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Conversation #3: Personal Problems

Marcia Rossi

A conversation with Dr. Marcia Rossi of Tuskegee University about teaching, learning, and dealing with personal problems of students.

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H: Hello, today I’m speaking with Dr. Marcia Rossi from Tuskegee University, she received her PhD in experimental Psychology with an emphasis on learning and behavior analysis from Auburn University. She collaborates with faculty and aerospace science engineering on research projects relating to human factors in flight training and visualization training. She teaches Introduction to Psychology, Theories of Learning, Human Factor Psychology and Social Psychology among other courses and she is responsible for installing the Psi Chi Chapter at Tuskegee University, which is a National Honor Society in Psychology and she still serves as its adviser. Recently Dr. Rossi has written a chapter entitled “Helping Students with their Personal Problems: Should I Help and How?” Welcome Dr. Rossi.

R: I thank you for having me.

H: What I want to do is we’re going to focus today on this chapter. I think it’s such an important issue dealing with student problems and student issues, and it’s one that we usually in graduate school that we don’t get trained on at all, and I thought we could start by just asking you, how did you get interested in this topic?

R: Well that’s a good question, I guess it has risen out of basically my work here at Tuskegee University and being a faculty member and working with students and just the kind of problems that they have and tending to come to me and talk. I thought there might be some need for that, and then I was requested by Dr. Buskist to write a chapter on that after a discussion he and I had.

H: Oh okay was there anything in particular or a particular incident that you could share with us that — of course being anonymous — that gave you some expertise in this area or interest in this area to get to the point to write a chapter?

R: Well I’m not sure that I can think of a particular incident, I think it’s just been a number of incidents. And you know the way that I have reacted to them and the number of discussions that I have had with them that he thought I would be a good person to write a chapter on this.

H: Oh okay very good, and I guess this is a broad question to get us into the chapter, when should faculty get involved with student personal problems?

R: Okay so that’s the big question, well I think it depends there’s a lot of factors that go into that, and it depends upon what you mean by personal problems. So one of the things I talked about in the chapter is the different kinds of problems that students might have including academic problems, relationship problems such as breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend or having problems with their roommates or you know parents things like that. Of course the academic problems, having financial problems which is increasingly a problem, and then nowadays we’re having more and more students that have health related kinds of issues, and so the issue of when should you get involved kinds of depends to some extent on what kind of a problem you’re dealing with. And so that’s one of the first things to do is try to identify the kind of a problem.

H: Thank you for clarifying those kind of different categories as you see them, why would the type of problem be a issue with whether you get involved or not — how do you see that as leading into that?

R: Well let’s say you’re an academic adviser and a student comes to with an academic problem, then of course it’s your responsibility to deal with it, and different people have different ideas about the extent that they should go to dealing with problems, so that’s another issue as well. But there’s certain responsibilities we have, and so if you’re an academic adviser and a student has an academic problem then it’s definitely your responsibility, but sometimes students come to their academic adviser for other problems, and that’s what often is the case. As well they will come to a professor or their academic adviser, and they don’t know who else to turn to, and so then in terms of getting involved, you know, there’s certain things you might go through to decide how involved you should be.

H: Okay besides the type of problem, any other things for that big question about when to get involved?

R: Well again, it kind of depends upon what kind of problem it is, and what you see is how you can help. I mean one of the first things that I say is, first try to figure out the nature of the problem, and even when sometimes a student may come to you, and it sounds like it’s an academic problem, then it turns out that they maybe they might come to you and say “well should I drop this class?” And you start talking about that, and then you get into a little bit more of a discussion about why they’re having trouble, and it turns out that maybe you have an idea they have a learning disability. So now you need to get involved as their adviser because you need to say, okay you know “have you had this type of problem before?” or “do you have this same kind of problem in your other class? what are some similar classes?” You know, try to identify what other courses that they are having problems in and see if you can see some sort of a pattern, and if you see that they’re having problems with certain kinds of courses, then you can make referrals to try to address that. And if you determine it’s a learning disability then they need to be referred to get tested so they can get special services.

H: I think one thing when I was reading your chapter, one thing that I find so intriguing about this topic anyways is those more gray area type problems. And I also wonder if there are gender issues here, you know, as a female faculty member, early on in my teaching career when I was younger, I would get students, female students coming to me with more of the personal problems, relationship problems, and I really struggled with what’s my role here. You know, I don’t want to do any damage, I’m not trained in dealing with those types of problems, so I wonder if you could talk me through a scenario like that, in terms of like you just did with the academic example.

