Getting the support you need at college

November 12, 2021

Jacqueline Belanger

For the past 15 years, I have provided counseling for students at several universities. Talking to thousands of students has given me the unique opportunity to learn about the student experience and I have observed that academics and mental health are more closely intertwined than you might think. Difficulties in one domain negatively affect the other and the effects of this only grow with time.

Case study – Sam

Sam excelled in high school, both academically and socially, and he was looking forward to college. He had mapped out his future career and chosen the ideal major. He was counting down the days to move into the dorms and start studying. When he arrived, however, he realized how much he missed the familiar faces from home. He felt lost and out of place for the first time. He started feeling anxious and was not sleeping well.

Sam was experiencing very common mental health related issues. They may seem unrelated to academics, but his anxiety and poor sleep had consequences in the classroom. Sam was not able to focus as well as usual. When he was able to pay attention in class, he had difficulty remembering and integrating ideas. This made it much harder for him to learn the material.

As you might imagine, Sam’s grades reflected his difficulties. Then his poor grades added to his anxiety and the cycle continued from there.

If you are in the process of looking at colleges, this scenario might seem daunting and insurmountable. If you are in college, this scenario might feel familiar and hopeless. No matter which stage you are in, I have listed some strategies to help you help yourself or get the support you need.

Obstacles to getting support

Two major obstacles keep students from getting the help they need— not knowing how to get support, and the fear of asking for support.

Regardless of whether you graduated last June or last millennium, the high school experience is relatively universal. Between homeroom, morning announcements and class assemblies, you got help every step of the way to assure you would graduate.

When you needed help with anything, from a lost locker combination to questions about the ACTs and SATs, you knew exactly where to go — to the principal’s office. All you had to do was walk to the office and the person at the front desk could invariably direct you to the resources that you needed. That one-stop shop offered a sense of comfort that you likely took for granted.

In comparison, college can be quite a culture shock. There is no longer just one office to provide you with all the resources you might need. In college, the resources are spread out among offices and departments in multiple locations. All the resources probably blended into one big blur of information during your college orientation and then you never heard about them again. You have no idea where to get help.

Even if you know where to get help, there is a good chance that you would not ask. There is something about college that makes you think that you need to do everything on your own.

Prior to college, you had to go to school because it was required by law. Making the choice to go to college, or having the choice made for you, is putting your ego on the line. It feels like you have made a public declaration that you are good enough to stay the course until graduation. Any sign struggle would be evidence to the contrary and might leave you feeling exposed.

Case study – Anne

Anne sits down to take her exam and quickly realizes that she has no idea how to answer a question. She went to all her classes. She did the homework. She studied for the exam. She thought she were prepared. But she has no idea how to figure out question 2. At this point, she glances around the room, hoping that she is not the only one who seems lost, but her classmates seem to be getting through the exam just fine. In fact, in comparison to Anne, they are flying through the exam.

That is when Anne’s brain starts its downward spiral with self-critical language. “You are not smart enough. You will never be able to learn this. You will fail this test, fail this class and eventually have to drop out.” Anne can visualize the disappointment and judgment on people’s faces when she drops out of school. Her spiral continues. “How long will it take to pay off your student loans if you are working in fast food? You will be humiliated, you will be broke and you will be stuck in that dead end job forever.”

Soon, everyone is walking past Anne to turn in their exams, and Anne realizes that she never made it past the second question. Anne turns in her unfinished exam and leaves, feeling embarrassed and demoralized. Having already envisioned people’s reactions to her failure, Anne does not want to let anyone know about her struggles. Suddenly, Anne feels completely alone and she wants to give up.

Being mentally prepared

You have undoubtedly heard that your years in college will be the best time of your life. You are less likely to have heard about the struggles and challenges that every college student faces. College is a time of excitement, possibility and new experiences. College is also a time of stress – as you discover a new place, new people and new things about yourself.

You will struggle. Expect to struggle.

I can guarantee that you will experience at least one hurdle during your college years that leaves you feeling helpless and isolated. Here is what you may not realize — no one is expecting you to do this alone. Part of succeeding in life, in college and beyond, is learning to use your resources.

If you are looking at colleges, considering what kind of support you will need will help you succeed. Learning about and comparing the resources available at different colleges can help you make an informed decision.

If you have chosen a college or are attending college, I encourage you to explore the resources available. Use them early and often.

Key resources

Here are some of the key resources that you can find at most colleges:

Your professor

When it seems like everyone understands something except you, it can be intimidating to ask questions in class. Luckily, professors are available for you outside of class, too. Sometimes they stay after class and you can talk to them then. Likewise, if you check your class syllabus, it probably mentions times and location for your professor’s office hours. Office hours are times that professors set aside specifically for students to access them outside of class. It is the ideal time to ask for help on a topic that you are finding difficult. Your professor might try a different approach to help you understand a concept and can introduce other resources like tutor or study groups.

