Coping Beyond Their Years

Students get through a year of instability by learning how to lean on others.

Bailey Mclaughlin '21 relied on the Center for Service and Social Justice and the Counseling Center during this year of instability
Bailey Mclaughlin '21 relied on the Center for Service and Social Justice and the Counseling Center during this year of instability

It’s been nearly a year since the pandemic upended students’ lives. Now,  a new national survey reveals that nearly half of all college students suffered from anxiety or depression in the fall of 2020.  

“The past year has been challenging for everyone,” said Sherry Dougherty, LCSW, CADC, a licensed clinical social worker in the University’s Counseling Center. “However, for young adults, who thrive on peer interaction and relationships, the challenges are often more impactful as the rules of gathering and socializing have been rewritten.” 

“The past year has been challenging for everyone.”
- Sherry Dougherty, a clinical social worker in the University’s Counseling Center

While dealing with COVID-19 concerns, students also wrestled with news of racial unrest, political tensions and economic uncertainty.  

University leaders and counselors reached out to students who might have been struggling this past fall and provided opportunities for them to relieve stress and anxiety. There were group counseling sessions, check-in phone calls, wellness classes, dialogue sessions about the polarizing election and discussions about racial healing and identity. Social distancing prevented students from gathering to support one another in their usual ways. Even though Zoom was available, attendance was down as students reported they were “Zoomed out” with so much time staring at screens to keep up academically. Some events worked better than others, such as an outdoor picnic. However, students were connecting in more informal, less quantifiable ways. 

“There was a group of students that wanted to make sure we remained vigilant of student mental health right from the start of the fall semester,” said Lauren Rivera, J.D., M.Ed., assistant vice president for student life and dean of students.  

The group hosted an event in November in which students told their stories of resilience by starting at their low point and then talking about how they worked through it, said Rivera. Perhaps most important, they were clear about the fact that struggle is normal and relying on others for help is important.  

“This helped normalize struggle and challenge,” said Rivera. “Students have leaned into one another. And they have been very honest with us about the pressure of academics on top of concerns about the pandemic. Sometimes I couldn't help alleviate specific academic pressures, but we have tried to be good advocates for them.” 

“Students have leaned into one another." - Lauren Rivera, J.D., M.Ed., assistant vice president for student life and dean of students

Robert W. Davis Jr., Ed.D. ’03, vice president of student life, is sympathetic to what students have been going through, and he said he has seen firsthand the benefits of the informal social support network and efforts from student groups to reach out to others. 

Student Government, “a voice for the students,” chartered the Black Student Union, a new club on campus, which then reached out to potential members on campus to join. 

“Normally in a semester we deal with one, possibly two, unprecedented events, or things we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Davis. “This semester, we dealt with many of them, including the one that will seemingly be the hardest for us to deal with, which is the racial unrest in the country. There are a lot of competing, really important things that we need to focus on here, and students feel that.” 

Davis said he and his colleagues will continue to have open lines of communication and provide opportunities for students to connect with one another.   

A Refuge

Some students sought help outside of their friend groups, taking refuge – virtually, mostly – in clubs or offices that helped them feel like they were a part of something. 

“This year was especially tough because the Scranton I have grown to love over the past four years was turned on its head, and I wasn’t sure where I fit in it anymore,” said Bailey McLaughlin ’21. “I really needed someone to talk to who was more objective than my friends.”  

“This year was especially tough because the Scranton I have grown to love over the past four years was turned on its head, and I wasn’t sure where I fit in it anymore.”
- Bailey McLaughlin ’21


McLaughlin not only relied on the Counseling Center to talk things through, but she also reached out to staff in The Center for Service and Social Justice (CSSJ), a place to which she felt connected prior to the pandemic and “whose doors were always open,” she said. 

“The whole CSSJ staff helped to give me a place on campus where I could go no matter how I felt,” she said. “It wasn’t always pretty when I reached out, but feeling comfortable enough to go to someone made all the difference in the process of opening up. Both CSSJ and The Counseling Center gave me consistency in a semester of uncertainty.”  

Students such as Ashley Walker ’21 were also comforted by the consistency that counseling sessions brought week to week and from one semester to the next.  