R: Okay well I think the first thing I would try to do is listen to them and ask them questions and not judgmental questions. One of the guidelines I have in my chapter is to be open and non-judgmental and listen to the term of the nature of the problem. And so if they come to and their talking about their particular problem try to see where they’re coming from, try to understand what specifically is the problem. And you're right, as a female and as a psychologist I tend to get a lot of students that come to me, you know, so they come with female problems as well as coming to a psychology professor because they think that they can talk to psychology professors a lot of times. And you don’t have to be in psychology, sometimes they come to others who they just feel they can trust, and so, you know, the first thing to do is just take some time and listen to the student and try to be empathetic and hear what they’re having to say. Students have come with pregnancy issues and different kind of concerns like that, and you know it’s not that you’re necessarily trying to advise them about matters that you don’t feel you qualified to advise, but really just kind of listen to them because they really just sometimes need another adult that they can trust. And here they are, you know, most of them are away from home, maybe don’t have as much contact with family members, or maybe it’s something they don’t feel like they can talk to a family member about, and so here they are bringing it to you. So that’s a situation where you know it’s a lot for them to actually come to you and open up, and so you really need to be careful about how you just listen to that and try to identify what they’re saying and what the actual issue is.

H: In a situation like that — let me reverse the question a bit — when is a time you recommend not helping, you know, not in the academic realm but in a more personal realm?

R: Right, well it depends upon what you do to help. Again there’s several things you can do to help, and one of the first things you can do is to make referrals, and so if you’re listening — and to me that’s not really helping so much — if you’re just listening and then you make a referral. I mean, I think different people have different boundaries about where they think they should help and where they shouldn’t help, so I think it’s everybody’s responsibility when a student comes to you, that you should help in the sense of talking to them and listening to them and trying to hear what they have to say. If you don’t personally feel comfortable in going much beyond that, maybe your own particular issue and your own particular boundary that you want to draw the line. But at least everybody should be I think willing to listen to what the student has to say and to try and understand that particular problem. And then in the situations like you’re talking about that are more serious, you know, if it’s something that’s definitely a serious issue, then you may need to make a referral to them. If they’re having depression or suicidal tendencies or medical kinds of issues then you know the best thing to do is to try to refer them to the appropriate resource.

H: Okay okay yeah it seems like, I’m a psychologist as well and so potentially psychologists are more aware of boundary issues than other people, faculty in other discipline. It seems like sometimes I talk to them and I fell like, oh I want to be a little gentle with the student, you know, I know my limitations may be a little more than other faculty do. You mentioned boundaries, and I wonder if your boundaries have changed over time? Your personal boundaries — have you noticed them loosening or tightening or has it changed over time in your teaching?

R: Good question, I don’t know. We all have different constraints so one boundary is how much time do you have to spend, and that’s the reality. And a lot of faculty are very busy, and I’ve been serving as department head for the past year, so that’s constrained my time more. And so that you know that’s the main boundary issue I have is really a matter of time, and I will definitely take time to talk to the student and try to help them. But I may not be able to sit in my office and talk to them day after day after day, you know, if they keep coming back. But in terms of other kinds of boundaries, I don’t really know that I have any real change in that, and if it takes talking to a student time and time again then I will. And so I haven’t really had a big change in that although sometimes I guess, over time, you get better at recognizing the nature of the problem, you know, at an earlier stage in the conversation. And so when they come to you now, you can get to the core of it a little bit sooner — that might be a difference.

H: At any time because — that’s interesting to hear you say, you know, okay multiple times working with students, multiple times and problems and kind of helping them. Have you ever experienced any kind of conflict of interest with that, in terms of your administration or, you know, deans or department chairs feeling like you were too involved or that it was a topic that a faculty member shouldn’t have gotten involved in? Have you ever had any of those situations?

R: I’ve never had any of that, and I don’t know if it’s just the way that I tend to interact with the students or what it is exactly, but I personally have not ever had any kind of issue with that. And in fact with students sometimes, in regard to the question right before this one, there will be times when I will talk to a student, and I’ll say, we come to some sort of a conclusion, I’ll say “let me know next week how it goes." You know, I might ask them to come back to me, and let’s say they’re not even in my class, but they're on campus or they're an advisee. You know, I may run into them and say “well how did that go, come by and see me," and almost a variable of them come by and they let me know if I ask them to.

H: Do you feel like to some degree your reputation as an emphatic listener is out there, and do you think that increased the number of students that come to you, or do your think it’s just a personality variable that you would have no matter what?

R: I don’t know that I can really answer that, but I mean I think generally, like you said, I am the adviser for Psi Chi, and now I’m the department head, and so I’m doing a lot of activities in the department. So a lot of the students, you know, do know to come to me with problems, and so, I don’t know which variable you want to attribute it to.

