaching the midpoint of my sabbatical when the virus took hold and shelter-in-place orders were issued. Like many of those reading this article, I was scheduled to attend the April 2020 American Counseling Association Conference in San Diego, and I was thrilled to have been given the opportunity to present and facilitate a workshop. My presentation, adapted from my doctoral research, was to examine the paucity of Arab American cultural competency training available for college counseling professionals. I also planned to unpack the contemporary needs of Arab American students, their expectations when meeting with a counselor, and the factors that increase their likelihood of engaging with a mental health provider. I am passionate about this research, especially given the lack of adequate mental health services for Arab American students and how this affects their success.

In this piece, my aim is to amplify the micro-level personal concerns of Arab American students who participated in focus group sessions that I led, those whom I counsel and teach, and those more broadly who live in the Arab American community of Chicagoland (Chicago proper and its adjoining suburbs). I will also provide recommendations, based on feedback from students, so that we can keep pace with the contemporary challenges of this population and confidently assist them when they call on us for support while experiencing psychological distress.

Study background

Since 2015, I have been studying the preparedness of community college counselors to effectively engage with Arab American college students. Pre- and post-tests were used to assess counselors’ levels of cultural competency with Arab students. The post-tests were administered after counselors participated in a 90-minute professional development program called Understanding the Arab American College Student.

My study also included Arab American college students, who through a series of focus group sessions offered a rich critique of how the political landscape shapes their experiences and identities. The information they shared also captured the essence of who they are culturally, socially and religiously, and how they navigate their identities at home and school. They also shared the importance of having mental health practitioners who understand their worldview and can be turned to for support.

Background on Arab Americans

Arab American identities are vast and complex, and the Arab American students with whom counselors interact in their offices are just as diverse as the 22 countries these students emigrated from or have ancestral ties to: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Members of this community have been immigrating to the United States since the late 1800s and have long been a part of the fabric of American society, making significant economic, educational and political contributions. According to the Arab American Institute, which is one of the longest-standing Arab civic engagement organizations in the U.S., it is estimated that nearly 3.7 million Americans trace their roots to an Arab country. Although Arab Americans live in almost every part of the U.S., more than two-thirds of them reside in just 10 states: California, Michigan, New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

There are many assumptions about Arab Americans that can interfere with the therapeutic process and alliance. For instance, Arab and Muslim are not synonymous; in fact, over 60% of Arabs residing in the U.S. are Christian, not Muslim. Arab Americans may be first, second or third generation. Some are fluent in Arabic and English, whereas others may speak only one. Another commonly held misconception revolves around the citizenry status of Arabs. Of Arabs in the U.S., 82% are citizens, the majority of whom are native-born.

Misguided beliefs, stereotypes and popular assumptions may lead us to view members of this community as one-dimensional, but in fact, Arab American students are distinct, so each student should be regarded as an individual with unique experiences.

Political stress

Although we lack data on students who have an Arab background because they are expected to identify as white/Caucasian on most college and university admission forms, a few campuses such as the University of Illinois at Chicago have some data illustrating that Arab Americans make up a significant portion of the student body. Additionally, the college for which I work sits in a congressional district that has one of the largest concentrations of Palestinians in the U.S. It is clear that we also enroll a sizable number of other Arab American students. Because Arab American students constitute a significant percentage of the college population — while simultaneously facing targeting and various forms of racial/ethnic exclusion — it is imperative that our field incorporates a mental health framework that honors this population’s sociopolitical experiences and cultural and religious background.

In addition to facing many of the same challenges that college students generally encounter, such as navigating academic stress, negotiating relationships with friends, and deciding on a major, Arab students are subject to an ongoing and unrelentingly hostile political climate. These students, their families and their communities at large are dealing with the impact of anti-Arab and Islamophobic foreign and domestic policies such as the global war on terror, the Muslim travel ban, mass surveillance, and racial profiling programs promoted under the “countering violent extremism” framework. These policies and programs trickle down into Arab Americans’ everyday lives in the form of hate crimes, discrimination and a generalized sense of fear.

All of this can contribute to the development of mental health issues or exacerbate already-existing psychological disorders. Focus group participants shared how repressive policies shaped by the Trump administration (especially the Muslim travel ban executive order) translated into their everyday experiences of feeling anxious, alienated, intimidated and untrusting of institutions that are meant to be supportive. Several students at the time disclosed their feelings of uncertainty with comments such as, “Personally, I was scared during the election and when Trump became president,” “There’s still some fear that I have about what he can and cannot do to us as Arabs or Muslims,” and “The Muslim ban was very traumatizing, not just to me, but to people who could not come back to the States when they left for vacation.”

In failing to understand the political stress our Arab students are enduring, and by neglecting to engage in meaningful and elevated conversations about political issues that concern them, we run the risk of these students prematurely terminating sessions. Students in the focus group spent a considerable amount of time discussing the factors that would discourage them from returning to see a counselor. The following quotes highlight some of the factors mentioned:

  • “It has to be a judgment-free zone, and if it isn’t, then I wouldn’t return to counseling.”
  • “I don’t want to be judged or misunderstood based on what they’re hearing about Arab Americans in the media.”
  • “There has to be a connection. The counselor has to understand me as an Arab American.”

Culturally competent practitioners must be able to monitor their biases and examine how their own racial/ethnic backgrounds may play a role in forging an authentic relationship with Arab American students. One of the biases mental health professionals may hold that could influence their attitudes toward this population is associating all Arabs or all Muslims with a potentiality for criminality or terrorism. These associations are not held exclusively by professionals in our field. Rather, they are common misconceptions that are the product of government discourse, domestic policies and campaigns such as the global war on terror.

In my research, nearly 70% of the counselors surveyed agreed that many people may hold negative attitudes, stereotypes, preconceived notions and biases about Arab Americans. Other biases, steeped in corporate media, include the portrayal of Arab and Muslim women as docile and submissive — victims of a backward culture and religion from which they need to be rescued. A student who participated in the focus group sessions indicated that they “worry about how counselors get their information about us. Are they getting [it] from media outlets, and how does this impact the way counselors work with us?”

Despite our every attempt as professional counselors to be supportive of Arab and Muslim college students, applying a one-size-fits-all approach without critically examining our understanding of how anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia operate may not serve their best interests. While many counselors who are committed to diversity may have backgrounds in some social justice/racial issues, they usually lack training in the area of Arab American exclusion and discrimination.   

Cultural considerations

While social injustice is a factor to consider when working with Arab American students, they, like any other students, also need to sort through a wide range of micro-level challenges. Family issues, intergenerational dissonance, acculturative stress and identity confusion are just a few of the personal stressors that may compromise this population’s emotional well-being.

In Arab society, family is central. Family is the conduit through which cultural continuity is promoted and through which the rich traditions and values of the homeland are invoked. Both the immediate and extended family are heavily involved in the enculturation, upbringing and decision-making processes of the Arab American students you counsel. Counselors may find that even through adulthood, Arab American students will not make decisions in isolation. Rather, the expectation is that they will consult with members of their family before deciding on a course of action. Because they come from a collectivist society, in which the needs and wants of the group supersede those of the individual, these students may hesitate to act if a course of action or decision does not mirror the values of the family, does not benefit the collective or is considered shameful.

Whereas the dominant white middle-class U.S. values emphasize autonomy and freedom to make decisions without having to defer to others, cultural norms in Arab families dictate the opposite. As clinicians, we should consider how the practice of encouraging students to differentiate their individual identity from that of their family is antithetical to most Arab Americans. When our Arab American students are feeling obligated by their family to make a decision that does not necessarily satisfy their own desires, we should explore how we can assist them in negotiating an outcome that meets their need without being seen as a betrayal to their family.

Rather than viewing these distinct cultural forms as dysfunctional or expecting our Arab American students to align with Euro-North American-centric ideals in order to be healthy and feel supported, I propose that we use the inherent strengths of their own heritage, culture and values. By doing so, we are demonstrating an appreciation for their background and worldviews. Focus group participants shared the importance of integrating their cultural heritage when implementing therapeutic techniques. One participant stated, “Non-Arab counselors need a better understanding of who their Arab students are and the mechanisms our parents use to raise us.” Another suggested, “Counselors shouldn’t assume things about us; they should ask us about our values, beliefs and customs.”

