Staff Leader Reflection on Entering Into the Unknown
By Meghan deCarvalho – As a social worker in Counseling services at Stonehill College, small Catholic liberal arts colleges in New england, the main duties of my job are to provide individual one on one counseling to undergraduate students, to assist students as they cope and adjust to college and life pressures. the majority of presentations that I and other college mental health specialists give to outside audiences typically review a bit of how students describe their own mental health according to National College Health Assessment which was taken by a number of students in the spring of 2013.
I’m going to warn you that before you see the statistics that this is not the kind of thing you tend to read in Servant Song, and not something I will spend too much time on. I will provide one sentence only, with a fair amount of numbers, which captures how many students today are pulled in a number of directions to enjoy the “best time of their lives,” which is not often the case.
Here are the findings followed by the percentage of students who reported having experienced the following “at any time” during the past year: felt overwhelmed by all you had to do (84%), felt exhausted (79%), felt very sad (60%), felt overwhelming anxiety (51%), felt very lonely (56%), felt things were hopeless (45%), and felt so depressed it was difficult to function (31%). I do not need to belabor the number of reasons and theories for why the students of this generation are feeling such incredible pressure. the economy, financial aid, pressure to find employment, internships, jobs, managing one’s identity, relationships with friends, family, and self-esteem are few of the reasons for such hardship.
One of the things I try to do as a counselor to students (and I’m sure each counselor across the country does this) is to learn about the student as a unique individual beyond their pain or stressors to what excites them, motivates them, what communities they have belonged to, what their thoughts are about a greater meaning in this world, how they feel about the work they are doing, and how connected they feel to the community they are living in. For me, there is no greater way to understand the complexities of the students I work with then to join our service immersion program called Hope through our Campus Ministry office. I ensure that IjoinatripinwhichIdonotknowanyof the students from counseling (as, ethically and morally, their needs come first and counselors cannot have dual roles). there is something different about working along the students while chopping wood, painting trim, and talking with one another about deeper questions and their identities, pain, and hope when in another location.
the Hope program stands for Honor our Neighbor, organizing for Justice, practicing peace, and encountering God. This past March I journeyed with our students to the Agape Community in Hardwick, MA, which is a lay Catholic residential community focused on daily prayer, evangelical simplicity, and advocates for nonviolent, sustainable practices in our world.
There are a number of reasons I have joined five trips and counting in my six years at the college. I do this for professional and personal benefit. I think it is vital for my work as a counselor to also see the students at their very best to understand their whole picture. there is an idea called “medical school syndrome” that once you surround yourself with negativity and concern that you can believe that everyone has an illness. As a counselor, seeing students struggle with depression, anxiety, and pain, I could easily believe after a few months and years on the job that this is the total picture of our students which it most certainly is not.
I also join these trips to enhance my personal connection with my Catholic faith, ￼￼￼put my faith into action, and enjoy the things I make a priority in my daily life: peace and meditation, gratitude, and loving my neighbor. I believe in the Hope mission and try to live this in my daily life.
I noticed before going on this trip to Agape that the student leader, a very well-known and respected student in our community, had some concerns as to how his peers may perceive their trip to Agape. While the students chosen for this trip were paired with this program because of their interest in sustainability and/or faith life, the trip was structured a bit different from other Hope trips as we did not have a direct population that we would be serving such as young children in schools, those with mental or physical disabilities, the homeless, or those in need of assistance following natural disasters as many of the other students would be doing across the country and in some international sites during the week we too were venturing to another part of our state.
Additionally, this was the first time a group of students from our college has gone to Agape for Hope and they were learning that this trip would be rural immersion, focused on learning, but also on self- development. despite some initial concern (and a few students dropping out), the students did not display apprehension in our group meetings and displayed whole heartedly their “civic- minded” sense of local and global community spirit that is a characteristic of this Millennium generation,
particularly when they first met Brayton shanley, Agape’s co-founder who had given a talk at stonehill a few weeks before the immersion trip.
The students and I were willing to enter into the unknown. While at Agape, we built community amongst each other, the founders of Agape, and the other students who joined us from Wake Forest university, North Carolina. the students learned about sustainable practices of using a car that runs on grease instead of fuel, homes that are super insulated with straw and heated with solar panels, the benefits of eating vegetarian and discussion about gardening to supply food and having GMo labels in our state to know when our food is genetically modified.
We started each day with scripture, silence, and meditation and the students embraced this despite their whisperings that they were quite tired at 7:30 in the morning (from their late night discussions of meaning the night before and hard work of wood chopping on their bodies). the students spoke about policy action and civil rights in our country and abroad, how to practice peace and turn the other cheek in their personal lives, and displayed their talents for one another in a 3 hour talent show where the students praised and honored each other.
It was really incredible because our group was so diverse, all different class years, split by gender (actually more men outnumbering women with Wake Forest group included), variety of relationships with faith/religion, and some racial diversity as well and they built a community respecting, including, and laughing with all.
I heard repeatedly from students throughout the week that they had not felt this much peace in quite some time, and they couldn’t believe how much longer a day felt when they were not consumed about thinking what was next and without their phones and computers. I personally try to assist each student member, paying special attention to the first and senior students as they are in a time of transition in their lives which tends to exacerbate some pressure and stress. I try to teach the students that the lifestyle in Agape is a result of a choice and that they too have a choice to live in peace practicing mindfulness and meditation, to eat well, to be respectful of and preserve natural resources.
I try to model for them that I too am learning and have made mistakes. For instance, I am not vegetarian and am somewhat new to sustainable practices having just done a remodel on my home not knowing that this was one of largest contributors to waste in our world. I shared this learning aloud with the group. Additionally, I shared how when we arrived home from Agape that I did research for the first time on GMO labels and called my local representatives before their vote to let them know I would like such labels on my food. We discussed how this trip was one where the learning was really about ourselves and who we want to be in terms of living the Hope mission in the short and long-term.
The millennial generation (I should say that, depending on the source, born in 1983, that I am either part of, or on the cusp of this generation too) is known both for being “entitled, coddled and narcissistic,” but also for being “tolerant, civic-minded and entrepreneurial” (http:// www.npr.org/2014/04/16/303741790/debate- millennials-dont-stand-a-chance).
While we are on the trip, many students were sharing civic minded and entrepreneurial ideas about how to make their campus more sustainable, such as enhancing the farm on campus (many students are involved in the farm and sustainable/just food and trash practices on campus) and considering building themed housing for students near the farm with an emphasis on mindfulness and sustainability.
The students were sharing two weeks later how it was a challenge for them to be as peaceful as before, and we discussed how we could take 10 minutes to meditate at the end of the meeting but how, given their structured lives, they could not spend that much additional time. We made a compromise to sit in silence for 2 minutes and read a poem.
What I like to remind students in my work as a counselor and on these trips is that a lifestyle change of being more mindful, peaceful, and living in community does not have to be “all or nothing”—that they have to do this community or they are not able to meditate for 10 minutes in that one Wed night a week after being on campus. What it means is that each day, in whatever way they choose, they can take the lessons from Agape- whether that be how they feed themselves, the time they dedicate to silence, the physical labor, the prayer or meditation, or just engaging with one another in a deep level; that they have been moved to feel less of the pressure from the outside world and in those moments, and in moments to come, feel more at peace and one with the world in which they are living.
I have been truly blessed to spend a week at Agape with suzanne, Brayton, and the stonehill and Wake Forest students. I have learned much from my time that I hold in my heart and hope to continue in my actions. Many blessings to all who took the time to read this reflection.