TAKING STUDENT CONCERNS SERIOUSLY

Office Conversations on Campus Life
By Kristen Brustad, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies


Join the discussion

Finding Solutions
A response from the Student Counseling Center and Student Health Service

The fortunes of FAME
A response from Freshman Advising and Mentoring at Emory


Academic Exchange October/November 2000 Contents Page

The luxury of teaching small classes affords me the opportunity to meet with students individually on a regular basis. In our office meetings, we can usually solve together their academic problems and concerns in fairly short order, leaving time for chats about other aspects of their lives at Emory. It is to be expected that these "office conversations" touch upon some of the complaints students have about Emory. In passing on some of their criticisms here, along with some of my own observations, I mean to be constructive: as a newly tenured faculty member, I now have a long-term stake in the quality of life at Emory.

One of the most telling observations I have heard on student life at Emory is that "students focus their work on Emory but their lives outside of it." It is difficult to know whether the nightly exodus to Buck-head and other off-campus destinations is a result or cause of this state of affairs, but a number of students who choose not to join the fraternity and sorority organizations say they feel a lack of community here. Asked for specific complaints and suggestions, they point to a dearth of both space and activities that help students relax and get to know one another (in a way that occasional band parties, while important, do not). One student notes that the duc quite literally lives up to its name: it is a University Center, not a student center-not a space with comfortable furniture and a couple of pool tables that invites hanging out.

As further evidence of the lack of sense of community, one points to the social segregation of Oxford continuees from Emory students, claiming that it is not the result of ostracism, but rather the lack of social life focused on campus.
I have noticed this problem too: an Oxford continuee in one of my classes felt so lonely and alienated here that she had a nervous breakdown before the end of her first semester.

Some students perceive that Emory cares more about public relations than its students. Two in particular cite the former "Freshman Seminar" Program, now reincarnated as Freshman Advising and Mentoring at Emory (fame) as a good selling point with news polls and prospective parents, but less than successful at achieving its own goals of providing both a social experience and academic advising. fame reflects a sound underlying philosophy: students who have individual contact with faculty mentors are likely to have a more successful entry into college life. But fame does not really provide individual contact. Shy students who might get lost in a classroom setting are equally unlikely to speak up in a group of eighteen, and one day is not enough time to have meaningful advising sessions with eighteen students. By their own accounts, students do not make friends in fame, but in their dorms; an hour a week in a forced setting does not contribute to their social life.

In my opinion, the time and attention given to the advising aspect is far too small an aspect of the program, compared to the social aspect. (I admit that my own experience with the then-Freshman Seminar program was less than positive, including a student co-leader who never showed up.) I believe that advising students is part of my job; moreover, it is a part that I happen to enjoy, and I hate to miss it by not participating in fame. But I want to be involved in advising students academically, not driving them around town to social events. Their Resident Advisors in the dorm can do that. Give me ten freshmen to advise, and let me take care of the scheduling.
Complaints abound on campuses everywhere about student health services, and Emory is no exception. But certainly Emory University, with all its medical resources, should be able to provide its own students with respectable health care. A graduate student I taught spent an entire semester utterly incapacitated with frequent migraine headaches, denied access to a specialist by Emory's medical coverage. Considering the cost of educating these students, we should also invest in taking care of their health.

More troublesome is the recent increase in mental health problems. Recently, in a class of about twenty students, four had problems serious enough to seek help. Three of them ended up with incompletes, and two never finished the course. This trend may well reflect a national one, but that fact does not lessen the urgency of responding to it by giving the Counseling Center adequate resources to cope. The Counseling Center, run by the Division of Campus Life, is administratively
cut off from Student Health Services, and the two do not communicate well.
In one case, one of the two psychiatrists (whose role appears to be limited to writing prescriptions) neglected to provide the counselor treating the patient with important information. This same senior psychologist at the Counseling Center resigned last year because, as she told me, she felt she was not able to give her patients the care they needed under the operating constraints of the Center. A number of sources assert that these problems are not the result of a lack of dedication or capability on the part of the staff, but rather a lack of resources. Other students confide that they do not feel comfortable dealing with counselors they fear might not understand their cultural heritage. In a university with a growing international population, the Counseling Center will need to increase its diversity to serve its clientele.

A more serious alleged incident involving the Counseling Center I report here because I think it highlights an underlying lack of trust I sense on the part of a number of students toward Emory's administration. One of my students claims that his roommate took himself to the Counseling Center to seek help with a drug problem and was several days thereafter expelled from Emory for drug use. This student believes that the Counseling Center turned his roommate in, and regardless of the truth of the incident, this belief is in and of itself disturbing, indicating that some students do not have faith in the very organization that exists to serve them.

We are now in the process of bringing in a new Dean of Campus Life. The person who fills this position will have much responsibility for setting the tone for our students' lives at Emory. Some of the conversations I have recorded here, as well as the events of last spring, suggest that the Division of Campus Life needs to send a clear message to students that their concerns are heard and taken seriously.

I am a firm believer in the importance of sending messages. At the University of Chicago, the entire incoming freshman class attends a lecture by an eminent professor as an integral part of their orientation to college life. At Emory, incoming students attend a band party. Perhaps sponsoring both kinds of activities, along with a few more social activities in a relaxing setting, will send a more balanced message about what we think college life should be.