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OPINION: Success and Wellness Coaching termination harms students, faculty in the long run

Cutting the Success and Wellness Coaching program will increase Counseling Center wait times, put more work onto a couple dozen counselors and make it more difficult for students to get the help they need to succeed at USF and beyond. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

The Success and Wellness Coaching program was terminated July 2 due to universitywide budget cuts affecting the Student Success unit at USF. The abrupt conclusion of the program will impact over 500 active students, including myself, who’ve used the resource to visualize their futures.

Success and Wellness Coaching should be prioritized in the 2022-23 operating budget and reimplemented next fall with the opening of the new Wellness Center. In the meantime, counselors can be taught how to approach students who need assistance with academic planning to ensure the tools supplied by the coaching program aren’t entirely thrown out by the university. 

Most students from the program in need of academic guidance in tandem with mental health support will seek the help of counselors at the USF Counseling Center. Coaching, however, was such a different experience for me compared to working with counselors that coaching cannot be feasibly replaced by attending counseling sessions. 

Working with a success coach allowed me to reach my goals of finishing projects and writing papers at the end of the spring semester with full confidence that I achieved these goals by myself. My coach was only there to act as a guide for how to approach large tasks and a positive force supporting me on my journey. 

I had originally signed up intending to lift my grade in an accounting course from a D to a passable C, and I left with new time management methods, a more positive outlook on myself and my capabilities and a final grade of a B-. 

Contrast this experience with my time in individual and group counseling at USF. In individual counseling, I discussed issues pertaining to my family, relationships, friendships as well as my own self-image. I talked about how my past was affecting my present, and my counselor and I would work together to create weekly goals wherein I’d tackle the biggest issue of the moment. 

In group counseling, I worked with about six people supervised by two counselors to practice building friendships during COVID-19 and continuing them after the sessions had ended.

In the two types of counseling I tried, both the counselors and I were vulnerable and emotionally open to one another. The counselors gave advice, told personal stories related to my situation and the sessions generally focused on emotional growth. 

Clearly, coaching cannot be replaced by therapy. Therapy targets the past while coaching looks to the future. Therapy is more emotional and long term, while coaching gets right down to business and tackles one or two tasks in specified time periods. Coaching needs to continue to be offered on campus for students who want a cheerleader by their side while they independently develop skill sets to succeed in college and beyond. 

The decision to cut any program in the Student Success unit contradicts USF’s rhetoric claiming to increase on-campus wellness. Less than a month ago, the university unveiled a project to build a $27.4 million Student Wellness Center by fall 2022 that will include services supporting both physical and mental health. 

“Today’s groundbreaking for a state-of-the-art wellness center reflects USF’s institutional core commitment to provide services and facilities needed to actualize personal and academic success,” USF President Steven Currall said at the June 8 celebration.

It’s obvious to anyone outside of USF administration that handing the Student Success unit a $1.4 million reduced budget plan won’t lead students to realize much “personal and academic success.” 

To keep elements of the coaching program on campus, former Director of the Success and Wellness Coaching program Jennifer Bleck said she and former coaches are working with USF employees at the Counseling Center and Center for Victim Advocacy to ensure students can still receive that support from other departments.

“We met with them and talked with them a lot about coaching skills and how to use them within their work,” Bleck said in a June 29 article from The Oracle. “So a lot of these ideas of goal setting, forward thinking and action steps will still be able to be within conversations from other units.”

This is a great move, but it should at most be a short-term solution. With about 22 professional staff working at the Counseling Center, history could repeat itself and end in the coaching program once again becoming necessary.

The coaching program was created in 2017 because the Counseling Center was overwhelmed with students who needed to discuss a range of issues, so the program took students focused on achieving academic goals to alleviate the amount of students counselors were assisting, according to Bleck. 

“The coaching program … was first started back before I was around because the Counseling Center was really overloaded and [there were] issues in getting students the care they need,” Bleck said. “So the Counseling Center had a really long wait, and when they started doing some actual research into what is going on with all of this, they realized a lot of the people that were going to the Counseling Center [had] subclinical issues like daily life stressors and anxiety and  interpersonal relationships. 

“That was the initial point of the coaching program, to take some of that out of the Counseling Center and help them in coaching and free up the Counseling Center for students with diagnosable mental illnesses.” 

But the Counseling Center and other Student Success departments have seen a rise in new students since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Associate Vice President of Student Success Allison Crume told The Oracle in a May 18 article students are reaching out more this year than last for support in all areas of their lives. 

“The consistent feedback we’ve been hearing [from students], certainly through the Counseling Center and our other health and wellness departments … is a sense of feeling overwhelmed and feeling disconnected,” Crume said. “In 2019-20, there [were] about 2,293 interactions with students individually and in 2020-21, that increased to 2,712.”

As we transition from a fully online environment to in-person classrooms, weekly on-campus events and increasing social interactions, it makes no sense to cut mental health programs when students are clearly in need of them now more than ever.

Though therapy and coaching are very different methods of support as I’ve experienced them, the best USF can do is exactly what Bleck and her team are working on through integrating coaching techniques into other on-campus departments. 

But this is not sustainable as these departments could once again become overwhelmed with students and not be able to help them in a timely manner as they do now. For the upcoming 2022-23 fiscal year, the university needs to prioritize its students’ mental well-being and allocate funding for the program. 

It’s clear USF wants to show it cares about students and their academic success, and we know students are looking to the university for guidance to reach their career goals. The coaching program must be brought back to lead both students and USF on a path to success.