Campus counseling centers have been prominent in pushing colleges to respond to changes in the demographics of the student body. But at a session Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, officials of counseling centers said that there were emerging subgroups in higher education that require much more attention than they are receiving.
Specifically, speakers talked about how counseling centers can do more for Arab-American students, gay minority students, and biracial students. And speakers also said that those groups were reflective of other groups of students who don't fit neatly into some well understood category.
Majeda A. Humeidan, assistant director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Michigan, cited the example of Arab-Americans, who face numerous issues for which they could use support and guidance on campus. Many struggle with their identities and how much to be identified with their ethic background, and depending on how they resolve these questions, they face "legitimacy testing" in which other Arabs ask them if they "are Arab enough."
Other students on campus may treat them with open hostility, as exotic, or as if they are not Americans. (Humeidan stressed that she was talking about Arab-Americans, not the large population of foreign students from Arab nations.)
Campus officials, Humeidan said, are frequently ignorant of important facts about Arab-Americans. For example, the vast majority of Arab-American students are Christians, not Muslims. Many campus officials, she added, do not know which offices should help Arab-Americans, with multicultural program offices declaring them to be either white and/or foreign, and international-student offices declaring them to be Americans. "We have offices fight to be not responsible for Arab students," she said.
Arab-Americans have particular concerns about confidentiality, post-9/11, Humeidan said, and colleges should reassure them on this. (Louise Douse, director of the counseling center at Ohio State University, said later in the session that she has announced that she would go to jail before violating patient confidentiality, and that her announcement reassured Arab students on her campus.)
One thing colleges can do, Humeidan said, is to make sure that when students are filling out forms when they come into a counseling center, there is a place on the form that allows them to designate themselves as Arab-American.
Similarly, Todd D. Sevig, director of the counseling center at the University of Michigan, recommended that colleges be sure to offer a range of options for students who are biracial or identify with multiple racial or ethnic groups. Sevig was unable to attend the session, but his paper was read at the session, and he noted in the paper that his perspective comes in part from being a white man married to a black woman, with whom he has two biracial children.
When campuses stick to the "check one box" mentality, he said, "it makes people from multiple backgrounds feel invisible."
Sevig also noted that counseling centers regularly do research to study patterns in the problems facing students on their campuses. Without finding out how many students are from mixed racial backgrounds, he said, colleges will be unable to identify particular issues that they have.
Richard A. Rodriguez, director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Colorado at Boulder, spoke about the need for counselors to not just be responsive, but to be visible "outside of our offices" so that students feel comfortable seeking help. He focused on the needs of gay minority students, who face identity and acceptance issues in gay groups, minority groups and society as a large.
Rodriguez's approach is to be very visible, joining gay and Latino groups (and gay Latino groups) and showing up at orientation sessions and conferences. Students who have come into the counseling center to see him have told him that they would never have done so if they hadn't seen him elsewhere. "We have to become part of the community," he said.
This approach raises its own challenges, Rodriguez said -- especially with "boundary issues." In Rodriguez's participation in community groups, he frequently ends up interacting with some people who are his patients, but whom it would be inappropriate to recognize as such.
In addition, outreach efforts take time, and counseling centers are stretched as is. "There are needs for crisis walk-in and for clinical care," he said, and there is never enough time.