This story was updated on Feb. 27 at 11:40 a.m. to include a quote from Ashley Robinson from her testimony on graduate student mental health struggles, as well as a paragraph outlining her speech.
A group of University of Connecticut students protested at the university’s board of trustees monthly meeting Wednesday morning to push the board to increase funding for mental health care.
“The most important thing is that students are expressing that they are caring for one another, and they are not feeling that care from the university,” Dean of Students Eleanor JB Daugherty said after the students spoke. “That is a gap that should not be their experience, they should feel welcomed and cherished by everyone. If we are failing to do that, we need to address that.”
The students, led by UConn Coalition for Collaborative Organizing (UCCO) President Katharine Morris, an eight-semester cognitive science, anthropology and master’s in public policy student, spoke at the beginning of the meeting for approximately an hour and a half, providing a face and a variety of personal stories for the board to consider in their handling of mental health reform going forward.
“Continuing pressure and making sure that they are actually carrying out things,” Morris said on the path forward. “Avoiding falling into the trap of having a task force and meetings, where you can say that you are doing something but all you’re really doing is having these meetings.”
Once the public comment section of the meeting ended, the board swiftly passed all the items on their agenda, according to University Spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz.
Reitz also confirmed that Trustee Scott Cowen had handed Gov. Ned Lamont his letter of resignation after the passing of his wife.
After waiting more than 20 minutes past the listed start time for the meeting to be called to order, the student protestors walked over behind university officials to get right into view of the Board. They remained there for the duration of the testimonials.
“It came out of just wanting to be seen, I think,” Abhishek Gupta, an eighth-semester biology and sociology major, said on moving the protest into view. “The way meetings are structured, they tend to be a little bureaucratic in nature and it follows a strict ordered setting, but we didn’t want to be seen as people on the sidelines.”
On top of increased funding, the students asked the board to consider further diversifying the mental health staff in place, so that more identities can be represented in the counseling services provided. At this time, there is one professional in Student Health and Wellness (SHaW) who speaks Mandarin, and four that speak Spanish.
“We have to be able to respond to the variety of identities that need support on campus, that has to happen through hiring,” Daugherty said. “It has to happen through a perspective on student health and well-being that is inclusive and welcoming of diversity. One of the things we feel is very important in supplementing our counseling staff is including a social work perspective, which I think is very valuable among our clinicians, but also extending that to how we look at health and wellness in the community. Then the third piece is training, we need to be able to train our staff to be responsive to the variety of needs that our students experience.”
Reitz said it is an “institutional priority”, after hearing from students that there is a disconnect between them and some professors and faculty.
“I actively cut things out [of my testimonial] if there was even a risk of it falling on a deaf ear, so I said just enough,” Morris said on explaining her story without having to prove to the board that her trauma was severe enough to warrant action.
They also spoke about difficulties and frustrations students experience in the appointment-making process, which requires a triage phone call and, depending on the individual, bi-weekly appointments.
“The students have been very clear in their questions which has prompted some immediate, short-term questions about changing hours, looking at a greater depth of care for 24/7 response, scheduling mechanisms that aren’t phone dependent,” Daugherty said. “All of those things are things we are talking to students about implementing in the short-term.”
Ashley Robinson a fourth-year Ph.D student in Leadership and Education Policy and the Vice President of the Graduate Employee Union, spoke about the stress and mental health issues that graduate students face under immense pressure to perform.
“My advisor has often asked me over the past four years if I’m surviving or thriving,” Robinson said. “We want to not just survive, but to thrive as graduate students—an often-impossible feat.”
The moniker “thrive not survive” was echoed by many of her peers throughout the protest.
In terms of long-term care, Daugherty pointed to the UConn’s partnership, alongside USG and SHaW, with the JED Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving student mental health on campuses around the country. University President Thomas Katsouleas announced the hiring of case managers at each of the regional campuses.
In addition to adding more diversity to SHaW, Caesar Valentin, an eighth semester political science and philosophy major, spoke in support of making Jennifer Cheng, a METAS assessment specialist in PRLACC, a full-time employee.
“Real, institutional change requires us all to be on the same page and I think this was a good step forward to doing that,” Gupta said. “We’ve done a lot of work laying the foundation and now it’s time to build. I am greatly anticipating the response that we get from them as well as the establishment of the president’s task force.”
Among the agenda items approved were a software update to the PeopleSoft system, a host of construction and renovation plans and the honorary degrees of six professionals. They also approved re-naming the Hall of Champions in the Werth Family Basketball Champions Center lobby as the Nayden Hall of Champions, after receiving a gift “with the amounts recommended for naming the Hall of Champions” from the Nayden family.
“I’m hoping that they give it time to let it marinate and really sit with what we decided to share with them today, because it was really courageous of everyone who shared their experience and who shared their story.” Gupta said.
Finally, here were some of the things the students had to say:
“I’m exhausted by students being invited to the table to break bread with administrators to be left with the crumbs,” Luke Anderson, an eighth-semester anthropology and nutrition major, said.
“I am afraid of dying here and just becoming a story,” Jessica Delgado, a fourth-semester nursing major, said after elaborating on her own mental health history.
“This is a problem that will not go away, we will not go away,” Gupta said.