With students back at East Carolina University for the fall semester, counselors and staff are giving advice to students about staying emotionally safe and healthy in a college environment.
Ashley Cleland, associate director for the Women and Gender Office at ECU, said emotional safety means students feel accepted and are safe from emotional attacks or harm. Cleland said she has advice for students who are struggling with emotional safety issues.
Cleland said she advises students to not get involved in every verbal fight they are invited to when both parties have different beliefs, and that there are other options for expressing opinions. She said not every fight is worth the cost to someone’s well being.
“It’s okay to opt out of arguments, there’s plenty of opportunities that you’ll have at ECU to have civic discourse on issues. There’s plenty of opportunities you’ll have with peers, you don’t have to compromise your mental health,” Cleland said.
Cleland said students who experience some “marginalized identities” are more likely to exhibit emotional distress through microaggressions and exclusion.
According to a journal published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, some marginalizing characteristics include race, class or gender and health effects and are thought to occur through discrimination.
Cleland said microaggressions, such as someone being told they do not belong, can build up over time and cause emotional distress. She said it is important for students to practice self-care and engage in dialogue in emotionally safe environments.
Classrooms at ECU should be emotionally safe spaces for students, according to Cleland. She said classrooms can act as safe places for students to have guided discussions.
“The classroom is usually, and should be when we have great leaders leading our classes, a pretty emotionally safe place because we have set guidelines and expectations for discussions and things like that,” Cleland said. “Versus social media which is kind of a free for all.”
Cleland said there are spaces on campus that are designated trusted spaces, such as the women and gender office. She said she has seen the women and gender office at ECU be a safe space for women, non-binary students and transgender students.
Other spaces on campus include the Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center, the largest LGBTQ center in the UNC System and the Ledonia Wright Cultural Center (LWCC), said Cleland. She said the goal of these spaces is to help students feel safe, included and respected.
Cleland said she tells students who come to her with emotional safety issues to take an “audit” of the people surrounding them and decide “who are the people in my life I feel like I can be my true self around” and spend more time with those people.
Cleland said students who are not struggling with emotional safety but are trying to be an emotionally safe person for others, can read books available in the cultural centers to learn more about perspectives and open-mindedness. They can additionally get involved in Pledge Purple, a campus-wide initiative to end sexual violence, bullying and harassment.
Valerie Kisler-van Reede, director of the Center for Counseling and Student Development at ECU, said she advises new and returning students to adapt to college life by focusing on classes and seeking support if needed.
“Focus on the priority of classes, and then depending on how that’s going, if they’re needing additional support, find a way to kind of blend support from home,” Kisler-van Reede said. “As well as finding some peers that they can rely on or connect with, it might (be) a roommate, a floormate, some of the campus living staff, or even faculty or other resources that are available on campus.”
Kisler-van Reede said she recommends students who might be struggling emotionally get involved with campus organizations to discuss difficulties and have open conversations. She said students can find organizations and events on engage.ecu.edu.
Students with more serious issues can visit the ECU Dean of Students office, the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities or the Office for Equity and Diversity to discuss any concerns.
Student Government Association (SGA) President, Colin Johnson, said he has heard concerns from students about safety and he believes ECU is the answer to these concerns.
“I’m hearing concerns from students about their safety and I absolutely believe that,” Johnson said. “But, I also absolutely believe that the safest place to be having these discussions is here on campus.”