March 2005

Student Crisis

Sometimes things just happen and I don't know how I'll react until I'm in the midst of the situation. An example happened this month when a student, Allison, entered into my office with no appointment, panicking because she had a registration hold. “Great,” I thought to myself, “here come the excuses for why she didn't come to see me this quarter.” Our conversation went on quite typically, Allison telling me she had been really busy and just needed the hold cleared. She promised she would make an appointment within the next few weeks for us to look over what she registered for. I held firm, though, as she had done this same thing the last quarter, and, when I began to tell her she would have to take my earliest open appointment, tears began rolling down her cheek. I feel bad as I write this entry three weeks later, but I remained skeptical at that point. “Wow,” still thinking to myself, “She's going to try crying. Allison's going to lay down a guilt trip.” I had heard of people doing this to get out of speeding tickets—but registration holds?

Haydon (2004) advises not to judge a book by its cover, and this idea of assuming very little about our students certainly has merit. Despite the thoughts going on in my head with Allison, I told her to hang out for a second while I told my next student I would be a few minutes late with his appointment. When I came back into my office, I naturally asked what was going on with Allison. She said things had been really hard for her over the past few months, and then she reiterated again her wanting the registration hold cleared.

I'm finding that, in some situations, I don't have to ask students additional probing questions to find out more information. I had had other interactions with Allison, and she knew that I wasn't usually satisfied with vague answers—especially if a student needed a favor or special assistance. We sat silent for maybe three seconds, me giving Allison a look that said “I know there's more going on here. I know you're not telling me everything you want to tell me.” Allison began to cry softly again, trying to fight back the tears.

“I got pregnant and my parents kicked me out of the house and I had to find a full-time job to support myself. I don't know what to do.”

My reaction:




More silence.

For some reason, the role playing activities that I had done in previous counseling classes were miles away from how I felt now. Seeing Allison's worry and despair and fear filled me with a sense of temporary helplessness as I wanted to make things better for her, but I knew that, in the present moment, there wasn't much I could do except lend a sympathetic ear. She briefly discussed how it all had happened and the events and emotions that were now a result of the pregnancy. Her relationship had fallen apart with her father, she was unable to remain at home, she had to find full time work to support herself, and she was wrestling with her own emotions and values as she contemplated terminating the pregnancy even though her religious convictions consider the act sinful.

As I said, my feeling of helplessness in that moment was temporary, but I knew that Allison's same feeling had likely been ongoing and even increasing on a daily basis. Of course Allison had already had many conversations regarding the situation with her mother, her boyfriend, her boyfriend's parents, her siblings, and her friends. However, she conveyed to me that it was liberating to talk to an impartial listener—one whose role is simply that of an objective academic adviser rather than a person who she has some sort of social history with. That being said, I knew that I could best serve Allison by (1) being available to talk to and listen to her thoughts and concerns and (2) finding out appropriate resources so that Allison could speak to a professional about her unplanned pregnancy. I wanted to see Allison at least feeling a bit more in control of her own situation, as I know that having that internal sense of control to affect a given situation tends to decrease anxiety. I assured Allison that, although I'm not a professional in this arena, I will take it on as my responsibility to help her in forming a plan of action with the appropriate support resources.

And those appropriate resources . . . well . . . I knew what types of campus resources were available, but, as far as community resources go, I knew of typical social service agencies though nothing too specific. I was honest with Allison as I told her that I really didn't have as much information for referrals as I would have liked. I decided that it would be best to have her come in for another appointment after I had a bit of time to talk to coworkers and do a bit more research. Allison seemed pleased with this, set up another appointment, and thanked me for listening to her without judgment.

A few days later at our staff meeting, I presented the situation to my coworkers. As expected, some of my colleagues had previously seen students faced with the same type of dilemma. We talked about Allison's situation as an office and brainstormed what might be the most appropriate course of action. We also came up with a list of specific community and campus resources that had proven to be effective in the past. Having a staff conversation about resources in Spokane (the nearest large city) made me realize that, even though I have been living in the local community for nearly a year, I have barely scratched the surface of becoming knowledgeable about resources and support relevant to students. However, here I witness a shift in my thinking since my beginnings at Eastern Washington University insomuch as my continuously diminishing self-expectation that I should or can know everything. The world did not end when I had to schedule another appointment with Allison in order to research her situation. Not only did the world not end, but Allison was better served by my collaboration with coworkers who were clearly more experienced in the realm of unexpected student pregnancies.

Allison's next appointment was scheduled a few days after our staff meeting, and, when the day came, I was pleased that she showed up. Her attendance in and of itself was a positive result of our last meeting. We both went through the list of available resources, and Allison had also done some research on her own. She ultimately decided to use a local agency known as the Crisis Pregnancy Center, and, throughout her time with the center, Allison kept me posted on her progress and the many and wide-ranging emotions she was experiencing. Of course the biggest decision she had to make for herself was whether or not to terminate the pregnancy, and her counseling sessions at the center aided her in the decision making process.

In the end, nearly a month after Allison first told me about her pregnancy, she stopped by for a visit. She decided to terminate the pregnancy after an agonizing month battling with her emotions, her values, her faith, her goals, and her personal relationships. It is also worth mentioning that, during the last month, Allison was experiencing other medical problems that may have eventually led to birth defects in her unborn child. She described the situation as a mixed blessing as her medical condition helped to validate her decision to go ahead with the abortion. Nonetheless, it was the most difficult life experience Allison had gone through and that question of “What if I decided to have the child?” will likely remain indefinitely in her thoughts.

In Baxter Magolda's (2001) work on individual paths to self-authorship, she describes a crucial stopping point along the way known as the crossroads. The crossroads for Allison involved a choice to follow external sources in her decision or to let go of those external voices and choose her own path. This individual path would be one that integrated external influences and belief systems with what Allison truly believed was best for her as an individual. She knew the abortion would not please everyone and would even make some furious, but there was a desire in Allison to choose what was best for her. There was a realization that knowledge and beliefs are contextual and that Allison had to create an internal definition of the “correct” choice. Referring to her research participants, Baxter Magolda states that this internal definition of self

was most often a struggle in light of concern regarding others' expectations and how one's internal voice would affect one's relations with others. Conflicts between what participants were coming to determine they wanted and what they thought others expected of them were commonplace. The crossroads was a turning point that called for letting go of external control and beginning to replace it with one's internal voice. (p. 94)

In the end, this month was truly a case study in advising technique, counseling technique, collaboration, referrals, and student development in its purest, though certainly disturbing form. Allison's thought process throughout such an emotional time was interesting to witness, and, while it was difficult to watch, I truly believe that Allison's development as an individual will continue to flourish given the proper support and resources. Her decision to terminate the pregnancy was a creation of her own based on external evidence and influence and Allison's own feelings and beliefs. On a positive note, I reiterated to her in our last appointment that this formula she followed will serve her well when other significant personal dilemmas present themselves. In our parting words, Allison offered herself as a resource to me if other students experience an unplanned pregnancy, and I commended her for her bravery. I was flattered to hear that I was the first person on campus she had told about her situation, and I anticipate that we will continue to have a positive relationship as Allison continues her educational and personal journeys.