Stay Strong: Building a Support System
By Stacy Hill, with additional reporting by Rachel Bozek, Scott Cohen, Natalie Davis and Rachel Morse
Everyone, even strong and independent students, can benefit from developing a support network. Just as you feel good when you help someone else, other people are willing and able to provide guidance, an ear, or help strategizing.
Sometimes it can feel awkward to ask for help. You may be concerned that your situation isn’t important, or that you’ll seem needy if you reach out. Perhaps you’re not sure to whom you can turn, or think you can handle everything on your own.
Kayla S., a senior at the University of Tampa, notes, “I was worried at first because I didn’t know where to go when I was feeling stressed. I think many students can relate to that. But through [the network of] professors, friends, and academic advising, I was able to build my support system. Although it takes time and the right steps, all students can do it.”
Friends, Old and New
Whether you’re part of a study group or joining a club for bowling enthusiasts, keep in mind that the people around you can be great sources of support. Cultivating friendships of varying degrees of closeness can help you when you need to unwind, play, study with others, or cry on someone’s shoulder.
Professors, Advisors, and Mentors
Get to know your instructors, more experienced students, and peer mentors for when you have questions about academic material, want to explore your interests and career goals, or feel stressed about balancing multiple academic and other responsibilities.
The 2011 National Student Engagement Survey found that 83 percent of college seniors talked with a faculty member or advisor.
Karen Pollack, an instructor at Temple University in Pennsylvania, says helping students figure out their goals is one of the great pleasures of teaching.
Kayla explains, “Advisors helped me when I was trying to make my class schedule and had an issue with a professor. Through seeking help, I was able to form a relationship with [them] that I would consider part of my support network.”
Developing relationships with faculty early on can reduce anxiety if you experience something that affects your school performance. If you’re ill or need more time for an assignment, let your professors know.
Debra Dumond, assistant dean of students at York County Community College in Maine, says, “If a faculty member doesn’t get back to a student right away, some students assume that the professor doesn’t really care about them.” She suggests setting up in-person or phone meetings in order to establish a more dynamic relationship.
John Hipple, a counselor at the University of North Texas Counseling Center in Denton, urges students to have regular conversations with family. “Students who are never in touch often let problems build up before seeking input,” he explains. Plus, your family members may have been college students themselves and can share helpful advice from their own experience.
Kayla suggests, “Make time because telling them about what you are doing in class can help ease stress without even knowing it.”
“For help with grades, there are teachers and tutors,” says Ray V., a graduate student at Indiana University in Bloomington. “For help with scheduling, there are advisors. For help with activities, there are coaches and administrators. What about other things, though?”
Ray continues, “A friend or relative or pet dies. A relationship fails. A goal isn’t achieved. These have concrete physical and mental consequences. These are the things that my peers [and I] have oftentimes struggled to find help with.”
Your school’s counseling center or your health care provider can help. Sixty percent of student respondents to a Student Health 101 survey said they’ve been helped by a professional counselor.
Nonetheless, some don’t seek support because they feel ashamed, or that “normal” people don’t get that kind of help—that counseling is only for “crazy” or severely ill people. But according to the 2011 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors (NSCCD), only about 35 percent of clients have severe psychological problems.
The other 65 percent visit for help with academic pressures, sadness, and other common issues. As Kayla notes, “Emotional stress to me would be when you’re having problems with a significant other, or troubles with body image [or] depression. Counselors can help.”
Misconceptions about counseling prevent many students from reaching out, whether for help coping with stress or a more significant issue like depression, drug abuse, grief, or an abusive relationship. A 2006 student survey by the Jed Foundation, an organization devoted to improving the mental health of college students and reducing suicide, cites embarrassment as the number-one reason students avoid getting help. Some fear the judgment of others, and this leads to a stigma.
But the NSCCD finds that more than 40 percent of students talk with a professional counselor, either at an individual or group session, or at workshops and presentations. So there’s nothing to be embarrassed about!
The start of the year is a great time to develop and deepen the relationships that will sustain you through periods of stress. Rather than sitting on an island, all alone, go out and meet people, the ones who will be there when you need to recharge.
So, you want to get to know your professors. What’s the best way to seek their support?
Conversations with instructors and academic advisors can complement what you’re learning in class. Professors are also great resources for career development, recommendations, and even support if things get rough. According to the National Survey of Community College Student Engagement, greater faculty involvement predicts better grades, better rates of college completion, and greater satisfaction with college overall.
If you’re having trouble, emailing an excuse the day a paper is due may not be received well. If you’ve been communicating with your professors from the get-go, they are more likely to be flexible and offer support.
Some students prefer to interact with faculty and advisors by text or email, but keep in mind that this may not be ideal. First, not all faculty use electronic media as frequently as students. Second, tone can be hard to read over these media and some may view them as too informal.
Students can access the University of Wisconsin Colleges Student Health 101 magazine online at http://readsh101.com/uwonline.html. Copyright 2012 Student Health 101