January 26, 2016

Students benefit from Counselors in Residence program

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. – A program in Southern Illinois University Carbondale residence halls that offers private counseling and support to students when they need it most is proving beneficial. 

The university’s Counselors in Residence program launched last fall to help students smoothly transition to living on campus and handle all that is involved in college life. Sometimes a student is a bit homesick, struggling to get along with a roommate, having relationship problems or suffering from test anxiety. Other times, students are coping with even larger issues. Regardless, the program offers help through a new satellite SIU Counseling and Psychological Services office located in Grinnell Hall. 

The office, in a centralized location among the east campus residence halls, puts counselors where they are readily available to students during evening and weekend hours. The office is open from 12:30 to 9 p.m. daily, including Saturday and Sunday. 

Magnolia Hood and Stephanie Duckworth, both Licensed Clinical Professional Counselors and SIU alumnae, staff the office. Duckworth and Hood hold master’s degrees in educational psychology; Hood’s features an emphasis on marriage and family therapy while Duckworth’s emphasis is in school counseling. 

Jon Shaffer, director of University Housing, suggested the Counselors in Residence concept during campus conversations about how to better help students succeed, stay in school and complete their degrees. The program is a partnership between Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), a unit of SIU’s Student Health Services, and University Housing. 

“Research demonstrates that student support services are highly underutilized when provided as passive resources,” Shaffer said. “The key for students to experience the optimal benefit of helping resources is to bring the services to the students. By hosting counselors within our largest population area on campus, and during the hours our residence halls are most active, we have brought this valuable resource right to the students’ door step. The usage rates from first semester validate that we have created the right opportunity for our students to get help when it’s needed.” 

Shaffer said the new Intrusive Academic Intervention Program, also initiated last fall in the residence halls, couples well with the CIR program as a proactive approach to helping students. Academic Peer Advocates (APA) actively seek out students who they have been advised by faculty, staff or others may be encountering academic issues of some kind. The APAs are specially trained to help figure out what issues may be causing unsatisfactory student performance and connect students with appropriate resources on campus to help. 

Falling grades, an outburst in class or poor attendance are the kinds of clues that an intrusive intervention is needed and a peer advocate will reach out and contact the student where they live. Shaffer said there were 1,200 interventions – 1,200 instances where SIU proved to students that the university and its faculty, staff and fellow students want them to succeed. 

Staff members from the new CIR office address a wide variety of student concerns, difficulties and behaviors. They help with stress management, social skills development, managing depression or grief, building relationships and countless other problems. They also work with students who are potentially suicidal or self-harming as well as with those who have experienced trauma of one kind or another. Students can drop in the office, call, or even meet with a counselor in a residence hall director’s office in the same building they live in. 

“We provide whatever interventions we can to help students. We’ve had a really positive reaction from them, too,” Jaime Clark, director of CAPS and associate director of Student Health Services, said. The CIR program began quietly part way through the semester but word of mouth helped it grow tremendously, she noted. 

She said there are many benefits to having counselors so accessible to students. Although the satellite office is always staffed in case someone comes in, counselors also travel throughout the University Housing buildings, making themselves available to get acquainted with students on a casual basis so students are more comfortable talking to counselors as needed. 

Clark also believes the program helps “destigmatize” counseling and mental health. She said many students are surprised to learn that at SIU, just as at other universities across the country, it is quite common for students to seek help with their problems and struggles. 

“Even before this program started, we were seeing one in 10 students at some time during the year. The numbers are even higher now with counselors being accessible during night and weekend hours,” Clark said. “It is really common for a student to come see us. It doesn’t mean they have a major issue. It could just be a transition or adjustment issue. It’s helpful for them to know their peers are seeing us and we are helping. 

“We can provide a lot more comprehensive support for students through this collaboration with University Housing,” Clark added. “By the third month of the program, we were already seeing four times the number of students we saw the first month and by the end of the semester we had seen 400 students through the CIR program.” 

Although some other universities have similar programs, CIR is designed specifically to meet the unique needs inherent to SIU’s environment and student population. Most places offering counselors within university residence halls are smaller, private institutions, officials said. With an enrollment of about 18,000 SIU has a large student population but the somewhat rural setting means there are sometimes fewer resources and services in the region, Clark noted. 

Before the program began, CAPS officials met with housing resident assistants and housing staff to conduct a needs assessment to help determine how best to create tools and programs to help students. They learned that many SIU students are first generation and that adjustment issues are common. They continue to meet with RAs and staff to adjust the program as needed and also to train them so they are also able to provide initial assistance to students. 

Clark said Counselors in Residence uses a “train the trainer” model so everyone is involved and working together for the benefit of the students. CAPS has full-time senior staff members as well as six interns who are completing their counseling residency. There are also 20 practicum students who are majoring in clinical or counseling psychology or social work. All can assist students as needed. 

That help may just involve between one and five counseling sessions. It may include group support, some sort of immediate crisis intervention or even a community referral for more specialized care. In addition, CIR also offers workshops and seminars covering a variety of topics relevant to students. These are open to all SIU students and the community. 

The program will continue to evolve over time due to input from students and those who work with students, Clark said. 

“CAPS works both reactively and proactively with students and the Counselors in Residence program enables us to meet students’ needs more immediately,” Shaffer said. 

“By working together, CAPS and University Housing are reaching more students and providing a comprehensive support system that we believe will lead to greater retention, and more importantly, greater student satisfaction,” Clark said.