Although it cannot be emphasized enough that family represents a core aspect of Arab culture, we also come to learn that honor, respect, morality, hospitality and generosity are other dominant features of this group. When working alongside Arab American students, it is useful to keep these cultural norms in mind so that these students will feel heard, understood and appreciated.

Intergenerational dissonance — another common source of stress for Arab American students — can arise when students are feeling pressured to hold steadfastly onto traditions of cultural heritage or religious values with which they no longer identify. Students shared the stress of negotiating relationships with their parents, and the acculturation differences between them, with these types of responses:

  • “Our parents worry about us becoming ‘Americanized’ and disregarding our traditions and religious practices.”
  • “I think there are a lot of struggles that Arab Americans face, especially if they were born in America but their families were not.”
  • “We feel obligated to do what our families expect of us.”

Students also candidly shared how intergenerational dissonance leads to other points of contention, including students wanting more freedom than the parents are willing to give, and the negotiation of romantic relationships, marriage and career choice.

Often in immigrant families, the children adopt dominant white middle-class U.S. values at a much faster pace than their parents do. This can cause disharmony and disruption in family functioning. According to psychologist and scholar John Berry, a number of factors, including age at immigration, language fluency and the reason for leaving the home country, determine the ease and comfort with which individuals adjust upon immigrating to the U.S.

During the course of my research and my years spent counseling Arab American students, I have learned that some of these students have assimilated with ease into mainstream U.S. life but have determined that it is equally important to them to maintain the richness and beauty of who they are as Arabs. They view themselves as members of a collectivist people with a strong extended family network, a rich heritage and culture that informs their way of living, and (for some) a religious framework from which they draw strength and guidance. These students have learned how to effectively and strategically weave in and out of the American and Arab in them; they have found a way to manage the conflicts associated with intergenerational dissonance.

Students who are struggling with identity confusion, and pushing back against familial pressures, want to explore the facets of their identity on their own terms. Focus group participants explained the challenges of trying to live “on the hyphen” (as in Arab-American) and navigating the contradictory worlds in which they live:

  • “I feel like Arab students are lost and don’t know how to act. They’re like in between and unsure if they are more Arab or more American.”
  • “Our families struggle with understanding what it’s like for their child to be an Arab living in America. We struggle with being American at school, and we struggle with being Arab at home.”
  • “I live both the Arab and American life, but I feel like non-Arabs see me as the other.”

Arab American students face ongoing angst caused by trying to live out their hyphen, which involves modifying and massaging the parts of their heritage that they want to maintain and embrace and discarding those that are no longer meaningful to them. Negotiating the complexities of their identity is further complicated by living in a hostile political landscape in which they are generally made to feel unwelcome and marginalized.

During the time of my study, Arab American students were in the thick of grappling with the realities of a newly elected president who was targeting members of their community with a travel ban and threats of deportation. Students spent considerable time processing how the election cycle and rhetoric from Donald Trump left them feeling vulnerable and affected their sense of belonging on campus. One student stated that Trump’s jingoistic sentiments during the election period “[bred] all kinds of hostility and hate, not just toward Arabs, but all other minorities, and the results have been disastrous.” According to a 2017 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crimes against Muslims grew by 67% in 2015, the year that Trump launched his campaign for president.

Arab American students’ sense of security has been punctured by a hostile climate that criminalizes and scrutinizes them. Students are telling us that it is a complicated time to be Arab or Muslim, and they need counseling professionals to have an understanding of how their identities are being shaped by the political landscape. Considering these conditions, how do we establish safety in the therapeutic encounter? How do we affirm these students’ humanity and obviate their concerns?

Counseling considerations

To establish culturally responsive care to Arab American students, we need to consider both the macro-level political stress that is causing these students harm and the micro-level challenges that affect their psychological well-being. As counselors, we have a unique opportunity to strengthen understanding of the contemporary challenges Arab American students face and the therapeutic measures we use to address them.

These students are informing us that they will benefit from counselors who are familiar with family dynamics, intergenerational dissonance and identity confusion. As counselors trained in Euro-North American counseling theory and technique, we need to critically examine the applicability of these models to the Arab American student and modify the strategies we use so that they complement the worldview of this population. If we fail to do so, we may mischaracterize cultural norms, beliefs, values and traditions as oppressive or primitive, which could inadvertently shame the students with whom we are working. We may also construe or unfairly judge these students’ family interactions as unhealthy with blurred boundaries, or consider them enmeshed and fused, interfering with individuation and differentiation of self.

These terms, inherent in Western models of family therapy, are incongruent with the Arab American family system. Applying these concepts may unknowingly leave these students feeling judged, misunderstood or misheard and could lead to premature termination of therapy. Instead, we should consider reframing our understanding of Arab American family dynamics by viewing these interactions as loving, caring and uplifting, and meant to provide unconditional support.

In addition to the factors previously mentioned, students shared other elements that would discourage them from returning to see a counselor:

  • “I had a counselor who would advise me or come up with solutions that were more appropriate for non-Arabs.”
  • “I was given solutions from counselors that do not match what I am looking for or who I am.”

Those who participated in the focus group also explicitly let us know that it is a trying time to be an Arab American student. They are traversing a hostile political climate that is causing them psychological distress. Being well-meaning and using the compassion that called us to this field may not suffice. As counselors, it is our duty to intentionally address any gaps in our knowledge base concerning the roles that culture, racism and oppression play in impeding these students’ abilities to function academically and personally. If we neglect to do so — and if misguided beliefs, popular assumptions or personal biases go unchecked — we may unintentionally revictimize these students. To eliminate the potential for harm, we can monitor our sensitivity to the historical and current oppressions that Arab American students experience. This can be accomplished in part by attending professional development opportunities that increase our understanding of this population’s sociopolitical, cultural and religious needs.

Finally, we can help these students re-create and reimagine the world they live in by acting as agents of change who advocate for and work alongside them to eliminate institutional discrimination. This includes having conversations with administrators to critically examine our campus communities to determine whether we are taking the necessary steps to promote a sense of belonging for this population.

Institutional responsibility includes counting Arab American students on admission forms and monitoring any inequities that could leave these students feeling vulnerable and paralyzed. Our institutions of higher education should also take intentional steps to diversify the recruitment and hiring of faculty and staff to complement the demographics of their respective student body populations. Ultimately, the question that counselors and institutions of higher education should be asking is, “How do we help Arab American students feel safe, understood and integrated?”

 

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Souzan Naser is an associate professor and counselor at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois, where she has won awards for her work on increasing diversity on campus. Her doctoral dissertation addressed the paucity of Arab American cultural competency training available for counseling professionals. She was born in Palestine and raised on the southwest side of Chicago, in the heart of one of the largest concentrated Arab American communities in the U.S. Contact her at nasers2@morainevalley.edu.

 

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

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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.

Starting post-college life in a pandemic

By Bethany Bray August 3, 2020

Spring 2020 college graduates have emerged into a world turned upside down by COVID-19. The job prospects and post-college lifestyles these graduates were imagining for themselves just a few months ago are today largely nonexistent.

Unprecedented seems to be the buzzword of the season, notes Roseanne Bensley, assistant director of New Mexico State University’s (NMSU’s) Center for Academic Advising and Student Support. The coronavirus pandemic has affected everything from relationships to career planning for new graduates.

“It’s not one part of their life, it’s every part of their life,” Bensley says. “Employers have uncertainty and don’t know, day to day, when things will lift. … No one has enough information to give answers. This is new territory for employers and job searchers.”

However, Bensley would like to add a second buzzword to the class of 2020’s lexicon: resiliency. As she points out, these students, many of whom had to unexpectedly finish their senior year coursework online, can claim an advantage when it comes to adaptability and comfort with technology.

Because of COVID-19, “New jobs and new ways of doing business are opening up. This is going to cause a new wave of change, and [employers] may not be going back to the way it was,” Bensley says. “These students are ahead of the curve. … They will be resilient with what they’ve learned.”

At a loss

Licensed professional counselor (LPC) Patricia Anderson recently worked with a new college grad who was experiencing a resurgence of anxiety this past spring during the pandemic. The young woman had switched jobs, and the restrictions associated with COVID-19 meant that she was unable to meet any of her new co-workers in person. Her entire hiring and onboarding process had been completed via video and electronic communication. She had also recently moved into her own apartment and begun living away from her family for the first time.