H: Okay, I want to come back to the guidelines in your chapter in just a moment, because I think those are really interesting. But before we do that, speaking specifically about teaching, so your time in the classroom, do you think the empathy you’ve shown students, the help, and writing this chapter, and thinking about this — does it change any of the way you relate to students in the classroom or change your teaching dynamic in any way?

R: I don’t really think it’s changed it, I think I’m more aware of what I been doing, so maybe that’s part of it, and maybe I feel a extra responsibility, not just because of the chapter but just over time. I’ve developed maybe more of an extra sense for responsibility, but being in one institution for a good bit of time, that you just kind of know your role and know where you fit in, I don’t really know.

H: And just for listeners, how long have you been at Tuskegee? I don’t think I mentioned that.

R: I think it’s about 17 years.

H: Okay okay very good. Yeah, I just wondered if it would affect rapport, and I just think those kind of emphatic responses can help those kind of things. What about policies or class policies or class management or those kind of things? Do you think being more aware of students as whole people and who are experiencing problems too have influenced any of those over time?

R: Well I think yeah in that sense. For example, you know I have policies on my syllabus about late assignments and things and one of my policies, when I first started teaching, one of my policies was that things really couldn’t be late, if they were maybe a day late. And I started having problems with, well, here this student had this death in the family and this student had this serious, you know, situation. And so I came to a conclusion maybe five years ago, or six or seven years ago, that actually talking to a more seasoned faculty member than I at that time who had a policy that they had enacted and I started doing that. And now I try to recommend that to all the faculty in my department that, you know, students sometimes do have legitimate reasons for being late, and there are a lot of personal kinds of problems that get in the way. And, you know, maybe you don’t want to just say okay everything can be late, but you might have a penalty. And my policy has changed to now where it is, is that they can be up to a week late, but they’ll have a letter grade deduction within that week. After that I don’t take it at all, so, you know, I think yes, you're right, over time maybe I have changed in terms of my classroom policies, I’m a little bit more aware today. For example, today we’re at the election, you know, that played into that everybody was excited about the situation, and so that changed what happened in class today. So those things definitely do come into play in the classroom as well.

H: Yeah it almost sounds like a respect issue as well. You know respecting that students have this life and they’re experiencing things and, you know, that can play out in the classroom.

R: Right, I mean I think that’s definitely the case. I think the era of the student as being, you know, coming from a family where they generally have all their expenses taken care of and, you know, we have a lot of nontraditional students, students that are working sometimes one and two jobs and sometimes students with families and just like you said it’s a matter of respect. You realize that they have other issues going on, and you have to meet them half way.

H: Are there any of your colleagues that give you feed back on that as you’re to soft, that’s not the way to go in the real world?

R: Yeah I get some of that, you're right, I do. I do have some colleagues that think that, and we have discussions within the department as well as externally. Not necessarily people attacking me personally about my views but just in general discussions come up on campus about what is appropriate, what’s inappropriate, and some folks feel like that, you know, we’re being too lenient in some cases. Other, especially the younger faculty realize that students today have a different mindset, and they have a different set of responsibilities as well, so you have to recognize that.

H: My school is in New Orleans, and so when we evacuated for Katrina and came back that semester I really felt a difference in my teaching, in my dealing with student problems then. You know, you used the word earlier as we were talking, the responsibility — you know, I felt a responsibility for these students who choose to come back, and I really started looking at my policies differently and students differently as a result of that.

R: Oh yes, and we have a number of students come to Tuskegee from there.

H: Thank you.

R: And that we absorbed and, you know, we took them in late in the semester, and the faculty was instructed to work with them, and so we did.

H: Thank you, thanks for doing that. You mentioned in your chapter you have three guidelines for helping students deal with personal problems, and you mentioned the first one which is the open, nonjudgmental, listen and determine the nature of the problem. I wonder if you would comment on guideline number two which is know the appropriate campus and community resources to make referrals?

R: Okay and yeah, I can, and let me just go back, if you don’t mind, to that first guideline. One of the things that sometimes, I don’t know if this came out earlier when we were talking, but sometimes when a student comes to you with a particular problem it may not be clear. I mentioned it in the context of learning disabilities but sometimes they may come to you, and it seems like the problem is one particular kind of a problem, and really it’s something else. And so, you know, that’s where asking them questions and listening to them carefully really helps you kind of sort out the exact nature of the problem. And so that’s an important thing, not just to take it at face value when they say to you — that’s the point I’m trying to make, is not to take it at face value. When they say, I’m having this particular problem, to kind of go into depth, just take a few minutes, it only takes five minutes really to get them to talk about things and figure out exactly the nature of it. And so once you do that, then you’re better able to make the referral.

