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Regents Diversity Award recognizes work of UW-Eau Claire Counseling Services

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire's Counseling Services is the recipient of a UW System Board of Regents Diversity Award for 2021. Members of the Counseling Services staff are: Top row: Riley McGrath, Debbie Baier, Melissa Will, Grace Grambort, Wendy Brousseau-Anderson, Ashley Walton-Beal and Jenny Hlava Middle row: Roberta West, Paula Chiara, Victoria Weiser, Stacey Jackson, Katrina Mahan and Ashley Galoff Front row: Cindy Yang

As the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s student body has become increasingly diverse, its Counseling Services program has expanded and adjusted its programming to ensure that it is meeting the needs of all students.

Since different student populations have different needs when it comes to mental health, Counseling Services is creating resources and providing a variety of services to support the success of all students, including students of color, students with disabilities, first-generation college students, international students and LGBTQIA+ students, says Dr. Riley McGrath, Counseling Services director.

“For example, students of color often are more reluctant to seek mental health services,” McGrath says. “One of the changes we made was having a specific therapy group for students of color. The students can connect with each other and not feel alone.”

The UW System Board of Regents is recognizing those efforts, presenting UW-Eau Claire’s Counseling Services program with a 2021 Regents Diversity Award.

Each year, three Regents Diversity Awards are given to individuals, programs or departments for their “exceptional efforts in fostering greater equity and diversity across their institutions and communities.”

Dr. Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, UW-Eau Claire professor of history, also is an award recipient in 2021

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt calls Counseling Services a “vital campus contributor in supporting student success, and in making our community welcoming for all of its members.”

“Counseling Services recognizes that our goal of equity in outcomes may necessitate different approaches for underrepresented students, who have the experience of being different from others around them on campus, and who navigate different and additional challenges on their way to graduation,” Schmidt says.

Counseling Services staff are honored and humbled by the Regents Diversity Award, McGrath says.

“It’s really exciting for our staff to be recognized, but it’s not an end game,” McGrath says. “It’s great to be appreciated, but it’s not our final destination. There is still plenty of work to be done.”

While there is more to do, significant work already has been done since McGrath became Counseling Services director four years ago.

Changes included revamping the program’s crisis response efforts and adding drop-in workshops on topics such as development of coping skills. The program also now offers services in Spanish and Hmong.

Among the first moves McGrath made after becoming director was to create an equity, diversity and inclusion position in Counseling Services, noting that it was a “pretty glaring” need.

Ashley Walton-Beal, counselor and EDI coordinator, says the Counseling Services staff has worked to improve office services but also improve themselves. Programming is student driven, with staff working to seek feedback from students and other campus organizations about what is needed, she says.

“This award means we are heading in the right direction and is a great motivator to continue our efforts,” Walton-Beal says. “We hope that this will be a sign to students across the UWEC campus that Counseling Services is a place for them and that they will find the support that they need and deserve.

“I think we are making progress in gaining the students’ trust and reducing the stigma around accessing mental health services.”

Since 2016, Counseling Services has seen a 45% increase in use of services among students of color.

Counseling Services provides a safe space for students from all backgrounds with concerns ranging from anxiety to academic stress to discrimination, says Cindy Yang, a Counseling Services therapist.

“There is no limit to what a student’s concern may be,” Yang says. “Mental health has a different meaning to each individual but no concern is less important than others.”

Prior to COVID-19 restrictions over the past year, Counseling Services staff members worked to better engage students of color and other underrepresented groups. For example, they began attending student organization functions, collaborating with the Office of Multicultural Affairs and other university programs, giving counselors more opportunities to get to know students.

“Getting out of our office and meeting students in their own spaces has been crucial in our efforts to connect with students of color as well as LGBTQIA+ students,” Walton-Beal says, noting that the staff has missed that engagement with students during the pandemic. “Being present across campus allows students to get to know our staff as human beings first and build rapport. Once students can see that we are people too, it opens up opportunities for them to feel more comfortable using our services and having a familiar face to turn to.”

Counseling Services also now includes more staff members of color, McGrath says.

“When students see someone who looks like them working there it makes us more appealing as a service,” McGrath says.

Staff members say the perception of Counseling Services is changing and students no longer see a stigma attached to reaching out for help.

“It’s a big step for them to take that chance and reach out to us,” McGrath says. “I really give credit to the students for seeing where things are going and taking that next step.”

Yang says the Regents Diversity Award recognizes the work done by Counseling Services staff as well as by faculty and staff in departments they collaborate with across campus.

“Such opportunities allow us to expand our efforts and persist in finding various ways for us to continue to provide services to our students,” Yang says. “It also highlights our teamwork and passion toward helping others and striving to make a difference.”