The client was stressed out, anxious, and struggling with her self-confidence, recalls Anderson, an American Counseling Association member who has a private practice in the Georgetown section of Washington D.C. In working through her feelings in counseling, it became clear that the young woman — an extrovert by nature — was experiencing grief over the large-scale absence of social connection, both at work and in her personal life.

During the pandemic, the client had stopped using an online dating platform. This resulted in her experiencing a sense of loss regarding opportunities to meet people and a decrease in the confidence she normally gained through interacting with dates and new relationships. Anderson worked with the client to establish a self-care plan that included making time for hobbies and exercise, as well as maintaining social contacts and reconnecting with friends with whom she had lost touch.

Anderson also focused on boosting the client’s confidence and equipped her with strategies for keeping her self-talk from becoming self-critical. In addition, Anderson helped the client recognize that what she was feeling was grief, which can arrive in waves. Together, they connected some of the client’s feelings to family-of-origin issues that were contributing to her stress.

Anderson also helped the client focus on the reality that her current situation wouldn’t last forever. “We talked about things she can look forward to in the future: going back to online dating, figuring out a new normal, looking forward to meeting colleagues face-to-face, planning a trip, and working on another business opportunity,” Anderson says. “Time spent away [from dating] had eroded the confidence she once had and had kicked up her anxiety. Staying ‘in the game’ can be beneficial for some [clients]. It’s a way to get to know themselves and push themselves socially.”

Many of Anderson’s clients are young professionals, current college students or recent graduates. Throughout the spring and summer, many of these clients have been wrestling with feelings of loss, she says. This includes the loss of rites of passage such as graduation ceremonies and in-person celebrations, the loss of internships and immediate job prospects and, for some, the seeming loss of entire career plans.

“Their world and their [sense of] structure have been upended, and they’re not really knowing which direction to move in,” Anderson says. “Some days, they feel like, ‘OK, I got this,’ and then other days, they have doubts about ‘Where am I going?’ The floor dropped out of what they thought was going to happen. … They have anxiety over the fact that everything got pulled out from underneath them, and now they don’t have a road map.”

It is vitally important that counselors first help these clients process their feelings of loss before trying to guide them to reconsider their job options or life path, Anderson says. Among the most consequential actions counselors can take are to listen to, validate and normalize the emotions that these young adults are feeling in the wake of COVID-19.

“Be with the client where they are,” Anderson says. “If they’re unable to go with a job that didn’t happen or was rescinded, really sit with them in that space before opening up and looking at the possibilities of ‘what else?’ It’s difficult to do that until they know that you understand them and where they’re coming from.”

All feelings of loss should be treated as real and valid, Anderson says, even if clients themselves express guilt over feeling that way or dismiss those feelings as being trivial when the world is facing weightier issues. For example, some graduates may still be dealing with disappointment that they missed out on a final chance to take a spring break trip with friends or weren’t able to study abroad because of the coronavirus. Counselors should reassure these clients that it is OK to have these feelings and then give them space to talk about it, she emphasizes.

“[Help them] know that they’re not alone and that it totally makes sense to struggle right now. They also may be scared at feeling unsettled, which may be a new feeling for them,” explains Anderson, who does contract work for the QuarterLife Center, a Washington, D.C., therapy office that specializes in working with young professionals in their 20s and 30s.

In addition to normalizing feelings, Anderson has been providing clients with psychoeducation on self-care, the nonlinear aspects of grief, and the importance of maintaining social supports and a structured daily schedule. She checks with clients to ensure they are staying connected with friends and family via technology and that they are equipped with coping mechanisms such as meditation and self-reflection exercises. She also asks if they are eating well, engaging in physical activity, getting outside, and taking part in other wellness-focused activities.

As Anderson’s clients talk in sessions, she listens for hopeful language that might indicate they are ready to rethink their futures. “I try to help them broaden their scope a little, if they’re ready for it. I let them talk about what they need to talk about, but then spend some time looking at other pieces of what else might be possible. [I] try and get them out of their heads just a little bit,” Anderson says, “because if I [as a client] always thought I was going to be a dentist, and come to find out that I’m not going to be a dentist, I have to grieve. But at the same time, maybe there are some things that free me up about not being a dentist.”

“If you can create a trusting relationship with a [client],” she says, “they know that you understand them, and we can explore all kinds of things, whether they [previously] seemed unrealistic or not.”

Rethinking career plans

Flexibility must be the watchword for recent graduates who are looking for jobs, says Lynn Downie, associate director of career and professional development at Presbyterian College in South Carolina. In her work with undergraduates and alumni of the small, rural college, Downie is finding that those who had a “hard and set, defined path” in mind, such as entering the health care or hospitality industries straight out of school, are struggling most.

Those who are currently seeking jobs can benefit greatly from the guidance and encouragement provided by a counselor, says Downie, who recently finished a two-year term as president of the National Employment Counseling Association (NECA), a division of ACA. “Give them reassurance that things haven’t changed completely. Highlight [the idea] that pathways to a particular goal aren’t always the same. There are other distinct pathways,” she says.

Downie is helping her clients identify workarounds as they adjust their perspectives to become more flexible and less discouraged by rejection letters or the idea of taking a job that might not have appealed to them previously. Some of her clients have readjusted their career plans to take entry-level or short-term work in positions or fields they wouldn’t have considered six months ago. Others have pivoted to opportunities in national service programs such as AmeriCorps.

Downie, a member of ACA, also reminds recent graduates that they just need to find a fit for right now. That doesn’t mean their long-term career goals have to change. “Help [these clients] realize that they’re not making a choice for the rest of their lives when they choose a job, or [especially] their first job,” she says. “Their life is going to be full of all kinds of pivots. Some are planned and some are unplanned and forced. There is a big arc from 18 to 65 or retirement age. … You can [still] have aspirational goals that are for down the line.”

Downie has worked with several business students who had hoped to go into health care administration, but because the industry is so in flux currently, there aren’t many administration jobs open at the entry level. With these students and graduates, Downie has focused on ways that their administration skills could be used in alternative settings, such as nonprofit, community development or public health organizations. Another tactic is taking lower-paid medical aide or assistant jobs in settings that are currently short-staffed (such as nursing homes) and that do not necessarily require special certification. As Downie points out, even working as a contact tracer as part of the COVID-19 virus response — a job that didn’t exist six months ago — could help these new graduates gain experience.

Similarly, a job in pharmaceutical or medical sales could provide these graduates with valuable exposure. “They would still be interacting with those in the medical field, instead of applying for jobs that don’t exist,” she points out.

Bensley notes that going with a “Plan B” job in a field or setting that a graduate didn’t originally intend to work in can demonstrate to other potential employers that the graduate possesses a good work ethic and thinks outside the box. She also urges students and recent graduates to widen their searches to consider temporary, freelance or even gig work instead of focusing solely on full-time employment.

“[A first job] may not be professional, but it’s work, and [the individual] can be introduced to people through that work,” Bensley says. “It also tells a [future] employer that you’re a hustler and not waiting for the golden egg to show up.”

When counseling clients who are rethinking their career plans, Downie finds it helpful to have them identify a theme they feel drawn to and then consider various types of work that fit that theme. For example, a graduate who enjoys building relationships can use that skill in any number of job settings. They might start out in sales but advance to building teams as a manager or even pivot to cultivating client relationships as a professional counselor.

“Find a theme for your life — that one thing you cling to, what you’re good at,” Downie tells her clients. “You can work on that in all types of settings. A core skill can translate into different fields, and sticking with it will give you a sense of continuity and purpose.”

Networking during a pandemic

Bensley often tells students at NMSU to think of how professional athletes are handling the pandemic: Their season may be on hold or even canceled, but they’re continuing to stay in shape.

“Just because the competitive side of their sport has stopped, they’re not watching Netflix for 10 hours a day. They are still keeping their skill set up, working out, training and preparing,” Bensley observes.

That same philosophy should apply to career planning during the pandemic, she emphasizes. Now is the time for job candidates to put even more energy into enriching themselves and expanding their professional networks.

“Don’t limit your strategy to just sending out résumés and waiting for a response,” urges Bensley, an instructor for the global career development facilitator credential through NECA. “While employers may have slowed down their original hiring plans, it does not mean that a candidate should also slow down. If anything, it means you might need to work harder at following employers on LinkedIn, reviewing their homepages and [thoroughly] reading job postings to determine if you have the skill set that employers require.”

