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  February 12, 2001

Counselors Help the 'Whole' Student

Trying to arrange a meeting with Joanne Lewis can be daunting. Her calendar is chock full of appointments, often lasting well into the night. And the discussions that take place in her office are often challenging, sometimes life-changing.

In the grey clapboard house on Gilbert Road that is home to Counseling Services, Lewis' staff usher one student out of the office and welcome another in. The discussions run the gamut, from academics to relationships. When there's an opening, the counseling staff fan out across campus, offering seminars on topics ranging from study skills and stress management to personality theory and motivation. A peer tutoring program serving more than 1,400 students is also managed by Counseling Services.

It is, Lewis says, a labor-intensive job.

It also is a job that can help transform a floundering student into a UConn graduate; a troubled student into a driving force in the community; a student comfortable getting handouts into a confident student that knows how to succeed.

"Students today are struggling with so many things: relationships, trying to find their place in society, seeking help career-wise, trying to enhance their academics. They're really feeling a lot of pressure - sometimes from their parents - and they're using UConn as a training ground for learning how to cope," says Lewis, who has directed the counseling department since 1990.

Whatever pressures students are feeling, Lewis and her staff of "counselor generalists" can help. Trained in a range of disciplines, including psychology, counseling, career development and personality theories, and a range of skill coaching techniques, the staff - Lewis, Kevin Sullivan, John Szarlan, and Kathy Larocco - work to help the "whole" student, Lewis says.

"We may see a student who at some point has been sexually abused, is in trouble academically, and doesn't know what to do for a career. They may have a 1.6 GPA and be on the verge of academic probation or dismissal. If that's the case, we'll start with the academics, because that's why we're here," Lewis says. "Once we get a handle on that, we can move on to other concerns. It's rare that we see a student who isn't experiencing a combination of academic, personal, developmental or career concerns."

And that should surprise no one, Lewis says.

"Breaking up with a significant other can be wrenching," she says, "and it will hurt their ability to concentrate. They can't stop thinking about the break-up. They may not want to get up in the morning. Then they miss a quiz. Then a test or a paper. It's all intertwined."

That intermingling of student problems and concerns is what led UConn, and many universities across the country, to embrace the counselor generalist model. Although other services exist on campus - Student Health Services offers primary mental health care, the Career Services Office counsels students on resume writing and interviewing techniques, and students can receive academic guidance from several areas - those centers serve specific, in-depth needs.

Lewis' staff cover the spectrum and, if necessary, refer students experiencing severe needs to the other three. But they hope to head off problems before they become that serious.

"We're passionate about the model we use because we believe it serves the students and serves them well," Lewis says.

Keith Barker, associate vice provost for undergraduate education and director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning, agrees.

"They're very dedicated in helping the students make the transition during their four years at UConn," says Barker, whose institute has offered seminars for faculty and teaching assistants led by Szarlan and Sullivan. "They've helped faculty and TAs learn about students' needs from a different perspective, and teach the students they can't expect the university to be the same as high school.

"Students face a difficult transition. The holistic counseling model is much better at helping them. The counselors teach them to learn by themselves, and to take control of their own lives."

The seminars for the institute Barker heads represent just a fraction of the counseling staff's outreach efforts - efforts that support their one-on-one sessions with students. Between them, Lewis says, the staff reach more than 9,000 students annually. They train honors students to be peer counselors to freshmen, offer personality and career workshops to new students living in the Northwest residence halls, discuss the merits of positive body image or self esteem to groups at the UConn Women's Center, and provide study skills workshops just prior to mid-term exams. They also make regular presentations to small groups of faculty or students when called upon for specific skills workshops.

"There's a lot of cross-referral," says Michael Kurland, director of Student Health Services. "If a student comes to us overwhelmed and anxiety-ridden because of class work, we'll deal with the anxiety, then refer the student to Counseling Services to discuss study skills and time management - the root cause of the anxiety."

Lewis and her staff also work with the University's five cultural centers, the Center for Academic Programs, the Center for Students with Disabilities, and the Department of Residential Life. They're even there when volunteers are needed to help with the annual Midnight Breakfast for students preparing for final exams.

"We're well connected with the rest of the University," Lewis says. "We participate in community-building initiatives, traditions, celebrations, because it gets us out into the campus community. This is the essence of the student development model."

Judging by the number of students who use the services, it's also part of the essence of UConn.

Richard Veilleux