Imagine a time when you have felt alone, uncomfortable or lonely. As a college student, you are away from home, living in a world where you must fend for yourself. College is hard and sometimes the support you need to get through can’t come from just friends or a phone call to your parents. To offer the comfort that we sometimes need, a select group of College of Charleston students and faculty dedicate their time and efforts to the Cougar Counseling program. Volunteers are highly trained and offer confidential support in a relaxed and open-minded environment. Rachael McNamara, advisor to Cougar Counseling and health educator, said that the goal of the program is “to be a support system for students on campus and to get them the services they need.” Recently, the counseling program has grown and evolved into a service that many more students on campus are taking advantage of to receive the help they need to survive college.
Seven percent of all college students experience some degree of suicidal thoughts during their college career, which means about 700 students at the College have been in this situation. The Cougar Counseling team is there for those with severe issues such as suicide and depression, but they also provide assistance in problems ranging from relationships, roommate issues and family problems, to academic pressure and essentially anything stressful. Senior Kelly Venezia is the Co-Executive Coordinator at Cougar Counseling and works to make all Colege of Charleston students feel safe, comfortable and secure. “There is no problem too small,” she said, “whether it’s homesickness, stress, social phobia or relationships.” Anyone seeking judgement free advice is welcome to take advantage of this service.
A major obstacle within the program is that many students do not believe they should see a counselor. “Research proves that people who don’t think their problems aren’t important enough won’t ask for help,” McNamara said. “They think the health professional will think they’re crazy, which no health professional would ever really do.” At the foundation of the volunteers’ training is learning that every person has his or her own troubles and complications in life. As counselors, the volunteers are prepared to reserve all judgement and practice empathy toward the student. Counselors believe there is nothing to be ashamed of and if you feel alone, unloved or stressed, you should seek help and someone to talk to so you can feel better as soon as possible.
As a completely anonymous service, visitors to the counseling office are not required to show identification or even to tell counselors their names. “When we see people around campus who have visited our office, we wait for their reaction first. If they don’t smile at us or say hi, we won’t either.” Venezia said. All volunteers are required to maintain complete security and confidentiality to ensure the confidence of the person who sought help.
Selecting who becomes a Cougar Counselor is not an easy task. Candidates go through a rigorous process in order to join this highly selective group. Along with an intense application, candidates must also write a large number of essays and go through over thirty hours of training. Once a candidate becomes a counselor, he or she must agree to volunteer for at least two consecutive semesters. Volunteers also must be at least sophomores, in order to assure that they understand the difficulties of college life and must maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA. Venezia said, “The hardest part of the process to becoming a counselor was definitely suicide training. I had a friend who attempted suicide and the training brought back a lot of harsh feelings. I’ve learned to take myself out of those types of situations.” Many psychology majors strive to become a Cougar Counselor, as acquiring experience in counseling and psychology is rather difficult. However, not all counselors are psychology majors; there is a wide variety of majors including studio art, business administration and sociology.
Within the past year, the Cougar Counseling program has grown rapidly. After receiving funding through grants, the organization secured new computers and improved a number of aspects within the service. One new way the Cougar Counselors are helping CofC students is through a texting service. Students can text “4support” to 839863 to have a completely anonymous conversation with a member of the counseling team. “Texting is more comfortable for people who don’t necessarily want to meet in person or call on the phone,” Venezia said. With the addition of this service, as well as other improvements, the Cougar Counseling office has grown from serving 25 people last year to over 80 so far this semester. This increase comes in part from the program’s new initiative to organize outreach events, which increase awareness by talking to students around campus and giving away free swag and t-shirts.
Though the Cougar Counseling program is growing and evolving substantially, the group is always looking to improve. “I love working with amazing college students who are super dedicated,” Mcnamara said, “because every year we get better and better, building upon our program.” Their main goal is to “reach out to more poeple on campus.” As more people know about how great the counseling program is, they will be more willing to use the service. Mcnamara and Venezia also hope to extend the hours that counselors are available. Currently, the office is open from 4:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m., but the executives hope to establish 24-hour availability. This may happen by extending the texting service’s hours so that counselors can assist students even when the office is closed. Mcnamara also wants to start a mental health awareness group and would love to create a CofC chapter of Active Minds – a nationwide organization that seeks to change negative perceptions and prejudices of mental health issues. Mcnamara also hopes to find new volunteers to replace the organization’s current seniors.
Without question, the Cougar Counseling program is a remedy for the stressful situations we feel and experience as college students. A passion for helping others drives this program and keeps the counselors committed to serving and supporting students on campus. Kelly Venezia, who is graduating this spring and leaving the program, spoke about her journey with Cougar Counseling and became emotional reflecting on the wonderful times she has experienced in the organization. “Of all the organizations on campus,” Venezia said, “the Cougar Counseling program is my favorite. This is my heart and soul. I am so proud to be a part of this amazing group of people.” Cougar Counselors have the ability to positively affect students’ lives, making them feel safe, secure and loved. We all need a little encouragement sometimes and with Cougar Counseling, that support is never more than a few steps or a text message away.
This article first appeared in the February 2015 issue of The Yard.