Bensley suggests it is also the perfect time for recent graduates to flip the usual dynamic and reach out to interview professionals who are already working in their desired field. Job seekers can identify contacts through LinkedIn or other networks and ask if these professionals have 20 minutes to talk about their job or industry.

Bensley urges students and recent graduates to start with professors and mentors whom they already know or have worked with. They can then use those connections to secure introductions to other professionals in their desired field. Those professionals can recommend still others they would recommend connecting with, and so on, in a widening circle, Bensley says.

Professionals are especially open to such requests right now because many are working from home and are free from in-person meetings, conferences and business travel engagements. In many ways, motivated students and recent graduates currently have a “captive audience,” she says.

“This shows curiosity and a desire to learn about your craft, gets your name out there, and helps you evolve and have insights on what they [professionals] consider to be important,” Bensley says. “If an employer said, ‘We really value teamwork,’ there’s a hint: Everything [you might say in a job interview] should be focused on teamwork. Instead of saying, ‘I did X,” say, ‘We did X.’ That can be the small percentage you need to get ahead — understanding the value system of the employer because you’ve talked to them about it.”

Forward vision

As counselors offer support and reassurance to recent graduates and young professionals struggling to adjust to personal and professional lives upended by COVID-19, here are some important points to keep in mind:

>>  Focus on listening. Downie urges counselors to slowly ease in to therapeutic or career work with these clients. She often opens her sessions with a question: “What do you want to talk about today?” With so many concerns currently weighing on these clients, their answers might be unexpected and diverge entirely from the topics they have discussed in session previously, she says.

“Give them the floor to talk about whatever they want. We [counselors] always have to be good listeners, but now as we’re isolated, there’s a real temptation to give advice,” Downie says. “What is needed now, during this crisis, is to listen — listen more and not give advice. That’s been essential. Students who were slow to open up to begin with now need additional time to be comfortable. We need to build [therapeutic] relationships but also step back and allow for quiet. Right now, there’s so much chatter, [clients] need time to catch their breath before speaking.”

>> Consider the whole picture. College students and recent graduates may unexpectedly find themselves living at home and navigating family stressors, Downie notes. Regardless of the presenting issue that brings these clients to counseling, counselors should ask questions that will help them understand clients’ situations in full. Downie says she has worked with students who have needed to finish college coursework while sharing a computer with family members or to conduct their entire job search on a cellphone. Others found themselves scrambling to secure temporary work — long before they expected to start a career — to supplement household income because their parents had been laid off.

“When students went home and courses went online, family structures were being upended,” Downie says. “It took an emotional toll. … The level of stress has been enormous, even from day one” of the pandemic.

Some students and recent graduates have expressed feeling pressure from parents about their job searches or life choices (even if parents haven’t necessarily voiced those concerns) that they wouldn’t have felt living on campus. Counselors should be mindful that living at home adds an entirely new dynamic to these clients’ experiences, Downie says.

Administrators at Presbyterian College, including Downie, split up the student body roster and called every student to check in through the spring semester. This endeavor confirmed a saying that Downie had been hearing from colleagues: “We’re all in the same storm but not in the same boat.” The needs and stressors that students were experiencing varied widely, depending on their circumstances, she says.

“Really quickly, I realized the truth of that saying. For some, doors opened that weren’t there before. There were some who found themselves with new opportunities, yet their best friends were experiencing a very different [reality],” she explains.

>> Make clients the authors of a story in progress: Tina Leboffe, an ACA member and a counselor pursuing licensure under supervision at a therapy practice in Douglassville, Pennsylvania, uses narrative therapy with clients, many of whom are college students concerned about finding a job after graduation. “I see my clients as the meaning-makers in their own lives. When working with loss [related to the COVID-19 pandemic], I feel that it is important to walk with the client as they tell the story of their experience, while supporting their exploration of what they want this loss to mean for their life story. This can look like allowing space for the client to be present in feeling the emotions caused by loss and also to look forward at what they want their lives to look like as a result of the loss,” says Leboffe, an associate addiction counselor.

“When working with a client to refocus and reimagine their future, we can listen as they add context to their story,” she says. “Despite the setting of their story shifting, the client is still the author. We can support our clients as they integrate a new reality into their life story by asking questions that refocus on the client being the expert of their life. As counselors, we might not be able to change the job market, but we can guide our clients in an exploration of what they want their life to look like given the changes that have occurred. We can assist them in identifying decisions they want to make in the face of change.”

>> Seize the opportunity to explore identity: Leboffe and Anderson both note that while this is a time of stress and upheaval for young clients, it can also afford opportunities for personal growth. Counselors can help support and encourage that process.

“This is a good time for them to learn about themselves, learn about what their values are and what is important to them. … [It is] a time to explore their internal world and let them find out what their 22-year-old self is like,” Anderson says. “How are they with stress? How do they handle ambiguity? How are they capable and able to move forward and readjust in such a difficult time? Giving them space to talk allows them to process [these things].”

“In my experience working with young adults and recent grads — and being one myself not long ago — I have found that this time in their lives can be filled with identity exploration and transition,” Leboffe says. “They may be faced with new levels of independence and responsibility that can evoke questions like ‘What do I want my life to look like?’ or ‘Who do I want to be?’ This can be important to keep in mind as we work with or parent recent grads because it can serve as underlying context to help us be empathetic to their lived experiences while they are developing their sense
of identity.”

>> Remember that productivity is relative. Anderson has found it helpful to remind young clients that even though they’re spending much more time at home, they may need to temper their expectations about productivity.

“This shouldn’t be a time when you plan to be super productive. That’s hard to do when you’re going through something so emotional and so taxing,” Anderson tells clients. “It’s not a time to learn six new languages, clean your entire house or finish a major art project. Instead, focus on what works for you. What are things that calm you and help you [that] you can do routinely? Be less hard on yourself. At the same time, it’s a great time to try something new if you have the motivation to.”

>> Build confidence. Bensley urges counselors to focus on the positive when communicating with college students and recent graduates during the pandemic. “The No. 1 thing we can do for clients is help build their confidence,” Bensley says. “The tone of my emails has been, ‘Hey, you’ve got this. I’m cheering you on.’ I’m trying to use my language to be that [needed] encouragement, even if they don’t ask for it or seem to need it.”

>> Take them seriously. Transitioning to adulthood is hard enough without the added concerns and stresses of COVID-19. Validation from a counselor is pivotal during this time of life, Anderson says.

“Take their concerns seriously. We know in general that people will land on their feet and things will turn out OK as they make their way in the world. [But] they need to be held in the emotional space where they are right now,” Anderson says. “Moving into adulthood is really hard. It can be a very tumultuous time — and one that promotes growth.”

“[These clients’] struggles and needs are serious,” she continues. “Figuring out dating, jobs and social stuff — it’s all important. Stay with them in their space and create that [trusting] relationship. Know that their concerns are valid, even if we have all the confidence in them in the world that they’re going to figure this out. They really are worried that they’re not going to figure this out in the right way. And that’s valid [because] they haven’t been here before.”

 

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Entering the counseling profession amid COVID-19

Graduates from counseling programs certainly aren’t immune to the stresses and uncertainties that 2020 graduates in other fields are facing.

Darius Green graduated from James Madison University (JMU) with a doctorate in counselor education in May. Green says that he and many other counseling graduates feel the pressure of finding jobs that can provide financial stability “rather than being able to choose what positions best fit [our] personal and professional goals.”

I do not come from a background of financial privilege, so this rose to the top of my priorities,” says Green, a member of the American College Counseling Association, a division of ACA. “I [have] noticed a mix of success and difficulty among some of my peers in the job search process. For those who started early and found a position that matched what they were looking for, the process seemed easy. For my peers who had not been able to start searching early or just had not found the ideal position, there seemed to be more difficulty. … I struggled with finding a position that I wanted and carried out my job search longer than I had planned.”

This summer, Green is living in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where JMU is located, holding down both a full-time instructional faculty position with JMU’s Learning Centers Department and working part time as a counselor with the ARROW Project, a community mental health organization roughly 30 miles away in Staunton.

Green hopes that in this time of crisis, professional counselors who are already established will remember the role they play as advocates for the profession and will look out for new counseling graduates trying to enter the field.