Getting to the second guideline, if it is a academic issue there are tutorials on campus, for example most schools do have an office for students, student support services, where then can go for help getting diagnosed with learning disabilities and getting special kinds of treatments and getting accommodations so that the faculty are required to give them accommodations. There’s community resources that you need to know about, you know, most campuses have a campus counsel center, and if they don’t there’s possibly some community service agency that can help them with counseling. So knowing the kinds of resources that you have available, you know, to help the students, is an important thing.

H: As you’re saying that I’m realizing that would be a great thing for new faculty orientation, you know, to include in there, especially people who are new to the community.

R: Right.

H: And don’t really know the resources that are there.

R: You are exactly right.

H: Okay and then the third guideline, recognize that there are limits on how much you can help.

R: Right, that’s I think where a lot of people, you know, think okay you know I’ve done what I can, what else can I do. And everybody has to have there own limit and that’s something that everybody has to determine for themselves, and my feeling is that over time you kind of figure that out, and if you find that you are overwhelmed by student problems, you know, you may have to draw the line a little sooner. But in general I think folks should try to help the students and try to listen to them and try to make the referrals and do what they can, and then at least you feel like you’ve done what you needed to do and that you’ve taken the time to help them try to solve the problem. But everybody does have a limit, and there are times when a student will just want to come back and use you as a friend or a counselor and keep talking to you over and over. And at some point you might have to gently say, “you need to go on to a therapist, I can’t help you anymore with this.”

H: I’m thinking about faculty, especially newer faculty who might be struggling with this issue, what are some of the ethical pitfalls that might come up to this, or can you think of any ethical pitfalls or downsides that faculty should watch out for?

R: Well you don’t want to get into a situation of counseling somebody and trying to provide therapy advice or counseling advice and not be qualified to do so, and so that’s an ethical issue. And of course if you try to assume that responsibility, then you know that’s an ethical issue, and the student follows your advice and ends up hurting themselves or getting hurt or something.

H: Can you just give an example of what you mean by that, like what that might look like?

R: Well, if someone comes to you, and it seems that they have a mental illness for example, and maybe they’re suicidal. And you continue to try to handle it yourself, and you're not qualified, and you’re not providing them the resources and the services that they truly need and, you know, something may happen, and if that does then obviously that’s an ethical issue.

H: And I don’t know if you’ve dealt with anything that severe, like suicidal ideation or that sort of thing, but that does happen on campuses, faculty do have to deal with that. For something that severe, have you ever documented the help you’ve given or the conversation or touch base with your chair about it so that other people know what’s going on?

R: I don’t even know, I’m trying to think back, we have not had many of those conversations, I don’t know that I’ve ever had a case here with a student that was suicidal. I mean, I do know it happens at other institutions, and I’m sure it has happened here, but I just don’t know any particular cases of students coming to me. But way back, you know, a number of years ago I had folks that were very depressed and had referred them for counseling and so on, so I’m trying to think of any other kind of issue.

H: I just think new faculty might be, you know, trying to establish their own ethical boundaries for themselves and figuring out their role, getting their own, you know, getting mentoring on this on their own. Letting their department chair know what’s going on might just kind of cover them a little bit, make them feel more comfortable.

R: Right, no, I think so, and I mean I think that’s an appropriate place for workshop on faculty to recognize. We were talking internally on campus about this, that faculty need to be more aware of the kinds of mental illness and mental health issues that are occurring, and of course, you know, the cases of the shootings and so on. Being able to recognize students that might be a threat to themselves or someone else is an important skill that people need to have, so I think that’s definitely a worthwhile kind of a thing to have a workshop on that.

H: Yeah cause it’s so out of the realm of our training for teaching.

R: Exactly.

H: As we wrap up here I wonder if there’s any last piece of advice you would want to offer faculty members in any stage that’s dealing with this issue?

R: Well I guess I’d like to say that, you know, all faculty go through these kind of things, and one of the things I would like for people to keep in mind is, do keep in mind that the student is coming to you because in some way they trust you to try to help them. And so to recognize that and respect them as an individual and do your best to try to help them without crossing any kind of boundaries or going over the line with your responsibilities or prying into their life. You know, you don’t want to have somebody that’s prying into your life and the student's life and that sort of thing. But certainly just remember that all faculty go through these kind of things, but then again students go through these things too, and so we need to try to be as respectful as we can of the students and try to help them to the extent we can.

H: Well thank you, thank you Dr. Rossi. I appreciate your time talking to me today.

R: Thank you, I enjoyed it very much.

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