Tutoring

Tutoring is an excellent resource that students often don’t take advantage of. Most colleges have some form of tutoring and it is usually free. Tutoring can be with peers or professionals, individual or group, scheduled or drop-in. Peer tutoring is offered by other students who have excelled in a particular class and have received tutor training. Professional tutoring is offered by staff members with tutoring expertise.

Some colleges may also have subject-specific services available that are either grouped with tutoring or exist in a separate space, such as a writing center or a math lab. A writing center offers assistance with any written assignment. They can work through the steps of a paper with you, provide you with feedback on a paper you have written and help you identify growth areas. A math lab offers assistance for any math-related course, including physics and statistics.

Disability services

If you had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan in high school, you probably qualify for academic accommodations in college. Unlike high school, this is not an automatic process. For privacy reasons, your college will not be notified of your disability. It is your choice to self-disclose your disability if you are interested in receiving accommodations.

In order to receive academic accommodations, you will need to register with your college’s disability services. Registration will likely entail having your high school send a copy of your IEP or 504 plan. Then, you will meet with a disability services staff member to identify useful accommodations in college.

Many students are hesitant to register with disability services because they are unsure if they want or need accommodations. Registering with disability services does not obligate you to use accommodations. A common accommodation is extended testing time in a distraction-reduced environment. If you have this accommodation, you could choose test by test whether you want to use this accommodation. You might not need it for regular exams, but it would be more helpful for a mid-term exam. Even if you think you will not use your accommodations, it can be helpful to register with disability services so accommodations are in place if you decide to use them.

Students often think that disability accommodations are just for Specific Learning Disabilities (SLDs). You may not have been on an IEP in high school, but you may have a disability that would be helped with accommodations. Some examples are ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders or Panic Disorder.

Ideally, you would register with disability services before classes start. This will prevent any delay in accessing your accommodations. In addition, if you will need testing accommodations (e.g., extended time, a reader or a scribe), you will be able to access those accommodations for any placement tests required by your college.

Disability accommodations may also apply to your living situation. For example, some students with disabilities can request a private room or an emotional support animal. It is best to request disability accommodations for your living situation as early as possible, because they might not be feasible after housing has been assigned.

Counseling services

Many colleges offer free counseling either on campus or online. Counseling is confidential. That means that counseling records are separate from all other school records and cannot be shared with anyone other than you without your permission.

Counseling is a time just for you. It is a safe environment where you can put your thoughts and feelings into words without being judged. It is a place to receive support, get helpful feedback and help you grow as an individual.

Counseling can help you cope with temporary stress like homesickness or relationships or recurring stress like depression, anxiety or disordered eating. There is no requirement of having a mental health disorder or any specific symptoms. In fact, you do not have to have a problem to go. Counseling is also a place to better understand yourself and explore what you want for your future. Going to counseling does not mean that you have a mental health disorder – it means that you want to be mentally healthy.

Campus counseling centers frequently have an annual session limit, which can be off-putting for students. You may be surprised at how much you can accomplish during even 10 sessions. Counseling centers can also assist you in connecting to more long-term resources off campus.

If you have already been in counseling or know that change is difficult for you, it can be helpful for you to make a counseling appointment at least once at the beginning of the school year. You may be able to schedule your appointment in advance to it in place when you arrive at college. Knowing that you have support can make the transition to college a lot easier. You might find that you need a couple of sessions as you adjust to college. If not, you will have made a connection with a counselor who you know can reach out to in the future.

Exploring resources at your college

These key resources listed are available at most colleges, but your college likely has many additional resources available. The best way to get a comprehensive picture of your college’s resources is to explore their website.

As you explore your college’s website, you will find all kinds of resources. These websites are not always user friendly, but the bulk of the resources can usually be found under a Student Life, Campus Life or Student Support heading. Some websites have their important resources listed out as quick links at the bottom of the page.

Your college may refer to a resource by a different title the ones I have mentioned. The search terms below should help you find these resources on your college website.

Your professor

Students meet with professors to:

  • bring up questions, comments or concerns about a particular class
  • ask about your major, career path or internships
  • Search terms: the professor’s name

Tutoring

  • Students go to tutoring for help with classes on an as-needed or an ongoing basis.

Search terms: tutoring, writing center, math lab, learning

Disability Services

  • Students with a disability that is negatively impacting their education can register with disability services to receive reasonable accommodations.

Search terms: disability, accessibility, ADA

Counseling Services

Students go to counseling services about a variety of personal, academic and relationship problems, including:

  • stress and anxiety
  • poor academic performance and study skills
  • roommate conflicts
  • homesickness and difficulty adjusting to college
  • disappointing social relationships
  • alcohol and other substance use and abuse
  • difficulty in romantic relationships
  • loneliness and isolation
  • eating and body image problems
  • depression and suicidal thoughts
  • cultural identity
  • sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity
  • family conflict
  • grief and loss

Search terms: counseling, CAPS

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