“I think that counselors who are already working can be aware and sensitive to how stressful being in such a position [graduating during a pandemic] can be. I also feel as if counselors can advocate within their agencies or communities to do our part in making sure that existing opportunities are made known to recent graduates,” Green says. “That could include reaching out to counseling faculty members to share information or even connecting with colleagues who may know of new counseling graduates in need.”

“One thing that I would want [counselors] to keep in mind is that not everyone has connections to others in the counseling profession and other mental health fields,” he continues. “Some students come from backgrounds that may have lacked opportunities for networking or that may not value the mental health professions. I think it would be important to pay particularly close attention to those students so that they do not fall through the cracks or face another layer of oppression.”

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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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.

Breaking the silence

By Charmayne Adams, Jillian Blueford, Nancy Thacker, Kertesha B. Riley, Jennifer Hightower and Marlon Johnson October 3, 2019

Painting racial slurs in public spaces. Welcoming hate-affiliated groups. Defunding safe spaces on campus for minority groups. Hanging Confederate flags in campus organization housing. These are just some of the examples of acts of hate that have taken place on college campuses and, more specifically, that we witnessed taking place on our own college campus. Even though the authors of this piece are now at different institutions, at the time this article was written, we were all graduate students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

This past spring, hate struck our community once again. An image surfaced denoting racial intolerance and ignorance about the economic barriers that African American students face at predominantly white institutions. The text messages, phone calls, emails, and face-to-face conversations that followed the incident reminded us of a pain that is all too familiar — one that pulls us to try and take care of our community while simultaneously taking care of ourselves. Often, we take care of our community while neglecting to take care of ourselves. As professional counselors, we are able to conceptualize violence in a way that makes it feel less personal, but the constant reminder that this form of hate is personal makes it difficult to externalize.

This is not the first time that an act of hate motivated by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or other minoritized identity has happened on a college campus — and it certainly will not be the last. There was something about this incident, however, that pushed us to ask a question: What is our role as professional counselors and counselor educators in helping to support growth, healing and reflexivity when our learning communities experience hate acts targeted at individuals who hold minoritized identities? 

Campus-based hate crimes

There are many reporting organizations for hate crimes in the United States, but three of the largest are the FBI, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The FBI reported 280 hate crimes on college campuses in 2017, which was 23 more than in 2016 and 86 more than in 2015. Of those hate crimes, roughly 83% occurred against multiracial victims, African Americans, or individuals who identified as Jewish. Those hate crimes happened on a total of 110 college campuses, of which 60 had a graduate-level counseling program. That means that more than half of the college campuses had counselors-in-training and counselor educators embedded in their communities at the time of the hate crime.

Colleges and universities are not required to report their hate crimes to the FBI, but under the Clery Act, they are required to report them to the Department of Education. In 2017, 6,339 institutions (with 11,210 campuses) reported 1,143 individual hate crimes to the Department of Education. The FBI, the Department of Education and the ADL have all indicated an increase in the number of campus hate crimes. In addition, the ADL found that instances of white supremacist propaganda on college campuses increased by 77% in the 2017-2018 academic year as compared with the prior year.

These trends signal a shift in campus climate and psychological well-being at collegiate institutions — a shift that calls on the ethics and skills of our counseling community. We believe it is important to look at the ACA Code of Ethics and other counseling competencies to better understand how to develop intentional awareness and action to address the hate being witnessed on college campuses.

Our ethical responsibility to act 

Professional counselors are trained to promote wellness while attending to the developmental needs of our clients. Additionally, our responsibility to advocate with and on behalf of clients is embedded in our ethics code. In addition, the ACA Advocacy Competencies state that advocating on behalf of clients becomes especially important when clients hold a minoritized identity or an intersection of minoritized identities.

It is our responsibility as professional counselors to view these acts of hate on college campuses as attacks on our clients, students, community members, colleagues and friends who hold minoritized identities. We are trained to use skills such as empathic and active listening, reflection, and minimal encouragers to hold space for individuals to explore their feelings, behaviors and cognitions. We possess skills such as conflict resolution and crisis intervention that are especially important when considering the nature of this topic and the need for individuals of all perspectives to be heard. What better way to engage those skills than by standing against hate and creating safe spaces for individuals affected by these horrendous acts. We believe that all counselors — faculty, students, community professionals — can and must act.

Faculty responsibilities

To effectively address the manifestation of and respond to instances of hate and discrimination in our campus communities, counseling faculty must be proactive and reactive. This includes engaging in personal reflexivity, modeling tough conversations with colleagues, and intentionally structuring learning activities to increase student personal reflection. 

  • Personal reflexivity: This is an active and consistent reflective process in which faculty examine their internalized beliefs, values and biases. This might involve reflecting on your own cultural identity and any bias you may hold toward a particular group, or recording your thoughts, feelings and behaviors to bring greater awareness of your own responses when an act of hate happens on campus.
  • Modeling: Counseling faculty can readily engage in open and sensitive dialogue with their colleagues. As faculty model cultural norms by engaging in reflexivity and debriefing with one another, students can follow suit. Faculty could also engage in community dialogue if there are events for faculty and staff to process acts of hate on campus.
  • Intentional pedagogy: Counseling faculty can also be proactive by incorporating inclusivity throughout the curriculum. This includes facilitating learning environments in which students confront their biases and respectfully hold space for discomfort, or creating learning opportunities around diverse ways of thinking and being.

Counseling faculty can lead the way in being active responders to instances of hate and discrimination on campus. A strong first step is to respond and denounce acts of hate in a timely manner through the release of a collective statement from program faculty. Additionally, faculty can offer support to students at individual and group levels, both within and outside of the classroom. This may include having discussions with students on ways to respond and advocate as a unit for the greater campus community. It is important to remember that any collaborative campus effort should include other departments (e.g., student life, campus counseling centers) and helping disciplines, especially when offering debriefing or processing sessions with students, staff and faculty across campus.

Counseling students’ responsibilities

Students in counseling programs hold a similar but unique vantage point — navigating dual roles as members of the student body and as emerging professionals in the field.

As doctoral students, we felt the tug to dive in and start facilitating the healing work for our campus before we had processed what the hate act meant to us. We realized early on, however, that the first step we needed to take was to assess how the event had impacted our thoughts, feelings and beliefs about ourselves and our peers. It is important to have these conversations — both ongoing and in moments of crisis — within the counseling program. However, another way that we gained support as we processed these incidents involved tapping into campus affinity groups outside of the counseling department.

We also understood that we couldn’t engage in advocacy in a healthy manner if we weren’t taking care of ourselves. It was important for us to stay physically and psychologically healthy by:

  • Seeking personal counseling
  • Maintaining a nutritious diet
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Taking breaks from social media

These and other tips from the Immigration, Critical Race, and Cultural Equity Lab, founded and co-directed by Nayeli Chávez-Dueñas and Hector Adames, helped us manage our own mental health as students while remaining engaged in both our program and greater campus community.

Ultimately, counseling students serve as a bridge to campus and can provide fresh insights into current cultural and societal dynamics. This means that we are equipped to both guide and participate in conversations around instances of hate on campus. At times, this charge may be as macro as serving on a university committee that focuses on bias on campus or as micro as sharing frustrations and concerns with classmates. The key is finding what works for you so that you can sustain your practice of advocacy while maintaining your academic progress.

Together, as faculty and students in counselor education programs, we can contribute to a shift in campus climate by advocating for inclusive dialogue and reflexivity among students, staff and faculty across the higher education community. This is a process that will be ongoing and adaptive as the campus community evolves. Remaining silent and absolving ourselves of responsibility runs counter to our professional value of advocacy.

Community professionals’ responsibilities

Although we have seen an uptick of hate crimes on college campuses, these events certainly are not limited to our academic communities. These crimes occur every day in our cities and towns and affect countless individuals, including students, family members, community leaders, business owners and first responders. Some of these incidents are quite public; others are less visible and demonstrative.

As professional counselors, we need to broaden our understanding of the emotional, mental and physical tolls that hate crimes have on others. Communities of individuals who have endured discrimination for decades carry deeply rooted pain and are distrustful of society, often believing that others cannot understand their experiences. Long term, our lack of connection to marginalized communities threatens to further separate individuals, creating an “us versus them” mentality. People no longer want to understand and walk in the shoes of others; people begin to retreat behind fear and ignorance. To combat this trend toward division and isolation, professional counselors can become a unique and supportive force to help individuals heal and learn.

