Staff changes at Emmons Wellness Center as counseling updates continue

The Emmons Wellness Center at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Sept. 22 2018. Zachary Forsyte/The Occidental

Over the summer, Emmons Wellness Center hired Anna Rivera as its new, full-time staff therapist, according to Sara Semal, senior director of student wellness services. Rivera was previously one of two part-time staff therapists, along with Melissa Lopez. Emmons staff decided to replace the two part-time positions with one full-time position. Additionally, Emmons staff conducted annual reviews of their services this summer, which included discussions of group counseling and increased student outreach, Semal said.

Emmons staff had originally requested two full-time, benefited positions in February from the board of trustees’ Budget and Finance Committee, but was only granted one, according to Semal. She said this decision came with the expectation that Emmons would request a second full-time position again next year.

The shift from two-part time positions resulted from increased utilization of Emmons counseling services and a commitment by Emmons to invest more in its staff, Semal said.

According to Matthew Calkins, associate director of student wellness services and director of counseling, around 30 percent of the student body uses Emmons counseling now, compared to 11 percent of students in 2008. Last year, high demand led to a three-week waiting period for first-time counseling, which prompted a series of town halls and changes to counseling services.

A lot of input at those town halls came from the Queer and Transgender People of Color (QTPOC) community, according to Venitia Boyce (senior), a student life liaison for the Diversity and Equity Board who works closely with Emmons and who has met with Semal to discuss student concerns about Emmons’ counseling services. Boyce said that the news that part-time therapist Melissa Lopez would not be returning to Occidental as a result of her position’s consolidation greatly upset the QTPOC community.

Rivera said that Lopez provided a lot of support for QTPOC students and will be missed.

“Although other staff will not be able to provide the same services or support in the same way, it is important to note that there are a number of counselors at Emmons who have experience working with –– and like to work with –– QTPOC students, myself included,” Rivera said.

Semal said that she hopes to improve the accessibility of counseling this year, especially for marginalized communities that are less likely to use those services than other groups.

“We need to go out of the office and into the community to provide services that are more culturally sensitive and aware,” Semal said. “I want to encourage people to know that we are a resource in every version of the word.”

Semal said she plans to consult the Student Wellness Advisory Committee (SWAC), composed of eight students, for input about how to best achieve this goal and address student needs.

According to Boyce, Semal has already made positive changes at Emmons based on student feedback, but there is still work to be done with regards to diversity.

Student Liaison for the Diversity and Equity Board Venitia Boyce (Senior) explains her views on the changes to the Emmons Wellness Center in the quad at Occidental College in Los Angeles Sept. 18 2018. Zachary Forsyte/The Occidental

“I think Emmons has improved a lot just within the past three years,” Boyce said. “I really hope the institution realizes that in order to truly support diversity and equity on campus, it means supporting students in every facet of their lives, especially health and mental health-wise.”

According to Calkins, Emmons staff has stepped up efforts to diversify its staff.

“Of the six counselors providing services at Emmons this year, four identify as people of color and two as european-american/caucasian (sic). There are staff at Emmons who are queer identified. And there are identities of our staff beyond ethnicity or sexual orientation/gender identity that may not be visible, but are real and add to our diversity and our capacity to work with a range of people,” Calkins said via email.

According to an email sent by Semal to the student body Oct. 1, several other recent staffing changes include the hiring of Edden Agonafer and Darius Fatemi to postdoctoral fellow positions, Kimberly Navarro to the part-time nurse practitioner position and Irma Breakfield to the contract therapist position. Semal said that these hires either replaced staff members who left over the summer or filled positions that rotate on an annual basis, such as the postdoctoral fellow positions.

Over the summer, Emmons also saw a large increase in the number of students applying for Occidental Student Health Insurance Policy (OSHIP) grants, which are given to students who need help paying for the Emmons’ student health insurance plan and who are not covered under another health insurance plan, according to the grant’s application.

There were 144 grants provided this year, in comparison with around 100 last year, according to Semal.

“It took a little bit of time, but we were able to fund all of our applicants that met the minimum requirements,” Semal said.

Director of Financial Aid Gina Becerril said that although the office does not know precisely what prompted the rise in applications, she believes the increase results simply from the fact that more and more students are learning of the grant’s existence.

Boyce said that she worries the funding needed for the extra grants will limit the ability of Emmons staff to provide flexible services.

“I think responding to students needs within a restricted budget is very hard to do. It’s going to be extremely challenging now,” Boyce said.

During their summer reviews, Emmons staff discussed increasing focus on group sessions as an alternative or supplement to individual counseling and as a way to meet increased demand. Examples include a mindfulness group, a depression and anxiety skills group, a people of color support group and more, according to the Emmons website.

“Groups are a really great way to meet clinical need,” Semal said. “They can be really helpful for people who are struggling with the same problems as other people.”

Rivera will also continue her “What’s the Word, Hummingbird” program from last year, which happens Thursdays from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. in the Imagenes Latinas Reading Room of the Academic Commons. According to Rivera, this program creates an opportunity for students to have casual and confidential conversations about individual problems or available resources with an Emmons counselor.`

“It’s important that counselors are seen around campus,” Rivera said. “So that students see that we are approachable and friendly.”