General Concerns

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Identity Development

Some key developmental tasks for college students include identity formation, establishing mature relationships, and learning to manage emotions. Stress and distress during these times of growth are both commonplace and expected, and do not necessarily indicate the need for professional intervention. However, for some students, the combination of these developmental tasks, academic challenges, and in some cases underlying mental health struggles, may cause you to grow more concerned about a student’s well-being. In any case, it is important to understand the most common developmental challenges of the college years so that you are able to provide general support and also recognize the need for professional intervention when appropriate.
 

Understanding and Supporting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Students

During the college years, our students may be questioning or exploring their sexuality and/or gender identity for the first time. This can be both an exhilarating and liberating experience, or a terrifying and shame-ridden time. They may not have friends with whom they can openly discuss their sexuality or gender identity. Additionally, seeking support and validation from families may be more difficult. In fact, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) students’ minority status may be completely invisible to those around them.
 
Most professionals are now quite familiar with lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues, but far fewer are well-educated about transgender issues. Transgender is an umbrella term that refers to anyone who doesn’t fit the typical, traditional, binary gender categories or roles. This includes transsexuals, cross-dressers (in the past known as transvestites), genderqueer persons (those who identify with both female and male or neither gender), and others.
 
Sexual attraction and gender identity, while often linked (as in men are typically attracted to women, women are usually attracted to men) are actually separate aspects of human sexuality. The term transgender (or transsexual) can refer to someone who internally identifies as the opposite gender to that which s/he was assigned at birth by her/his anatomy. Many transgender people, understandably, suffer from dysphoria from this incongruence. One course of action for such people is to “transition” - that is  to change their real gender identity. This can be accomplished in many ways, which might include hormonal treatments and/or surgery. Students who proceed with this transitional process often experience physical, social, emotional, and financial hardships.
 
Symptoms of distress related to gender and/or sexual identity development may include:
  • feeling isolated
  • feeling exhilarated
  • feeling shame
  • feeling unsure about talking
  • feeling afraid

 

What To Do

Avoid

  • Be aware of and educated about the range of gender and sexual identities, in order to help promote the open, tolerant, and academically supportive environment necessary for students to thrive.
  • Be aware that your role is to reassure a student that you are open to learning about them and who they are.
  • Display a Safe Space or rainbow sticker on an office window, door, or bulletin board.
  • Encourage the student to seek support at the Counseling Service if appropriate.
  • Chastising the students’ identity.
  • Asking too many personal questions or questioning to the point that a student might feel challenged in her identity and/or choices.
  • Using the student as your primary source of education about LGBTQ issues.
  • Assuming anybody knows.
  • Expecting the student to make quick changes.
  • Assuming that a students’ questioning of or struggle with their gender identity necessarily reflects a mental health issue.
 

Cultural Transitions

Students adjusting to a new country and a new academic environment may experience mild to severe culture shock. This is the feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new place, and not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate. Culture shock generally sets in after the first few weeks of arrival. In the “honeymoon” phase, everything encountered is new and exciting. Later, as differences are experienced, a student may become confused, disoriented, and hesitant to ask for help, assuming that everything should be second nature by then.
 
Symptoms may include:
  • sadness, loneliness, melancholy, unexplainable crying
  • preoccupation with health
  • aches, pains, and allergies
  • insomnia, desire to sleep too much or too little
  • feeling vulnerable, feeling powerless
  • anger, irritability, resentment, unwillingness to interact with others
  • identifying with or idealizing the old culture or country
  • trying too hard to absorb everything in the new culture or country
  • unable to solve simple problems, to work or to study
  • feelings of inadequacy or insecurity, lack of confidence
  • developing obsessions, such as over-cleanliness
  • longing for family
  • relationship issues
  • overeating or loss of appetite
  • social withdrawal

 

What to do

Avoid

  • Be a patient communicator.
  • Speak slowly and enunciate if clarification is needed.
  • Explain different academic or social customs.
  • Define your role and expectations to allay uncertainties.
  • Distancing yourself from helping a student to integrate her cultural background and personal strengths for success at Wellesley. You can help be an important  part of this process.

Managing Disabilities

The efforts of the College to ensure that students with disabilities have equal opportunity are mandated by federal and state law. Just as important, the College values our community of persons with disabilities and is greatly enriched by their contributions to the intellectual life of the campus. The broad category of disability encompasses a wide range of conditions including sensory, cognitive, physical, psychological, and medical conditions. It is important to recognize that every student with a disability will have a different level of functioning even within the same disability category. The ability to compensate for the disability will vary from one student to another and in the same student during her time at Wellesley. Students who were disabled upon entering Wellesley were admitted using the same rigorous admissions standards as their non-disabled peers. While at Wellesley, reasonable accommodations are provided to mitigate the limitations caused by the condition to ensure equal access while maintaining academic standards. Many students become disabled or identify their disability while attending Wellesley. These students face the challenge of adjusting to a new life condition while navigating campus life with significant limitations.
 