For us to engage with marginalized communities that have been hurt by these hate crimes, we must first look inward and then move outside the walls of the counseling office. We have an ethical obligation to do no harm to our clients, but first we must recognize and identify our biases and assumptions and recognize that traditional counseling settings are often inaccessible to minoritized populations.

All human beings carry implicit biases that direct how they engage with others — and particularly with individuals of different cultural identities. Professional counselors are not exempt from this natural human tendency, but settling for this often automatic response will create barriers for those needing services. If we do not challenge our own misconceptions, we will struggle to build authentic relationships with our clients and lose the meaningful connection needed to make change.

After reflecting on the preconceived notions that we carry into the counseling relationship, we must humbly and intentionally seek to join with communities to offer services in spaces that minoritized populations utilize. These spaces could include religious organizations, schools, community gardens, recreation centers and community centers. Do not let the burden of seeking services rest on the shoulders of the wounded. Go out and offer your skill set with humility, patience and genuine compassion to the communities affected by these acts of hate.

After we have engaged in the hard work of self-reflection and moving outside of the traditional counseling office, then we are better equipped to support clients from marginalized communities and to begin understanding their experiences. Supporting clients means seeking to understand rather than respond. Even if we hold minoritized identities ourselves, we have to continually strive to see how our clients are experiencing acts of hate and not speak for them but rather alongside them.

By educating ourselves on events happening in our communities, states and nation, we can gain insight into what is happening in the world of our clients. Although it is painful to see the hate occurring all around, we owe it to ourselves and to our clients to be proactive about educating ourselves, learning both within and outside of the counseling session. It is important to remember that the burden of enlightening the majority should never rest on the shoulders of the wounded minority. We must take responsibility for our blind spots as professional counselors and actively seek information that will better prepare us to support clients who hold identities that have been subject to power, privilege and oppression.

Education can lead to empathy and provide motivation to advocate and act. As professional counselors, we have certain privileges available to us, including access to administrators, law enforcement personnel, legislators and community leaders. We can also share our clients’ experiences with others. It is one thing to support our clients within the counseling session and another thing to recognize injustice and take action. Becoming involved with the community means:

  • Attending town hall meetings
  • Volunteering with community organizations
  • Writing letters to legislators
  • Voting
  • Holding office space for leaders to meet and have discussions
  • Not remaining behind the safety net of our counseling environment

We are advocates, and no act of advocacy is too small. What is small is expecting others to step in even though we possess the talents and resources to play a part in bringing about systemic change.

What we need from fellow counseling professionals

As individuals who hold minoritized identities, we need the support, action and advocacy of our community, faculty members and students. We do not have the privilege of feigning ignorance in the face of hate crimes, hate speech, discrimination or microaggressions because these actions are targeted at us. We must stay alert and assess each of these acts in an effort to ensure that we keep ourselves safe. We ask that you join our efforts to make our campuses and communities safer for individuals who hold minoritized identities.

The following is a list of action items that we see as important to combating these incidents and increasing a sense of safety for those with minoritized identities.

1) Examine your biases and prejudices. Our beliefs and values greatly influence our work with clients and students. As professional counselors and counselor educators, we are tasked with examining our biases and prejudices. Similarly, the ACA Code of Ethics requires that we attend to the welfare of students in our training programs, with a particular focus on the needs of students who hold minoritized identities. In examining our biases and prejudices, we communicate that we value our clients and students enough to do our own work, even when it is difficult.

2) Educate yourself. As we begin to uncover the biases and prejudices that we hold, it is our responsibility to seek education and accountability to further combat these harmful beliefs. Too often, the responsibility of educating and holding others accountable falls to minoritized students, further burdening them by making them speak for an entire group of people and tasking them with correcting long-held beliefs. While we (minoritized individuals) want to see this process take place, the responsibility should not fall solely to us. We need allies who are committed to staying educated and who resist shifting that heavy burden onto us, especially when our communities are hurting.

3) Be willing to make mistakes. We do not expect you to be perfect. In fact, we are still learning and growing ourselves and recognize that there will be times when mistakes are made. When those times happen, we ask that you remain open to hearing our perspective and choose to put down your defenses, seeing mistakes as opportunities to grow. Pause when you notice yourself becoming defensive or offering an explanation; simply stating that you are sorry is far more comforting to us than hearing any reason why the behavior was justifiable.

4) Seek to understand our experiences. It is inherent in the counseling profession to relentlessly seek to understand the experiences and perspectives of our clients while providing them empathy. Similarly, we can use these skills to better understand the experiences and perspectives of minoritized students. In doing so, we show these students that we are invested in them and that they matter. By providing this space, we allow students to process their experiences, and we learn more about what needs are not being met and how we can advocate with and for minoritized students.

5) Advocate. Advocacy is a core piece of our professional identity as counselors and counselor educations. Our advocacy efforts apply not only to our clients but also to students in counseling programs, and particularly to those who hold minoritized identities. We challenge you to advocate with us and for us when needed, recognizing that there are times when your position of power may allow you greater access and more authority. We need you to challenge your colleagues to join in this process as a way of uniting our profession to help support vulnerable populations. Please keep in mind that it is important to first understand the experiences and needs of those for whom you are advocating. Be sure to check in throughout the process. Without these check-ins, your advocacy efforts can feel disempowering to the population for which you are advocating.

Conclusion

This is a call to all counseling professionals working on and around college campuses: Be attentive, alert and active when incidents of hate occur. We are not only ethically mandated to step up, but we are well trained to do so. Our skills allow us to confront hate and discrimination with empathic communication and conviction for social justice. These unique qualities complement the needs of our campus communities in the aftermath of these acts of hate.

When we lean in together and speak with a unified voice for equity and justice, we embody our professional values of advocacy and holistic wellness. This is the time to act because our silence speaks volumes.

 

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Charmayne Adams is an assistant professor of clinical mental health counseling at the University of Nebraska at Omaha with research interests in crisis, trauma, and counselor education pedagogy. Contact her at charmayneadams@unomaha.edu.

Jillian Blueford is a clinical assistant professor for the school counseling program at the University of Denver.

Nancy Thacker is an assistant professor of counseling and counselor education at Auburn University.

Kertesha B. Riley is a third-year doctoral student in counselor education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with research interests in graduate student mental health and STEM career development.

Jennifer Hightower is a second-year doctoral student in counselor education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with research interests in suicidality and multicultural issues.

Marlon Johnson is an instructor at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, with research interests in diversity recruitment and issues of burnout and persistence for underrepresented counselor trainees.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Related reading: See the October Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development (JMCD) for a special issue on diversity and inclusion in higher education.

 

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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.

Heading to college with social anxiety

By Bethany Bray July 31, 2019

The transition to college — leaving home, living with a roommate and establishing a new social circle, all while navigating academic responsibilities — doesn’t have to be paralyzing for students with social anxiety.

The key is preparation, says Holly Scott, a licensed professional counselor whose Dallas private practice is a regional clinic of the National Social Anxiety Center. Counselors who are working with college-aged clients with social anxiety should talk through and create a plan for the client to navigate the many anxiety-provoking situations that may arise as they begin (or return to) school.

Try and anticipate daily challenges with the client, such as eating in the cafeteria with peers instead of taking food to go and eating it alone in their dorm room. Talk through healthy ways to negotiate shared space with a roommate who has a different lifestyle or sleeping schedule, Scott suggests. Help the client identify places on campus where they can study quietly as well as plan for ways to meet new friends, such as joining clubs on campus or finding volunteer or extracurricular activities.

“If I’m working with a client who is getting ready for college, we focus a lot on getting rid of avoidance behavior. People with social anxiety might rush back to their dorm room [after class] because it’s scary for them, which can lead to isolation … Their strongest coping skill is often avoidance,” Scott says.

Help the client identify what might be the most fearful experiences for them, and build a plan with healthy coping mechanisms and small goals they can work toward. Perhaps they’re anxious about the thought of having to share a bathroom and walk down the hall to take a shower. Talk that through with the client and get creative, Scott suggests. For someone with social anxiety, the best plan might be to schedule a daily shower in between classes during the day, when the dorms will be quieter.

