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A Counselor Who Looks Like You

A common demand of minority student protests is more minority counselors in a range of student service departments. Is this wise or does it promote segregation?

March 3, 2016

As protests over racial inequality continue to take place on college campuses across the country, a common demand has emerged: hire more people of color in student services.

In some cases, the students are even asking that colleges create new advising or counseling centers specifically designated for and staffed by people of color. While some critics have described such demands as a call for segregation, student affairs professionals say that they find the request fair, pointing to a dearth of people of color working in campus counseling and advising centers.

Researchers have found that black students on predominantly white campuses struggle with underrepresentation, social isolation, academic hurdles and racial stereotyping from both their peers and their professors. Much of the conversation surrounding these issues has focused on a lack of minority faculty members and senior administrators. The demands related to student services, however, may demonstrate that some students of color feel similarly isolated by the staff members who have the jobs and are best trained to help with those concerns.

“I think it’s a reasonable demand,” said Dan Jones, chair of the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance and director of East Tennessee State University’s counseling center. “Some minority students prefer to see somebody of their race. They prefer to see a minority person, as that person can understand the added burden of prejudice the majority of counselors may not be able to recognize. I think it would be helpful. The issue is coming up more and more. Students are clearly demanding this.”

At Earlham College, students asked for the creation of a “multicultural center that is autonomous, free of surveillance” and staffed by people of color to provide counselors of color for students of color. At California State University at East Bay, students demanded an increase in the number of African-American academic advisers, as well as an increase of black counselors in the Student Health and Counseling Center. While 11 percent of undergraduates are black, there are only three black staff members in student health and counseling services and no black counselors.

Students at the University of California at Berkeley demanded that the university establish an African-American Student Development Resource Center and hire two permanent full-time black psychologists. Currently, three of the 30 or so licensed psychologists working at Berkeley are black.

In November, students at the University of Kansas demanded that the university create a “team of multicultural counselors to specifically address severe mental illness and the needs of students of color.” Kansas declined to say how many counselors are minorities. The Kansas students set a hard deadline for the demand: this coming fall semester.

Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said it’s important that colleges and universities strive to have staff members who represent the demographics of their students, but he said it can be difficult for colleges to carry out some of the students’ demands, especially those on a timetable. There's not only a shortage of people of color in student services, he said, but also in the pipeline of candidates for those jobs. Only 1.5 percent of the American Psychological Association’s members, for example, are black.

“Students of color should see themselves represented in the leadership and administrative structures of the institution,” Kruger said. “This should be a goal and a core value for every college. However, prescriptive demands on hiring a specific number of staff from underrepresented populations within a very narrow time frame can be challenging on many fronts.”

In a recent essay for the Hoover Institution, a conservative-leaning public policy think tank, James Huffman, former dean of the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis and Clark College, criticized the idea for more than its logistical challenges. He said the concept borders on segregation.

“Special programming for minority students cannot help but convey, in a microaggression-like manner, that campus officials believe students of color need extra help to succeed,” Huffman wrote. “School-sanctioned programs and groups that cater to students of color, even students of particular colors, segregate students on the basis of race. Separate minority counseling services reinforce the idea that students of color are different, that counselors of a different race cannot possibly understand a minority student’s issues and concerns.”

‘Culturally Competent Staff’

African-American students report feeling less mentally prepared than white students do but are less likely to seek help for mental health concerns, according to a study released last month by the Jed Foundation, an organization that works with colleges to prevent campus suicides, and the Steve Fund, a new group dedicated to studying and improving the mental health of students of color.

“Ethnic matching” has been proposed by many researchers as a way to bring in more students of color, said Alfiee Breland-Noble, senior scientific adviser for the Steve Fund and an associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center.

“In fact, when asked, many people of color will readily acknowledge that they prefer to access care in more racially diverse settings with individuals who they believe can more easily empathize with the sociocultural aspects of their concerns,” Breland-Noble said. “Generally speaking, the best available research evidence points to patient preferences in the mental health arena for diverse providers, diverse approaches to treatment and well-trained, culturally competent staff.”

Some colleges and universities already offer counseling and academic advising focused on black and other minority students.

In 2006, the University of Virginia created a program called Project Rise, which provides free, one-on-one counseling services to black students. The counselors are not professionals, the university said, but they are “directly connected” to the Office of African-American Affairs and to Counseling and Psychological Services. Like those they are helping, the counselors themselves are black students.

At Dartmouth College, the Office of Pluralism and Leadership offers a Black Student Advising program that includes advising and counseling about social adjustment, financial aid, incidents of racism and academic issues. The Office of Black Student Affairs at the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of seven institutions in California, has a similar focus on advising and counseling.

Shaun Harper, founder and executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, said many colleges and universities offer such race-specific advising and counseling, but they tend to be organized, sometimes unofficially, through an institution’s black or multicultural center.

“If we're looking for other places that already do this kind of work, there are already thousands of them across the country,” Harper said. “But they need more support, they need more staffing and they need more money. Oftentimes you’ll find one or two full-time staff members and maybe some work-study students, and that’s it. Yet those places really are the epicenters of student of color on most campuses.”

Harper said he would prefer if those services were provided by trained professionals in counseling and advising centers, however. If a college doesn’t have enough resources to hire more staff or to create a new advising center, he said, then the staffers in those roles should be properly trained to deal with the sensitive issues they are discussing with students.

“Yes, we need more staff members of color in student support services,” Harper said. “Yes, we need more services customized for particular groups of students. But we also need existing units like counseling centers to help counselors become more highly skilled at counseling students of color. Even if a financial aid office is fully staffed with middle-class white people, we need those middle-class white financial aid officers to understand how to interact with students of color in ways that don’t stereotype them or don’t compel them to never come back to the office because they’ve had such a traumatic experience.”

Student protestors at Kennesaw State University made a similar plea in their demands last year. In June, an adviser threatened to call security on a black student waiting for help in the university’s advising office. The student filmed the encounter, and the video went viral, setting off debates over the inclusiveness of academic advising services.

In a statement released in November, a group of black students demanded that the university require diversity training, saying that the incident “exposed the need for accountability in ensuring cultural and racial awareness among” academic advisers.

“Clearly staffing and resources for a multicultural center with diverse staff is an important part of addressing race and equity issues on campus,” Kruger, of NASPA, said. “At the same time, let’s remind ourselves that issues of equity and inclusion around race, ethnicity, ability, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity [are] the responsibility of all staff and faculty. Creating inclusive, justice-centered campus environments can’t be left just to the multicultural centers or to the staff and faculty of color who are already employed by the college. It has to be broader than that.”

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