Emmons works with students to improve services

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Associate Director of Student Wellness Services and Director of Psychological Services Matthew Calkins waits for the Emmons Town Hall to begin in Choi Auditorium at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Margaret Su/The Occidental
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The Diversity and Equity Board (DEB) and Emmons Wellness Center hosted a town hall Feb. 15 in Choi Auditorium to explain how Emmons is adapting to student concerns about the quality of their services. Senior Director of Student Wellness Services Sara Semal and Associate Director of Student Wellness Services and Director of Psychological Services Matthew Calkins shared a presentation on student health at the town hall that they previously presented to the Student Life and Enrollment Committee of the Board of Trustees Jan. 25.

According to Semal, changes to Emmons’ medical services revolve around improving follow-up care after appointments and clarifying policies about insurance and payment. Semal said that Emmons is working on implementing a new system that will provide electronic follow-ups after appointments.

“We are creating a system within our electronic medical records that will do an automatic follow up for any visit, so that a few days after the visit there’s a check-in and a way to get connected with a medical provider if you continue to not feel well, or your symptoms haven’t improved,” Semal said.

Semal said there are three main changes taking place for the medical services at Emmons. First, Emmons will introduce a system that allows students to anonymously share complaints or concerns about their treatment. Second, follow-up appointments will now be free of cost. Third, during all sessions, medical practitioners will strive to be as clear as possible in explaining policies and information about insurance and payment, according to Semal.

Calkins said there will also be changes to Emmons’ counseling services. After a week-long period last semester when the wait for scheduling first-time counseling sessions was three weeks, Calkins said that Emmons therapists have doubled the number of first-time sessions they will schedule each week.

“The balance there is that we can see more people more quickly, but that may come at the expense of doing more longer-term counseling,” Calkins said.

According to Calkins, this balance could ideally be helped by an increase in the size of Emmons’ counseling staff. Semal said that Emmons has submitted a budget request to the board of trustees to increase full-time staff and move away from the practice of using post-doctoral interns as therapists.

“Our request is to make our two part-time therapist positions, to transform those into full-time positions this year, and then to next year transform our two post-doc positions into full-time, licensed staff positions,” Semal said. “And that would make us a full staff.”

Calkins said that senior staff at Emmons are operating with the mindset that they will not be granted additional funding.

According to Venitia Boyce (junior), a student life officer on DEB who worked closely with Semal to address student concerns, students have been campaigning for more diversity on Emmons’ staff since around the time of the AGC Occupation in 2015. One of Oxy United for Black Liberation’s 14 demands during the occupation was for the college to hire physicians and therapists of color at Emmons.

“There was a huge demand for more intersectional therapists,” Boyce said. “Queer people, queer-trans people, people of color, all marginalized identities really felt underrepresented at Emmons.”

If Emmons receives additional funding to increase staff, Semal said diversity will be a priority.

“By getting more funding we can get more staffing, which will mean that we will put a priority on hiring diverse candidates and diverse therapists, individuals who represent a diverse group,” Semal said.

According to Semal, Emmons will try to hire a more diverse group of post-doctoral interns next year if the funding is not granted.

Emmons will also incorporate more group therapy this semester to meet students’ counseling needs, according to Calkins. There are currently four therapy groups as opposed to only one last semester. According to Calkins, the benefits of group therapy include efficiency and its tendency to help students work on relationship-building.

Calkins said that Emmons is also adding informal therapy sessions called drop-in chats, which function similarly to professors’ office hours. There will be two separate drop-in chats led by Emmons counselors, one by Anna Rivera and the other by Mel Lopez. Emmons staff recommend Lopez’s drop-in chats specifically for students of color and QTPOC (queer and trans people of color) students.

Semal said that she first heard of concerns about Emmons’ services when students from Fall 2017’s MAC 250 class posted a petition on change.org calling for the administration to review the effectiveness of Emmons. The students had conducted a research project on Emmons as part of their class curriculum and used a small-scale survey to get a picture of students’ experiences at the health center, according to Rachel Goldfinger (senior), one of the MAC 250 students who investigated Emmons. Goldfinger said that her group of five students in the class began their project by considering funding for different departments.

“Once we brought up Emmons, we were thinking, like, we’ve heard our friends maybe have some complaints or have some odd experiences, maybe we should look there and look at their funding and see what their status is,” Goldfinger said.

According to Goldfinger, the group of students ultimately realized that because they would not be able to continue their classwork into the next semester, they needed to find a permanent student group that could continue working with Emmons to collect students’ experiences and opinions.

“We approached DEB to kind of take a further look at this, and kind of have a student body as the semester was ending to hold Emmons accountable,” Goldfinger said.

DEB worked with Semal to organize a town hall Dec. 5 that gathered student feedback for the presentation to the committee of student life and enrollment operating under the board of trustees, according to Boyce. Semal said that the first town hall was helpful because it allowed her to learn about student concerns and answer questions.

“The big thing that I learned from that meeting, more than anything else, was the lack of communication that I have with the students when big changes are being made,” Semal said. “There just needs to be better communication out of my office about that kind of stuff.”

After the first town hall, Semal revised the presentation she had made for the board committee and got further input on the slideshow from DEB members, according to Boyce. Semal also brought individual letters that students had written at the town hall about their Emmons experiences and passed them out to members of the committee. Both Calkins and Semal described the board presentation as successful, with members more engaged and curious than in previous presentations, according to Calkins.

Emmons will host focus group feedback sessions Feb. 26–March 2 and March 5–7 in the Johnson Student Center in order to garner student input. The sessions will be led by the post-doctoral interns, which will make them more objective, according to Semal.

Goldfinger said that she hopes that Emmons continues to listen to student feedback, following the current trend.

“I think we’re put at really high academic standards, and I think it’s only fair that our local — for lack of a better word — health care is also at a really high standard,” Goldfinger said. “And that these two bodies are communicating with one another, because students deserve to be healthy.”

Emmons counselor Anna Rivera will host one of two drop-in chat formats, which students can find in the Imágenes Latinas Reading Room in the library on Tuesdays, 1–2:30 p.m. Counselor Mel Lopez will be available for drop-in chats in Pauley Hall’s MLK lounge on Thursdays, 6:30–8 p.m.