“The first step is educating the client on what to expect at college. Some have a good idea but others don’t,” Scott says. “The more they can see what it will be like – what will their dorm room look like, where they will eat, what the classrooms look like – the better. Lower their level of uncertainty as best you can. Establish a daily plan. [Unmanaged] social anxiety can lead to depression so it’s good to equip clients with a routine.”

Scott recalls a college-aged client whose social anxiety would spike on weekends, when he didn’t have scheduled classes. She worked with him to set small goals and establish a plan for weekends, such as inviting someone to lunch or going to a sporting event on campus.

More than being shy, introverted or socially awkward, social anxiety is a diagnosable form of anxiety that is accompanied by a constant feeling of apprehension regarding social or performance situations and a fear of judgement from others.

Roughly 12% of U.S. adults will experience social anxiety disorder in their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In adolescents (ages 13-18), the lifetime prevalence is 9.1%.

In cases of severe social anxiety, a counselor can work with a college for special accommodations for the client, such as finding a single (unshared) dorm room, Scott notes.

While planning ahead for the college transition is important, it’s equally vital to ensure that clients with social anxiety continue to check in with a counselor throughout the semester, Scott says. It’s helpful for clients to debrief – and readjust, if needed – on the ways they’re managing their anxiety, as well as the goals they’ve set with a counselor.

If a client goes to college far from home, teletherapy or phone conversations with their existing counselor may be an option. But ideally, a client who needs regular sessions should find a local counselor to see while on campus, either at a college counseling center or in the community, Scott says. If granted permission by the client, a counselor can work in tandem with the client’s college counselor, sharing treatment plans and keeping in contact.

 

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Read more on living with social anxiety in Counseling Today’s August 2019 cover story, “More than simply shy.”

 

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Transitioning to college life: Tips for success

“Should I change my major?” “What should I do this weekend?” “Should I drop this class?” It’s easy to feel paralyzed by all the potential and possibilities that come with starting college. Decisions — even minor ones — often feel as if they will have an unchangeable and lasting impact on the direction your life will take.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, know that you’re not alone. University counseling centers across the country are seeing an increase of students looking for support as they face the academic and social challenges college can bring, says Richard Tyler-Walker, president of the American College Counseling Association. Social anxiety, social isolation, interpersonal and self-esteem issues are some of the most common issues that bring students to college counseling centers, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.

Setting small goals – and reaching out to your college counseling center for extra support – can help you find balance and manage anxiety as you start college, says Tyler-Walker, a licensed professional counselor supervisor and associate director of the College Counseling Center at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He suggests the following:

  • Set realistic goals. A student who may not have had the social life they wished for in high school may view college as a fresh start or a “do-over.” College is a time to build new friendships and deepen existing ones. A person can set themselves up for success by setting goals that reflect who they are, not who they wish they were. It is unlikely that someone who is most comfortable with quiet conversation will feel content becoming the life of the party.
  • Build a network. Many students report feeling socially isolated at college. As you walk across crowded lawns and through noisy hallways on campus, it can feel like everyone else has all the friends they need. Reach out to acquaintances who are going to the same college. Start a conversation with your roommate before you arrive on campus. Get to know your resident advisor (RA), teaching assistants, academic advisor and other helpful personnel. Join a group for people with similar interests. Identify a cultural center on campus that interests you. Most colleges have centers for groups that include women, African American, LGBTQ and multicultural students.
  • Practice being friendly. Introduce yourself to a new person each day. Join clubs that focus on things of interest. Student involvement can help with getting a sense of the college or university and starting to build connections with others. Challenge yourself to go to meetings at least three times before deciding if it’s right for you. This will allow you to see the core group of people that attend and allows the members to become more familiar with you at the same time.
  • Embrace orientation. Orientation is staffed by student affairs professionals and trained students who focus on creating a welcoming environment for all new students. It’s a time to learn about the ins and outs of the system and make connections with others. Everyone is new to the college, so orientation is a great level playing field.
  • Pick a residence hall that suits you. “Where will I live?” It’s one of the first decisions a college student makes. Residence halls may be massive dormitories where there are shared rooms and bathrooms. In other cases, they’re set up with suite-style rooms or learning villages. Some students may enjoy the anonymity of a larger space while others may benefit from a smaller environment – especially where there might be common thread that connects. Learning villages at universities put students with common interests such as the arts, international studies, women in science, technology or other subjects together.
  • Find a space to breathe. Colleges and universities range from massive to virtually pocket-sized. Whatever the size of your school, look for a quiet corner where you can get away when you need to have some quality alone time. You might have done this by your choice of residence, such as a single room. For those whose living quarters are not a solitary refuge, every library, student union, green space and building on a college campus can have a nice spot for sanctuary if you keep your eyes open.
  • Reduce avoidance. No one likes the feeling of anxiety and we tend to avoid those situations that make us anxious. The more we do that, the more we create an endless loop of anxiety and avoidance. Your anxiety is trying to tell you that it is keeping you safe by not putting you into situations that will be scary. Once you put a name on fear it has much less power over you.
  • Practice, practice, practice. No one is a virtuoso the first time they pick up an instrument. It takes practice and skill. Don’t get caught up in whether [social skills] seem easier for others than for yourself. This is a challenge that you can welcome with the right attitude. Practicing these skills isn’t a matter of standing in front of a mirror, it’s about incorporating small moments of opportunity throughout the day. Practice smiling at others, saying hello, accepting a compliment, telling a joke or even flirting.
  • Ask for help if you need it. College counseling centers have trained staff that can help through counseling, either in group or individual formats. Counselors can build on the skills you’ve identified and help create harmony between your public and private selves.

Source: Richard Tyler-Walker, LPC-S, president of the American College Counseling Association, a division of the American Counseling Association.

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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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.

Addressing ethnic self-hatred in Latinx undergraduates

By Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado September 3, 2018

When Europeans first made contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, a path toward Eurocentrism was set in the Western Hemisphere. In the years since the conquest and colonization of North America and the establishment of the United States, the cultural values and social policies of this country have favored people of Western European heritage.

Although the sociopolitical and cultural superiority of Europeans validates the experience of white Americans, these edicts render Latinx communities marginalized or invisible. What is worse, people of Latinx descent might come to accept the superiority of the white population. When this occurs, a person is said to have internalized racism.

In the 2006 article “Naming racism: A conceptual look at internalized racism in U.S. schools,” Lindsay Pérez Huber, Robin N. Johnson and Rita Kohli defined internalized racism as “the conscious and unconscious acceptance of a racial hierarchy in which whites are consistently ranked above People of Color. … It is the internalization of the beliefs, values and worldviews inherent in white supremacy.”

Internalized racism is thought to have negative physical and psychological consequences for people of color. Even so, the bulk of the research on internalized racism has focused on communities of African descent. Most of this research can be credited to Jerome Taylor, as either he conducted these studies or other researchers used his survey instrument, the Nadanolitization scale, to assess internalized racism.

Research studies have linked internalized racism in communities of African descent with increased abdominal fat, higher glucose levels and larger waist circumference, which are indicators of more serious health concerns. Additionally, internalized racism has been linked to marital dissatisfaction, increased depressive symptoms, increased stress, decreased self-esteem and decreased life satisfaction. In one of the few studies examining internalized racism in Latinx communities, I found that internalized racism was negatively related to ethnic identity development among Latinx undergraduates.

Although it appears that internalized racism has a negative impact on communities of color, we do not know why racism gets internalized. Two prominent theories are that 1) exposure to racism leads to its internalization and 2) acculturation to a racist society leads to the internalization of racist values. The exposure to racism hypothesis is largely grounded in social conditioning, in which repeated exposure to racism ultimately leads an individual to accept racist notions as truth. The acculturation hypothesis argues that by adopting the values of a racist society, the individual must accept racist notions in conjunction.

The research

Given the limited research on internalized racism in Latinx communities and the desire to better understand why racism is internalized, I undertook a study guided by two research questions:

1) Does exposure to racism predict the internalization of racism in Latinx undergraduates?

2) Does acculturation to U.S. society predict the internalization of racism in Latinx undergraduates?

(A quick note on usage of the word Latinx. Spanish is a gendered language with masculine and feminine pronouns; some readers might be more familiar with the usage of Latina and Latino, for example. To break from these gendered conventions and to be more inclusive of folks who do not identify strictly with one gender, scholars and activists have called for the usage of Latinx.)

