Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of Contents
FEATURE

CHANGES - IN SOCIETY, IN THE JOB MARKET, IN STUDENTS THEMSELVES- MEAN CHANGING THE WAY UNIVERSITIES PROVIDE MUCH-NEEDED STUDENT SUPPORT SERVICES.

LIGHTING THE WAY
WRITTEN BY LAURA SHEFLER
IT'S NO USE trying to get the attention of the students at work in the Cathedral of learning cpmputer lab, where the only sound is the clatter of typing, as insitent and steady as the sound of pouring rain. A week before finals, these students have draped their winter jackets hurriedly over the backs of their chairs, and now they stare, with unfailing concentration, into the gloq of their computer screens. If you look over their shoulders, you can get a glimpse of what they're up to. One student is inserting a new sentence into the middle of a pargraph. Another reviews a computer-generated list of scientific numbers. A third student, less productive, perhaps, than the others, but just as intent on what he's doing, tips his chair back slightly and types the command for the next roll in a computer generated game of dice.

In this computer lab--as in the others nestled in buildings all across Pitt's campus--students can call up word processing software and write their papers on it. They can use sophisticated computer languages to create artificial intelligence programs. They can send e-mail to other students around the globe. Pitt provides them with a vast array of up-to-date technology--tools for getting through their studies (or putting off their studying, as the case may be). The computer labs are just one example of the many services and facilities that the University now makes available to students--services and facilities that can keep students one step ahead in an increasingly complex world.

From the computer lab, it's a quick walk across the street to the William Pitt Union. (Along the way, you'll pass by new outdoor lights, modeled after old-fashioned gas lamps, that now brighten the Cathedral grounds.) At the union, you'll find an office that's home to a very different set of services for students. While the computer lab addresses academic needs, this office deals instead with students' emotinal concerns. The University Counseling Center leads support groups on subjects of consequence to students--getting over a romantic break-up or coping with the special challenges of atending school when you're over 30. The center also sees more than 1, 200 students for individual counseling each year.

You may wonder what these divergent places in the University--the computer lab and the University Counseling Center--have to do with one another. The answer is that both arise our of the realities of contemporary life. Both offer services that are now an acepted part of college life. Yet these are services that previous generations of students would never have imagined.

The amenities that the University provides for the current generation are surprisingly diverse. There are the new tables on the patio outside the William Pitt Union, which give the central campus amore relaxed, cafe style atmosphere. There is the recently designed, one-credit Freshman Studies course in the College of ARts and Sciences, developed to gice new students strategies for approaching their studies, for getting along with their roommates, for taking advantage of University facilities, such as the Student Helth center and the Writing Center--in short, for getting the most out of college life. The idea is not only to give students new coping skills, but to foster a sense of connectedness and community.

The purpose of the Counseling Center when it opened in 1966 was to give students a place to come for guidance about ordinary oncerns in their studies and personal lives. In recent years, however, more and more students have been arriving at university counseling centers, both here and across the nation, seeking help with depression, severe anxiety, or other significant emotional distress. Robert Gallagher, the director of the Counseling Center, suspects that this trend may have been caused, in part, by social changes such as the high divorce rates that hit when today's college students were children, as well as by career uncertainties and other pressures facing college students today. On the other hand, he adds, we are also simply more willing now to report emotional difficulties than people were in 1966--more willing to admit that we are struggling, more willing to seek support. (Over 40 percent of the Counseling Center's clients report that counselng they received helped them to remain enrolled at the University.)

As both the computer labs and the counseling center show, changes in s tudent services at the University mirror changes in the society: new technologies, new approaches to issues of social concern.

You can see both technological and societal changes at work in Pitt's Placement Office, where director Bob Perkiski will tell you that computers and a tighter job market have transformed his jobn. Speed is what's important today. In the old days, the Placement Office's main function was fairly straightforward: to arrange interviews between students and the employers who came to the campus to recruit. Since the advent of corporate downsizing, however, there are far fewer recruiters making visits, and the office must "market" the University, getting information about stdents tothe employers.

Becaue of the competition, placement offices have to be fast. Suppose a company tells Pitt that it is looking to hire an engineering graduate who has aninterest in petroleum products and who is willing to relocate to Texas. Pitt's Placement Office can call up the appropriate student resumes from its database and have names in front of the employer by the next day, hopefully before other universities do.

Things change so quickly when it comes to computers--new software, new information to be found on the Internet--that the counselors who work at the Placement Office go through computer training sessions as often as once a week. They keep up with the t ecnhology because they know how much students value their expertise.