Students with physical disabilities that affect mobility have conditions ranging in severity from low stamina to paralysis. Sensory impairments range from low vision and hearing to compete blindness or deafness. For some, the condition was present at birth; for others, the impairment is the result of an injury. This group of students face all the challenges experienced by their non-disabled peers as well as additional stress caused by the disability. A student with a disability has to be intentional about almost all aspects of her daily living. Many students depend on the use of adaptive transportation to get to class and get around campus. The transportation must be arranged ahead and can limit a student’s ability to be spontaneous.
 
Faculty awareness of the student’s legal right to accommodations and the faculty member’s responsibility to assist with providing accommodations is key to meeting the College’s compliance mandate. Students are often concerned that instructors will view accommodations as an advantage rather than as a modification made to address a limitation caused by a disability. An instructor can help normalize the accommodation process by considering the following guidelines.

 

What to Do

Avoid

  • Invite students with disabilities to meet privately, such as during office hours, to discuss accommodations.
  • Understand that students may worry that explanations of personal problems may be perceived by a professor as making excuses.
  • Acknowledge that there are many factors a student may deal with beyond the classroom and that our campus can be difficult for someone with a disability to navigate, in order to open the door to a helpful conversation.
  • Check in with the student about any challenges they may be facing about accessing technology or course materials, attending class or working on team projects.
  • Include a statement in the course syllabus that encourages students to self-identify and request accommodations early in the semester.
  • Refer the student to Disability Services if they have not yet made contact with this office.
  • Judging students who choose not to inform the instructor of a disability in advance of a course, even though it may not allow the instructor to make modifications.
  • Making assumptions that the workplace will not be accommodating when they need to find employment with a disability.
  • Making the disability status of the student known to fellow students except at the student’s request; information about a student’s disability must remain confidential and shared only for the purpose of providing accommodations.

 

Sample syllabus statement:

Note to students with disabilities: If you have a disability-related need for reasonable academic adjustments in this course, provide the instructor with an accommodation letter from Disability Services. Students are expected to give two weeks notice of the need for accommodations. If you need immediate accommodations, please arrange to meet with the instructor within the first two class meetings.

Medical/Health Concerns

Despite the fact that most college students arrive on campus as healthy young adults, a number of students come to Wellesley with an existing history of health problems that may follow them throughout their time on campus. Other may develop significant illnesses or conditions while they are here. These health issues may be acute, chronic or recurring, and individuals’ responses may vary tremendously. What may be a completely manageable situation for one student may pose significant challenge or chaos for another.
 
Regardless of the nature of the illness or condition, it may cause disruption in the student’s academic life. Something as common as the intestinal bug or seasonal flu can zap a student’s energy for a week or more. Other conditions, such as diabetes, migraines, mononucleosis, pregnancy, or an eating disorder may require a much longer adjustment, support, or accommodation.
 
Faculty members will vary in their approach to talking with students about physical or mental health concerns, just as students will vary in their degree of openness about their health. It is important for all to understand that the student has a right to keep health information confidential and should never be asked to provide specific diagnostic or treatment information, or a medical excuse from a health care provider.
 
Symptoms of medical/health-related problems may include:
  • Missing classes, exams and deadlines
  • Irregular attendance
  • Missed assignments
  • Uneven class participation
  • Poor performance on papers, projects, and exams

 

What to Do

Avoid

  • Gently express caring and unease about a student’s health when you feel it needs to be addressed medically.
  • Make referrals to the Class Dean, Counseling Service, or the Health Service.
  • Help a student assess her ability to follow through on academic commitments within a given time frame, providing flexibility where possible and when fair to other students.
  • Remember that the Honor Code is a system of mutual trust and respect upon which we base our community.
  • Assuming symptoms are the result of poor organization or prioritization.
  • Asking a health provider for documentation or diagnosis, thus damaging patient confidentiality and mutual trust.
  • Assuming that a student is incapable of managing an illness through self-care.
  • Assuming anyone else knows.
 
As a general rule, the Counseling Service and the Health Service do not provide medical excuses for students who have missed classes, exams, or due dates for papers or projects or share patient information with faculty. This policy is consistent with the recommendations of the American College Health Association and resembles those of most other major universities.
 
When a student is hospitalized or suffers a major illness or injury, and if the student requests assistance and provides consent, the Health Service and/or the Counseling Service will contact a student’s Class Dean to help coordinate appropriate communication with the student’s faculty.
 
The reasons for this policy are several, including our commitment to patient confidentiality, our role in educating students about appropriate use of health care, and our own finite resources. Students and faculty should resolve concerns that arise when illness interferes with academics with appropriate honesty and trust.

Family Crises

Studying far away from family can be stressful for some students. This stress is compounded when a family encounters a crisis. Crises can include separation and divorce, death, the loss of a job, financial hardship, physical and mental illness, legal trouble, or anything that disrupts a family’s normal functioning. Academic performance can easily suffer when a student’s attention is divided between responsibilities to family and school.
 