Participants in this study were recruited from college Latinx student organizations. Using a variety of group email lists, I reached out to faculty and student advisers at two- and four-year colleges and universities and solicited their aid in recruiting potential participants. In total, 350 first-generation Latinx students participated in this study. These participants represented 93 universities from 29 states. All of the participants self-identified as Latinx. Furthermore, 75.7 percent of the participants identified as female, 20.6 percent identified as male, 0.3 percent identified as transgender and 1.1 percent identified as other (2.3 percent of participants declined to identify). The average age of participants was 21.81.

Participants completed an online survey consisting of the Everyday Discrimination Scale (EDS), the Abbreviated Multidimensional Acculturation Scale (AMAS) and the Mochihua Tepehuani scale. Furthermore, I used hierarchical linear regression in an attempt to answer my research questions regarding the cause of internalized racism. The Mochihua Tepehuani, a revised version of the Nadanolitization scale adapted to assess internalized racism in Latinx communities, acted as the criterion variable in the analysis. The EDS assessed exposure to racial discrimination. The AMAS was used to assess participants’ degree of acculturation to U.S. culture and values. Both exposure to racism and acculturation acted as predictor variables in this study.

Through hierarchical linear regression, I was able to assess the strength of the overall model with both exposure to racism and acculturation acting as predictors of internalized racism and the individual impact of the two predictor variables. Although the overall model was statistically significant, the amount of variance accounted for by this model was slight (R2 = .06, p < .001). This means that the relationship between the predictor and criterion variables is not likely due to chance, but that the predictive power of combined variables is small. Individually, exposure to racism (β = .14, p < .05) and acculturation (β = .20, p < .001) were significant predictors. In this case, a one standardized point change in exposure to racism or acculturation produced a .14 or .20 standardized point change, respectively, in the internalized racism scores of participants.

Based on these results, it appears that both research questions can be answered in the affirmative: Both exposure to racism and acculturation to U.S. society predict internalized racism in Latinx undergraduate students.

Interrupting racism’s impacts

Although most counselors might intuitively know that racism negatively affects Latinx undergraduates, the findings of this study provide empirical evidence of racism’s impacts. Furthermore, the impacts of racism — hurt feelings, a sense of exclusion and the like — are not fleeting. Rather, the impacts linger in the minds of Latinx undergraduates. Over time, the cumulative impacts of racist encounters can lead to the internalization of racism, ultimately steering Latinx undergraduates to conscious or unconscious acceptance of the cultural and intellectual superiority of whites.

To intervene in the internalization of racism, counselors are encouraged to help Latinx undergraduates talk through instances of discrimination. This begins with validating students’ perceptions that they have experienced racism. The challenge with processing incidences of discrimination is that racism can be subtle and subjective — as in the case of microaggressions. This inability to objectively say that a racist incident has occurred might lead some individuals to dismiss or downplay the incident.

Recently, I was working with a university student who shared a story of experiencing discrimination on campus. The student, uncertain of how to make sense of the event, shared her experience with a good friend, who immediately told her she was making a big deal out of nothing. After talking through these events with me, the student came to the realization that her friend’s reaction was more hurtful than the original discriminatory event had been. When processing an incidence of racism, it is important to remember that the perception of the event can be more important than the facts of the event. Therefore, a microaggression might not be a big deal for me as a Chicano counselor who has dealt with racism all of my life, but it could be a huge deal for a student who is experiencing racism for the first time. As such, we should take time to validate the perceptions of the student.

Another strategy I have found useful in helping Latinx undergraduates process incidences of discrimination is to examine the source of racist notions. Beverly Tatum (in her classic text Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?) explained that biased thoughts are a product of limited information. From this perspective, bias is a product of the perpetrator’s ignorance; the person possesses limited information about the Latinx community and has made a gross generalization.

After talking through a student’s emotions surrounding an incident of discrimination, I will introduce Tatum’s perception of bias. My hope is for the student to realize that racism is not the student’s fault. It is not a reflection of the student’s culture or heritage, but instead is the product of a biased perpetrator and a racist society. This typically alleviates some of the student’s stress and allows the student to see the interaction in a new light.

Avoiding assimilation

The melting pot and other assimilationist notions can be viewed as an American ideal. Assimilation tends to gain popularity in communities of color during periods of heightened racism. Since the presidential election of 2016, Latinx communities have faced an onslaught of racist depictions by politicians and media outlets. This is especially true of the Mexican community, whose members have been described as drug dealers, rapists and murderers by President Donald Trump.

In an attempt to avoid racism and discrimination, Latinx parents might try to expedite assimilation in their children by promoting the adoption of traditional American cultural values and the abandonment of Latinx values. The belief is that Americanization will enable Latinx youth to pass as Americans and avoid racism. Alas, the promotion of assimilation leads to the portrayal of American culture as being superior to Latinx culture — the very definition of internalized racism described earlier.

Unfortunately, some Latinx individuals are overdetermined by their physical features; dark-skinned folks such as myself can never pass as Euro American. Regardless of attempts to assimilate, we will always be recognized for our cultural heritage. As such, an assimilationist upbringing can backfire if Latinx students experience rejection from their white peers for being too brown. These same students can then also be excluded by their Latinx peers for not being Latinx enough. In part for this reason, I encourage counselors to help Latinx families take a strength-based perspective on their cultural heritage and to look to biculturalism over assimilation.

Assimilationist notions also have a history in higher education. Respected higher education scholar Vincent Tinto described the need for students to assimilate to the college campus and leave the home culture behind to be successful and persist to graduation. Alas, campus climates are a reflection of Euro-American values. Higher education personnel who promote an assimilationist agenda of higher education success also promote notions of American cultural superiority, thus increasing the Americanization of Latinx undergraduates and, potentially, increasing the internalization of racism.

Fortunately, higher education scholars such as Sylvia Hurtado have recognized the flaws in Tinto’s early work and promoted models of student engagement that recognize the positive influence of cultural heritage, family and community. Furthermore, Hurtado and her colleagues have argued that assimilationist models do not accurately account for the success and persistence of students of color in higher education.

Based on the work of Hurtado, a multidimensional approach might be better for promoting the success of Latinx undergraduates and avoiding the internalization of racism. In a multidimensional approach, Latinx students are encouraged to retain their ethnic culture, remain engaged with cultural support systems and view culture as a resource in promoting their academic success. Similarly, undergraduates learn about the culture of their institution and the skills necessary for them to successfully navigate higher education. A significant body of research supports this multidimensional approach, but for this perspective to be successful, higher education personnel must recognize the value of traditional support systems.

A first step toward this is helping Latinx students recognize the value of their culture and heritage. This can include promotion of Latinx ethnic identity, such as exploring what it personally means to be Latinx and building connections with other Latinx students, for example. Positive Latinx ethnic identity is linked to increased persistence in higher education and higher GPA and might also block the internalization of racism.

Second, institutions of higher education can also work to affirm Latinx culture on campus. This includes holding cultural celebrations; recognizing the achievements of Latinx students, staff, faculty and community members; and providing space for Latinx students to study and socialize.

Finally, higher education personnel can find ways to collaborate with Latinx families and communities.

These combined interventions signal to Latinx students that their culture and community are of value, reducing the perceived superiority of whiteness and, subsequently, blocking the internalization of racism.

Conclusion

Although counselors might intuitively know that racism and internalized racism negatively affect Latinx undergraduates, the full impact of internalized racism will remain unknown until additional research is conducted. Within the context of higher education, it would be helpful to know how internalized racism influences academic performance and persistence. In addition, it would be helpful to know how internalized racism affects self-esteem, academic self-efficacy and depression. Finally, knowing how and why racism is internalized might lead to better strategies to interrupt this process.

Although additional research is needed on the topic of internalized racism in Latinx undergraduates, this study represents an important step in empirically documenting factors that lead to the internalization of racism. It is my hope that this article inspires counselors to consider the impacts of internalized racism and strategies that they might take to help Latinx undergraduates avoid internalized racism.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences

Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado is associate professor in counseling at the University of Colorado Denver. He researches the ethnic identity development of Chicanas/os and Latinas/os, the effects of internalized racism on students of color, the sociopolitical development of students of color and how to improve the cultural competence of counselors. He currently serves as the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development representative on the ACA Governing Council and is the past chair of the ACA Foundation. Contact him at carlos.hipolito@ucdenver.edu or on Twitter @DrCarlosHD.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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