“I was already seeking counseling through the Counseling Center before the pandemic began. Once it did begin, I found it really important to use the support through my counselor to help make the difficult transition home and to online learning,” said Walker. “As the pandemic worsened, and some of my family members got sick with COVID, my counselor helped with the anxiety that both the pandemic and political climate brought.” 

Experience Gained

Consistency is powerful in uncertain times, said Tiffany Bordonada, Ph.D. assistant professor in the Counseling and Human Services Department. It’s a concept she tries to instill in her students. 

“I remind myself that the ‘three C’s,’ connection, certainty and consistency, are really important, and that’s what people need now, more than ever,” she said. “Everything in this world is so inconsistent, it’s so uncertain, there’s so much disconnection. So, I say to myself, ‘What can I do to alleviate some of that?’” 

Bordonada recognizes that it’s her role as a faculty member to have check-ins with students – even more so this year – while also providing consistency from week to week through their regular Zoom calls. By putting the “three C’s” into practice with her students, she provides a real-life example for future counselors. 

“Everything in this world is so inconsistent, it’s so uncertain, there’s so much disconnection. So, I say to myself, ‘What can I do to alleviate some of that?’”
- Tiffany Bordonada, Ph.D. assistant professor in the Counseling and Human Services Department

She also teaches her students to work through their own feelings about the news. It’s why she often begins her graduate-level courses with a discussion about what’s happening in the world around them, allowing space for discussion and support. 

“It’s important to process the news as counselors in training, because if you sit across from a client who is completely different from you, you have to ensure that your own stuff doesn't get in the way of you being present,” she said.  

In Bordonada’s Professional Issues for Counselors course, students worked on advocacy projects to raise awareness of under-represented populations. This year, one set of students provided feminine care products to homeless women through the Catherine McAuley Center. This was community-based learning in the digital age, and it gave students a sense of connection that they were lacking this year. 

“This was a way for them to give back to the community and still feel connected. I said, ‘If you can’t sit with people, what can you do otherwise?’ A few of them got creative and took it upon themselves,” she said. 

Grief, Loss and Perspective


Graduate students in counseling, who usually meet with clients – undergraduates – in the Counseling Training Center, gained unparalleled experience during the pandemic.   

“Even before COVID, we had a pretty unique model as far as counselor education goes and as far as a resource for students,” said Geri Barber, NCC, LPC, CRC, director of the Counselor Training Center. But now, she said, students can also add “telehealth qualified” to their resumes. 

In addition, the interns gained perspective from their own experiences this year. 

“At the end of the day,” said Barber, “I think what our counseling students have recognized is that grief isn’t just about death and dying. Grief is about life transitions. This is an even more profound transition for everybody because we don’t know how to do it. They have also recognized the need to take care of themselves at an even higher level so that they can be present to the people that they want to take care of as a part of being in the counseling profession.” 

“I think what our counseling students have recognized is that grief isn’t just about death and dying. Grief is about life transitions."
- Geri Barber, director of the Counselor Training Center

The loss of routine has been difficult, but it’s not insurmountable, said Lori Bruch, chair of the Counseling and Human Services Department.  

“That loss of tradition, of what we love and how we do things, has been a struggle,” said Bruch. “It’s not just our counseling students; it’s really all of us. We, in many ways, have been hanging on by a thread as we try to understand this pandemic’s impact on our world, on our students and the personal impact that it’s having on us.” 

Coping is learned over time, with experience, said Bruch. This past year students were dealt a tough hand, and they may not yet have all the tools to cope.  

“When you are on campus as a student, you are here to explore, to be excited, to meet new people, to have new experiences, and you have less of that understanding through life experiences to really help you make sense of what all of this is.” 

Dougherty agreed and said that she hoped that students – and their support systems – would remember the gravity of the situation they’re in. 

“We find students sometimes forget the historical nature of the time they are living through, a once-in-a-century pandemic,” she said. “This is on top of the other challenges -- historical political tensions, racial inequalities and economic uncertainty -- they've experienced. Our message is the same as always: Support is available; you do not have to do this alone; let us help you manage and cope.”  

Are You a Student Seeking Help?

Contact The University of Scranton Counseling Center, here.

Contact the Counseling Training Center by emailing

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