What constitutes a “family” for many students may not fit the Western European/North American nuclear ideal. Many cultures define “family” more broadly than one’s immediate blood relatives. Some families require older children to take on some of the financial and decision-making responsibilities. Some international students are caregivers for their siblings in the United States while their parents are back home. Some students are caregivers of their non-English–speaking parents who live in the United States. These expectations make juggling a family crisis with academic responsibilities especially difficult.

 

What to Do

Avoid

  • Offer flexibility on deadlines and other expectations, within reason.
  • Refer students whose academic performance is affected by family stress to their Class Dean and/or the Counseling Service for additional support.
  • Encourage the student to reach out to on-campus peer supports.
  • Consult with the Class Dean about how to reasonably accommodate the student.
  • Assuming the crisis will simply resolve with time.
  • Expecting a student to push feelings about family aside in order to focus on academics.
  • Assuming that the student’s on-campus peers know about the student's situation and feelings; encourage her to reach out to friends if needed.

 

 

 

 

Substance Use/Abuse

Alcohol and drug abuse among college students interferes with academic performance and puts them at risk for serious accidents and even death, and can lead to addiction problems for a subset of individuals. Substance use and abuse among college students is often a misguided way to cope with anxiety, depression, and the stressors of college life. Research shows that the most abused substance is alcohol and a large number of college students engage in binge drinking. Surveys of our own Wellesley student population show us that our students do not differ significantly in their drinking behaviors from norms for other women’s colleges, and although signs of substance use and abuse might sometimes be less visible on our campus, our binge drinking rate is notable and consistent over time.
 
Symptoms of inappropriate use of substances may include:
  • Irregular attendance
  • Missed assignments
  • Uneven class participation
  • Poor performance on papers, projects, and exams

 

What to Do

Avoid

  • Be aware that substance problems often co-occur with other mental health issues, such as depression, disordered eating and ADHD.
  • Express concern for the student, which can have a profound and positive impact. This sometimes serves as a catalyst for the student accessing help or recognizing that she needs a higher level of care.
  • Broach the topic with the student’s permission: “I noticed that...and I wonder if we could talk about it.”
  • Provide room for disagreement: “I may be wrong but...”
  • Provide a range of suggestions for referrals and support.
  • Emphasize personal control: ask for the student’s opinions on these suggestions.
  • Close positively and with the door open: “I want to thank you for speaking with me today and  would like to check back in with you.”
  • Ignoring or making light of the problem.
  • Chastising or condoning the behavior.
  • Assuming that experimenting with drugs or alcohol is harmless and part of the college experience.
  • Expecting the student to make quick changes. Recognize that denial is a powerful aspect of substance use problems and it can involve conscious or unconsciously lying and distorting the truth.

 

Verbally Aggressive and Potentially Violent Behavior

It is very difficult to predict aggression. When a student is faced with a frustrating situation that is perceived to be insurmountable, the student may become angry and direct that anger toward others. Yet, in spite of recent high-profile tragedies, a student acting out violently is a fairly rare event.
 
Developmentally, stressors may increase for a student who has coped marginally before leaving home. Additionally, the access to drugs or alcohol for some may increase the propensity for more aggressive behavior. Certain social situations also may elicit aggressive responses. In some cases, the aggression may be indicative of the onset of a mental health disorder.
 
Violence cannot be predicted, but there are some indicators that suggest a person may have the potential for violence. These include having a prior history of family violence or abuse, volatility, or inability to control aggressive impulses due to organic or learned behavior.
 
Unfortunately, in dealing with individuals, you do not always know the historical or immediate background of a particular student. Therefore, it is important to be able to understand your own sense of safety and to ask for assistance if you feel threatened.
 

What to Do

Avoid

  • Use a time-out strategy (ask the student to reschedule a meeting with you after she has more time to think).
  • Stay calm and set limits (explain clearly and directly what behaviors are acceptable, e.g., “You certainly have the right to be angry, but breaking things is not OK”).
  • Enlist the help of a co-worker (avoid meeting alone or in a private office with the student).
  • If you feel it is appropriate to continue meeting with a distressed student, remain in an open area with a visible means of escape (keep yourself at a safe distance, sit closest to the door, and have a phone available to call for help).
  • Assess your level of safety and be cognizant of your intuition. Call Campus Police at x5555 if you feel the student may harm herself, someone else, or you.
  • If there is an imminent threat of harm, call Campus Police at 781-283-5555.
  • Assuming that an angry student has violent intentions.
  • Putting yourself at risk by verbally or physically engaging a student who appears physically aggressive or violent.
  • Engaging in a power struggle with the student.
  • Trying to solve the underlying problem; stay focused on the student’s immediate behavior.
  • Feeling compelled to act in a counselor role.
  • Keeping information about possible violent intentions to yourself and/or promising secrecy or confidentiality to a potentially aggressive student.

 

Related

Debra DeMeis
Debra DeMeis
Dean of Students More

 

 

Contact Us

Office of the Dean of Students
 


Green Hall 344
Wellesley College
106 Central Street
Wellesley, MA 02481

Linda Hilts
Executive Assistant
Tel: 781.283.2322
lhilts@wellesley.edu