College was exciting and created a constant whirlwind of challenges the entire time I was in undegrad. I had the bright idea of double majoring in psychology and education. I figured the teaching certificate would prove beneficial while I worked on my Masters degree in counseling. It worked well and I progressed reasonably well through both programs. I had an internship for the psychology track and juggled the student teaching requirements while working there part time jobs.
In my 3rd year, I figured it was time to check in with my graduate advisor to ensure I was on track for graduation the next year. After some small talk and a check of my grades, I prepared to leave the office. Just as I was ready to gather my things and exit, I said, “Oh yeah, I forgot one thing. When will I start taking my counseling courses?”
He looked perplexed as he turned to his computer. He replied, “You’ve had a lot of psychology courses. What are you talking about?”
I explained to him I enjoyed the psychology courses but I was not learning how to counsel anyone. Surely, I explained, someone was going to teach me how to counsel people after I learned about abnormal psychology, pharmacology, social psychology, and research. What he said to me next caused my heart to sink so low, I had to return to my seat. He explained my undergraduate institution of choice focused on research psychology and not counseling psychology. In fact, I would not receive any instruction in counseling psychology in my undergraduate studies.
After another hour which involved me crying, gathering myself, and saying what’s next, we decided I would stay in the program. However, I dropped the education degree because it meant I could graduate by the end of the year without the additional educational courses. Basically, I would need to take some courses at a junior college and take a full load in the Fall to graduate by December.
As a result, I was unable to work the three jobs I had to pay my living expenses. I reached out to my family and asked for help in getting through the last semester. One agreed to pay my car note, one agreed to give me $50 a month, one said they could buy my gas and one told me to quit school.
Even with all of that – the perfect plan, people helping, and the prospect of graduating by December, I hit a wall. And I mean I hit that wall hard. Every Thanksgiving, my big loving family gathered in my grandmother’s small house to eat, talk, fuss, sleep and repeat well into the next day. I arose that morning with full intent to stuff myself on honey ham, macaroni and cheese and peach cobbler. However, I kept delaying my routine to prepare for the 35 minutes drive to her house. I did not take a shower. I did not iron my clothes. I did not even get out of bed. And when I did get out of bed, I went to my kitchen and cooked a box cake. I ate the entire cake sitting in my efficiency apartment watching the television from bed that was in the living room.
I woke up the next day to my grandmother calling to say I had better not ever do that again, just not show up. I did not tell her what was wrong because I had no idea what was wrong. I had never experienced it before so I carried on with my normal routine until I hit the wall again. It was time for me to go to work and I could not move. I knew I had some reports due for my classes. I needed to prepare for a sorority meeting. I had to go to two jobs that day and I was close to being late for the first one.
I called my daddy this time and as soon as he picked up the phone, I started wailing so bad it scared him. It was not until he shouted, “Shorty, did someone hurt you?” that I realized I was screaming. When I yelled no, he just said, “It’s okay baby. You’re okay.”
I unloaded everything and he listened. I cried about my hectic schedule, how I could not understand some of the professors, how my rat in research psychology lab bit me, how my supervisor at my part time job was after me, how I was unable to balance my checking account, and on and on. While I do not recall everything he said, I do recall the tone of his voice was just what I needed.
He reminded me to take one day at a time because the graduation date was not going to change. I just had to wake up everyday and take care of business. The problems I had were preparing me and giving me life skills. He asked if he could help and when I said no, he said, “Then I can just listen.”
Nearly 30 years post graduation, I once again find myself on a college campus but in a totally different role. As the director over a counseling center at an HBCU, I talk with students almost daily who often are seeing the same wall I saw three decades ago. And while I had my daddy to call (who I still call now when I hit a wall), many do not have the privilege or feel they can reach out and work through the inevitable emotional wall that feels impenetrable. As their listening ear, I assure them being able to talk about some of their problems and hurdles is half the battle of overcoming them. Oftentimes, they have someone at home that would listen but they have believe the same misconception I did, that it has to be done alone.
It is important to check in with college students who are on the cusp of independence. Try these suggestions even if they have not reached out to you for help.
- Invite them to a meal. Most college students are hungry or at least hungry for a home cooked meal. Give them a space to clear their head and talk about something other than school. If they bring up classes or activities, listen more than you talk. Offer encouragement and support their hard work and steady pace towards completion.
- Send a text. While it may seem impersonal, it is often a great means of communication with millennials. It is quick and does not disrupt the day. Refrain from sending daily texts as they are experts at ignoring mass messages or repetitive messages. Also, pics get their attention more than words. So, include a picture with your message to increase the likelihood of them reading the text.
- Send a food basket or toiletries. Any type of supply replenishment gives them a breath of fresh air. You can include a quick note in it telling them to get some sleep this weekend, go for a walk, or go to the movies (include a gift card).
- Call and ask them directly how they are doing. And listen carefully between the lines. While they may not directly say they are having a hard time, just remind them that you are available if they need to talk.
- Send a familiar friend, church member, or relative to visit them.
- Suggest counseling while they are home on the break. They may need a separate space to work through some more troubling matters or blocks they are having. The innovation occurring in the mental health field is perfect for college students because many providers are now offering virtual sessions. This allows students to schedule appointments as needed after returning to school.