Expertise--that in-depth kind of knowledge that ordinary people often need but seldom have the time to acquire--is one of the most important resources that Pitt offers students through its services. Expertise is what enables Bob Perkoski or the profe ssionals at the Counseling Center to take overwhelming questions--"How will I ever find a job?" or "Wow will I get over my girlfriend's leaving me?'--and break them down into smaller,more manageable decsions. And it is e xpertise, to give another example , that helps Pitt's Office of International Services, under the direction of Geoff Wood, to advise foreign students on everything from how to meet their obligations under various federal requirements to how to survive culture shock. Expertise is what le ts don Grafius and his staff at Pitt's Office of Veterans Services and Disability Resources cut through red tape as they file the paperwork for veterans who are entitled to educational benefits. The office has built a rapport with the folks who work at r egional Veterans Affairs offices, so Graffius and company can troubleshoot like no one else if a student's benefit check gets held up for some reason.

Pitt also has an Office of Disabilities Resources and Services, whose coordinator, Marcie Roberts, is versed in such laws as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Her mandate is to make sure that students with disabilities get the same educational oppurunities that other students receive. That could mean providing an American Sign Language interpreter or having course lectures taped and transcribed for a student with a hearing impairment. Or it could meanusing a print scanner to put a textbook o n disk so that a student with visual impairment can use a voice sunthesizer (available in the William Pitt Union through Pitt's Learning Skills Center's Adaptive Computing and Training Lab) to have the book read out loud. Interestingly, three-quarters of the 400 to 500 students who come to Roberts' office have "hidden disabilities' such as attention deficit disorder or depression. for those whose disabilities make it difficult to concentrate during exams, the University must provide "adaptive testing" with extended time and often, a distraction-free setting. As a result, Roberts sometimes proctors as many as 60 exams in a week.

It may be expertise or just plain wisdom that inspires Marti Moore, the director of the Career Development Program, a part of te Counseling Center. she and her staff try to shake students of the notion that they're mysteriously supposed to know what t hey want to do with their professional lives. Instead, their program leads students, through workships as well as individual counseling, toward a deeper exploration of their own interests and talents and ambitions as well as a broader understanding of what jobs exist in the world. Surprisingly enough, Moore consults not only with 20- and 21-year olds but also with older undergraduates, many of whom already have jobs. She also works with graduate and professional students who may he having doubts about their career choices even though they are well on their way to advanced degrees. Like Bob Perkoski, Moore must help students adapt to profound changes in the job- market. As traditions of life- time employment and career advancement within one company fade, most people will have to rethink their career choices not just once, but several times. For this reason, Moore tries to show students how to accept, as a lifelong endeavor, the process of growing up a and figuring out what they want to be.

You'll find a similar level-headed, patient approach at Pitt's Learning Skills, Center. In addition to teaching classes in subjects such as math skills and speed reading, the Learning Skills Center Gives stu- dents individual instruction on strategies for studying and learning more efficiently. Clients can meet with a member of the center's staff, which includes seven full-time professionals as well as more than 70 student tutors. The staff member will help the student learn the skills he or she most needs: how to approach an exam without panicking or how to take notes more effectively or how to boil down information from reading assignments to pick out the important points.

More than 2,200 students - honors students, struggling students, and plenty of students in between--use the Learning Skills Center each year. some of the younger students are coming to terms withjust how muchwork they have to do. In her office, directo r Georgine Materniak shakes her head over an estimate that only one-thirs of hugh school students study for six or more hours each week--scarce preparation for the demands of college. At the University, she points out, students get less guidance, more in dependence, and a greater work load than they've ever encountered before. One of the goals of the Learning Skills center is to help incoming students successfully make the quantum leap from high school to the University. Of course, not all services for involve soul-searching or major life changes. Take the campus buses, for instance. At almost any hour of the day and late into the night, you'll find a few of them„-school buses, passenger buses, or smaller shuttles„-parked noseto-tail along Bigelow Boulevard. Students line up on the sidewalk and climb matter-of-factly on board. The new, extended bus service„-which covers both the campus and areas like Oakland, Shadyside, and Squirrel Hill, where many Pitt students live-„has quickly become one of the most relied-upon amenities at the University. During the day, the buses make it easy to get to classes quickly. And at night, although the crime rate here is lower than in most other major cities, the buses make life even safer for students who want to study late Hillman or an evening concert at the student union. In addition, after dark and into the wee hours, Pitt's Van Call service picks students up and drops them off in an area that includes the campus as well as most of Oakland.

And, speaking of nighttime safety, there are those the Cathedral and the union. Tall and elegant, these lights share a purpose with the campus buses, a purpose that goes beyond making the campus more secure. It may seem strange to say so, but the lights also have something in common with the Counseling Center, with the Placement Office. They are there for the same reason that the Learning Skills Center and the computer labs are there. They are there to help Pitt students find their way.


Pitt Magazine Homepage Table of
Contents