In 2013, as is the case at many campuses, Pennsylvania State University seniors chose to commission a piece of art as its senior class gift. The 12-foot-tall glass sculpture spells out the university's motto, “We are.” The next senior class chose to create a large rooftop terrace.
This year’s seniors went in a different direction: their class gift to Penn State will be an endowment to support the university’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services. Next year, the money will be used to hire a new counselor who can provide services in a residence hall, which is a first for the university.
In the past five years, demand for counseling at Penn State has increased by 30 percent.
“We’re moving away from monuments and shrines and other physical attributes on campus and truly trying to create resources and services that really make an impact,” said Ramon Guzman, executive director of the gift campaign. “For students to say to their classmates, ‘Hey, I stand with you,’ that’s more powerful than anything else.”
The mental and emotional health of students has been of increasing concern to colleges in recent years, even as many institutions struggle to find the resources to better address those concerns. Last year, the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent suicide among college students, teamed up with the Clinton Foundation Health Matters Initiative to create a new program designed to help colleges and universities promote “emotional and mental well-being.” Dozens of colleges are currently participating in the program.
More than half of college students say they have experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the last year, according to the American College Health Association, and 32 percent say they have felt so depressed “that it was difficult to function.”
Nearly 10 percent of respondents to last year’s American Freshman survey reported that they “frequently felt depressed.” It was the highest percentage of students reporting feeling that level of depression since 1988, and 3.4 percentage points higher than in 2009, when the survey found the rate of frequently depressed freshmen to be at its lowest.
Last year, following the suicide of a student at the University of Pennsylvania, the New Jersey Senate passed a new law requiring that mental health professionals be available around the clock to assist New Jersey college students. The new counselor funded by the endowment at Penn State will serve a similar function, by being available to students in residence halls after hours.
“I think this suggests that some student leaders have come to recognize that this issue is important for student life, health and success, and this is great news for folks,” said Victor Schwartz, medical director for the Jed Foundation. “They are also acknowledging that this issue is almost universally underresourced.”
The endowment was chosen from three proposals submitted and voted on by members of this year's senior class. The other proposals included a mural “representing the university’s diverse population,” and a mosaic that would depict “classic Penn State iconography.”
Nicholas Jones, Penn State’s executive vice president and provost, said creating the endowment as this year’s class gift was an “impactful gesture.”
“College is an exciting time for many students, but the challenges of college life and young adulthood can be stressful,” Jones said. “The need for additional funding is growing as more students recognize the essential support that [the counseling center] is able to provide to them.”
The class is still raising money for the effort through the first week of May. So far, the campaign has raised more than $125,000. On Tuesday, the Penn State Alumni Association announced that it had committed up to $200,000 to match contributions to the gift from this year's seniors.
The total amount raised will then be invested, with the interest from the investment being made available annually to the university’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services. For the endowment’s first year, the funds will be used for the new counselor position, which will also be supported in part by a donation from two Penn State employees, but the counseling center will determine how best to use the money in the following years, Guzman said.
If the endowment reaches the campaign's $400,000 goal, the center will receive $18,000 per year.
Guzman described the endowment as “reminiscent of some of the early class gifts” at Penn State, which were often used to create new student resources. In 1956, for example, the senior class gift was used to create the university’s ambulance service.
“There is a growing need for mental health services,” Guzman said. “And from the student perspective, we understand that. We know our own peers, colleagues, friends, even ourselves, have mental illnesses, and that they are struggling with depression or have even considered or attempted suicide. And so I think our class said, ‘Enough is enough. Let’s do our part to make Penn State a better place.’”
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