Welcome to the Jungle
Academia has often been referred to as the “Ivory Tower.” I’ve never found it to be quite so idealized. I’ve spent the vast majority of my career working in University Counseling Centers. As a result, I’m often exposed to the soft underbelly of Higher Education. No student ever comes in to say, “Life is great and I had to tell someone about it.” Instead, my clients talk frequently about their experiences with institutionalized racism, sexism, and inequality. They often struggle with understanding and navigating unequal power dynamics that are inherent in the educational environment. Many of these students believe that the Academy is oppressive and that without such tyrannical rules – such as, you must be 21 to drink alcohol and don’t smoke pot – they would be thriving and able to live their most self-actualized life.
As Mark Twain famously said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” While I may differ with these students regarding the externalization of their difficulties, it does not change that many of these students, by the very nature of their beliefs, are ripe to benefit from the power of group. As senior group clinicians have witnessed countless times over the years, group therapy has the incredible power to affect change; even in those who may be resistant or initially unwilling to acknowledge their own contribution to their problems. When you get enough college students in a room – who by their nature are intelligent and determined problem-solvers – it is only a matter of time before the group members feel empowered enough to offer feedback and perspective on the problems that the other members are experiencing. And more often than not, either through a quick intervention by the leader or an astute observation by another member, clients are able to recognize that the feedback they so generously and freely gave to others is just as applicable to their own dilemmas. It is amazing how powerful it can be to simply note, “How has that feedback worked for you?”
I love working in a college setting. The students, almost by definition, are high-functioning and socially engaged. They are truly the future generation and helping them to understand their problems and solve their interpersonal issues pays immense dividends down the road on both the micro- and macro-levels of society. By fostering engagement and resiliency at such a developmentally important time, college counseling center group practitioners play an important part in not only making the world a better place, but also ensuring that such a pro-social legacy continues to the next generation of college students.
However, life as a group clinician at a college counseling center is not without its share of challenges – some of which I have only come to recognize through the painful process of age and maturity. For starters, the pay is rarely what one can make in private practice. When I first started my career and had finished internship, I was ecstatic to earn more than double my previous salary by going from a trainee to a full-time staff member. Having previously made roughly $20,000 as an intern, this new salary looked amazing. Now, more than a decade later, I am no longer an early-career psychologist and while my salary has certainly improved, it is still not close to what my friends make in private practice. While there is more to life than money, it sure does help when paying bills. One can certainly make a fine, decent living working in collegiate mental health; but if you’re in it for the money, you will never be satisfied.
More so than salary, one of the challenges of working in a university setting is there is always another boss. First, you report to your Director. But your Director reports to a Vice President, who themselves answers to a President. And the President? Even he or she usually has to answer to a Board of Trustees. While having such a “Chain of Command” does not necessarily equate to problems, it is almost guaranteed that these administrators will have different priorities and motivations than that of the college counseling center group clinician. One of the challenges of being a group clinician in the college environment is that your specialty is sometimes unknown; and if known, at least under-valued. It is rare that Upper Administration is populated with people who have experience in mental health. Even many Directors, by their experience and training, were never taught the direct benefits and clinical utility of group psychotherapy. To this day, I know of too many Counseling Centers where the Director is a good manager and excellent clinician, but still struggles to view group therapy as anything more than a niche or sub-specialty. At some centers, staff are tracked and evaluated on the number of individual client hours they see per week, but they get no credit for running a group as group therapy does not count as direct service. It can be hard to feel appreciated in an environment where you literally don’t get credit for what you do.
The academic calendar also adds to the challenge of collegiate mental health. There are always artificial deadlines around every corner. No matter how much progress a student has made (or not made) in a semester, it is overwhelmingly likely that services will be terminated in either December or May. Do college students magically get better and resolve their most pressing life issues right as the Fall and Spring semesters are ending? Of course not. Instead, it is the time when most of these students will be leaving the university and returning home, either for winter and summer break. Some of these clients will continue with treatment with a new provider, while the majority will choose to either resume treatment when they return to school or will discontinue therapy altogether. This means that the work of college counseling center professionals is veritably brief and time-limited by nature. Almost as soon as therapy gets started, the client and clinician need to begin thinking about issues of termination. These challenges are only magnified in a group setting. It takes time to get enough members to form the group. Then there has to be sufficient time for cohesion amongst members to develop before therapeutic progress can be accelerated. Finally, due of the number of group members and the depth of sharing that tends to occur, termination is always a multi-week process. All of which must fit within these hard and fast deadlines – the semester starts on a specific day and it ends on a specific day – whether the clients and group are ready or not.
All of these challenges are very real for the college counseling center group clinician. They are the obstacles that have to be navigated not just for our own personal sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, but also so that we can assist in bettering the lives of our clients. It is both fun and rewarding to work every day with such high-functioning and motivated students. It is gratifying to know that the work we do with our clients will benefit them for the rest of their lives. It is an honor and a privilege; one that is certainly somewhat unique – but does it feel like being in a cloistered, Ivory Tower; separated from the realities of the rest of the world? No…it’s a Jungle out there!