Changing Lives: A Developmental Approach to College Counseling

Donna Marie San Antonio, Chelsea Levy, Tuyet-Mai Ha Hoang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


News reports and articles about the stress of college life reflect a growing concern that college students are a vulnerable population, residing in high stress environments, susceptible to social and emotional risks, and often unable or unwilling to access adequate support. The National Center for Education Statistics shows an overall increase in college enrollment at both undergraduate and graduate levels in the last four decades (NCES, 2014). As more young adults choose higher education, college campuses are under increased public scrutiny. They are expected, on the one hand, to offer the safety and guidance associated with their in loco parentis role and, simultaneously, to provide a climate of exploration and freedom in order to give young adults opportunities to take on the new roles and responsibilities of adulthood. In the wake of a series of high profile campus shootings, sexual assault, and suicides, colleges and universities are focusing on prevention, awareness, and student mental health services like never before and college counseling centers are working to stay attuned to students’ needs.

Hicks and Miller (2006) found that college students must work hard to adjust to changing relationships with family and friends back home, make meaningful social connections in their new environments, and deal with the stress of being in an unfamiliar place. As the college-going population grows in numbers, the severity and prevalence of mental health issues among college students also continues to rise (Cook, 2007). Across all populations and higher education settings, researchers have found significant stress and feelings of loneliness and isolation on college campuses (Dellinger-Ness & Handler, 2007).

In this article, we examine the concerns of young adults as they transition to college or graduate school, and we outline some of the key issues facing college counseling centers. We present these issues from a developmental and cultural point of view, drawing from the lived experiences of students. Our findings are part of the Lives in Transition Project, a multi-year research project examining the contexts and conditions that lead to successful or difficult transitions for adolescents and young adults. The current study focuses on the narratives of twenty-one graduate students who were asked to reflect upon the economic, practical, social, emotional, and cultural demands they faced between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Our research considers the central concerns of campus life, especially, retention and success in school, intimate relationships, cross-cultural adjustments, and stress related to depression or anxiety. We argue that there is a need to re-think college counseling in order to provide support that is insight-oriented, developmental, relational, and culturally informed.

We three authors reflect age, culture, and ethnic diversity. The lead author is an Associate Professor in a graduate program in counseling and psychology and has worked with adolescents and young adults for forty years. The second and third authors are graduate students in counseling and psychology, who worked as research assistants on this project and have a particular interest in college counseling. Our work contextualizes the experience of college students within four areas: 1) the developmental landscape of young adults; 2) the challenges of transition to adulthood and circumstances posed by race, class, gender, and sexual orientation; 3) social-emotional well-being and the young person’s inclination to move toward hopefulness and resilience, and 4) the unique and shifting role of college counseling centers to meet students’ needs. We use a somewhat personal tone because we want this article to be accessible and relevant and we want our research and writing to invest in creating contexts that nurture wellness during early adulthood. In the following sections, we first review the developmental literature on emerging adulthood and the literature relevant to student mental health concerns across diverse populations. We then discuss our research purpose, data collection, and process of analysis. A report of our findings follows, highlighting the most salient themes that emerge from our narrative analysis. We conclude with implications for college counseling practices.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number4
JournalJournal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes


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