Tuesday, November 29, 2022

“You get laughed at”: W&M students frustrated over school’s response to mental health concerns

Starting fall 2021, William & Mary will provide full-tuition scholarships, including mandatory fees, for 10 students selected from a field of 20 candidates identified by The Posse Foundation. (WYDaily/Courtesy of W&M News)
William and Mary students are speaking out over the school’s lack of pass/fail options and response to student health concerns. (WYDaily/WYDaily file)

WILLIAMSBURG — Students at the College of William and Mary (W&M) are speaking out about the administration’s response to academic and mental health concerns this semester. 

For both the spring and fall 2020 semesters, the College implemented a pass/fail option for students in order to help them better adjust to the school’s workload during the pandemic. 

Students assumed that the policy would be extended for the 2021 spring semester, as the academic environment had not really changed, said John Dietz, a W&M student.

However, the policy was adjusted so that only juniors and seniors could select one normally-graded course to use pass/fail that is not a major or minor requirement for an undergraduate degree program during each of the 2021 spring and fall terms. 

This sparked outrage among students, leading Dietz and fellow student, Aidan White, to start a Change.org petition to reinstate the previous pass/fail policy. 

The rules for the College’s Student Assembly state that if at least 250 students sign a petition calling for a referendum, it automatically triggers an emergency Student Assembly vote. 

In the first half hour that the petition was live, they reached 250 signatures, said White.

The petition was live for three days, reaching a total of 1,400 signatures from W&M students. 

Because of the rules set forth by the school’s Student Assembly, the number of signatures far exceeded what was required to call for a referendum.

On March 29, the Student Assembly sent a pass/fail referendum to Provost Peggy Agouris.

However, the administration met with the Student Assembly and told them that, regardless of the results of the referendum, they would not be extending pass/fail. 

On Thursday, April 1, Agouris held open office hours through Zoom to discuss campus issues, including the semester’s pass/fail policy. 

White, who was among the students attending the virtual session, expressed concern that, due to the increased stress placed upon students, that he would see an increase in self-harm among students on campus. 

White claims that Agouris reply was, “Give me a break.” He also said that the provost laughed at his concerns.  

White said that he was so shocked by her reaction that he did not process what was said at first and that the office hours call was quickly ended soon after the exchange.

“I literally physically started shaking,” White said. “I was so shocked by how callus it was.”

“The safety and well-being of our students are the university’s top priority,” Suzanne Clavet, director of the College’s news and media, said in an email to WYDaily. “Provost Agouris has been meeting regularly with students and student leadership since the beginning of the pandemic and has been working with them and other appropriate university bodies to develop solutions to address their concerns.”

White also remembered another student’s concern that was raised during the office hours call about resources for students’ mental health. 

Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler, who was also on the call, allegedly responded by mentioning resources such as the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, where counseling and student health services are located.  

White said that the student replied how they had a friend who had been waiting for an appointment there for three months, to which Ambler allegedly responded that this was “just a rumor.”

In an email to WYDaily, Carina Sudarsky-Gleiser, director of William & Mary’s Counseling Center, responded to these claims that students are experiencing long wait times and inadequate services.

“I am surprised that our students are reporting wait times concerns as we have not experienced long wait times for a while at the Center,” she said. “Even at this point in the semester, which is usually one of our busiest times during an academic year, students can schedule a triage/short-notice appointment within a couple of days.”

Sudarsky-Gleiser also said that the center offers individual therapy on an every-other-week basis for a period of one semester.

“Increasing the frequency or duration of these services would result in an advantage for some students who would end with a longer-term therapy experience at the cost of others experiencing difficulty accessing services,” Sudarsky-Gleiser said.

Students in need of longer-term or weekly individual therapy are referred to providers in the community.

“Responses from students regarding this additional resource have been positive,” she said. “Several of the students who have been referred to this resource have stated satisfaction with how quick and easy it has been to schedule an appointment.”

Along with McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, students are able to receive help for mental and academic stress from Student Accessibility Services, but White said all of the options presented to students are not adequate

White worked along with others to hold an open mic event during this semester to discuss the pass/fail policy. Students were invited to share their thoughts and stories. 

One student, who sent in a pre-written story in order to remain anonymous, shared that, in order to accommodate their stress and mental health, they were told by Student Accessibility Services to petition for an academic underload, which would have deprived them of their financial aid.

Zach Amos, another student who helped create petition for the expansion of the pass/fail option, is frustrated that the school will not extend a policy that they already had in place.

“It’s truly ridiculous at this point that these are things we have to fight for,” he said. “Other schools are still doing pass/fail. It truly comes down to the College’s value, reputation and their ranking over their students mental health. And it’s something that they’ve always done.”   

White said that he is shocked that the administration allegedly does not take students’ mental health more seriously. 

“It’s shocking to me that mental health and self-harm is something administrators wouldn’t take seriously,” he said. 

White said that after sharing an open letter to the provost following the office hours incident, he received many responses from the W&M community in agreement with his concerns.  

“But nobody wants to speak up because when you try to express concerns about mental health at this school, you get laughed at by the administration,” he said.

Just a few hours after the provost’s alleged comment during her office hours, White created a Change.org petition to have Agouris removed from her position.

The petition currently has nearly 2,000 signatures.   

However, White said that, even if the provost is removed, he doesn’t believe that their problems would be solved.

“It’s a systemic problem at the university,” he said. “The university consistently values its own reputation over the needs of the wellbeing of the students, and the staff and faculty.” 

In response to the students’ complaints, the university has since announced a few options, which White says “are terrible.”

In an April 5 open message to undergraduate students, Agouris and Ambler announced new resources that would be offered to students for managing academic stress for the rest of the semester.

This included extending the deadline to change a course to pass/fail, keeping it limited to just one course for only juniors and seniors. Additionally, the university extended the deadline to allow students to withdraw from a class. This would leave a “W” on the students’ transcripts.

TutorZone would also provide free tutoring to undergraduate students for the remainder of the semester.

White said that it feels as though the school is not listening to the students. 

“It’s so frustrating that so many students have asked for this one policy change that they’ve already done for two semesters in a row, and they just won’t do it,” White said.

W&M did not immediately respond to request for comment regarding the pass/fail policy change. Also, the provost did not expand upon the alleged comments that were made during the open hours meeting.

“It just feels like this is happening on an island,” White said. “Nobody who isn’t tapped into the William and Mary student community is listening. We just want to feel like someone is listening to us.”

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