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Helping Students CopeCounseling Service Offers 4 Workshops

Before they graduate, nearly half of all students will have sought help or advice from the staff of Vassar’s Counseling Service. In an effort to help students cope with the stresses of campus life before they become a crisis, the therapists have developed a series of four-week workshops that address some of the most common triggers of such stress.

Counseling Service therapists (left to right) Wendy Freedman, LaTasha Smith, Constança Vescio and Wayne Assing.

“It’s not always necessary for our students to undergo intensive one-on-one therapy to get the help they need,” says Wendy Freedman, the office’s Director of Psychological Services. “We’re always looking for more efficient ways to help our students. Based on what we see happening here and on other campuses and the current models in the field, we developed these workshops last year.”

The next round of workshops begins at the start of the spring semester. Freedman will lead one called “Healthy Relationships,” which focuses on helping students analyze the interactions they have with friends, partners, parents, teachers, and other loved ones. “One of the things we teach is that the tools you have in building healthy relationships are interchangeable,” she says. “What you learn in relating better to your peers or family can also work in dealing with co-workers, friends, or in a romantic relationship.”

Staff therapist Constança Vescio runs the workshop “Managing Intense Emotions.” Vescio says one of the keys to managing emotions is establishing a new relationship with distress and learning different ways to tolerate it. One of the many skills discussed is the practice of mindfulness, “the act of knowing oneself in the moment, not your past failures or future anxieties.” She says she tells her students that the workshops themselves are merely the first step in the process; she gives them exercises they can perform and printed material they can read when they begin to recognize the onset of extreme stress. “I try to give them concrete advice—a set of tools—that can be as effective as open-ended therapy,” Vescio says.

In his workshop, entitled “Stress Less,” staff therapist Wayne Assing says he begins the conversation by noting that stress is a normal part of life. “The trick isn’t avoiding stress,” Assing says, “It’s learning how to navigate it.” Like Vescio, Assing provides those who attend his workshop a set of concrete exercises and practices that can minimize the effect of stressful situations before they occur. “It’s essential to find a relaxation exercise that you can utilize 20 to 30 minutes every day,” he says. “It’s easy to come to the realization after you have a heart attack that maybe you should have exercised more,” Assing says. “The same is true about being proactive with coping skills.”

Staff therapist LaTasha Smith developed a workshop entitled “Self Preservation,” that offers a space for students of color to engage in discussions around experiences of being a person of color at an institution of higher education. “The normal stress that students of color experience is compounded by stressors specifically related to their identity and having to navigate the world as a racialized person,” Smith says. “The damage that’s done can easily be overlooked because it is subtle and cumulative, which is the danger.”

Freedman says she and her fellow therapists want to make the workshops as accessible as possible, so they don’t require students to sign up in advance or even give their names. And each of the sessions are designed to stand on their own, so a student can attend all four or choose to take just one or two. “My staff is experienced and talented, and we all learn from each other,” she says. “Developing these workshops is all part of our goal to make all counseling at Vassar more efficient. They won’t solve everyone’s problems, but we think they do give our students a good jumping-off place to help them learn to identify the things that need to be addressed.”