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Three decades of advice and counsel
All day, every day, for twenty-seven years, students brought her their problems. And that was the part of the job, says social worker Judy McCormack. Since 1976, when she left her faculty post to become director of Skidmore’s counseling center, she’s counseled about 120 students per year—well over 2,000 in her tenure. In May, with “a mix of excitement and sadness,” McCormack retired from her “dream job.”
Over the years McCormack traced social trends and issues of personal development as reflected in her changing, but always college-age, clients. At first the office consisted of her and a consulting psychiatrist. “It was still the ‘psychological sixties,’” she says, “and students everywhere were experimenting with marijuana, psychedelics, and, in the early ’80s, cocaine. And they were struggling to create an identity distinct from ‘anyone over 30,’ including their parents.” McCormack worked to “help students in their quest to define their own ethics and values and to separate from their families without alienating them.” Along with cultural pressures and situational problems with families or relationships, a few students were coping with psychiatric problems as well.
Later, as higher education became more widely accessible, and as antidepressants grew more effective and popular, more students were arriving at colleges already on medication, McCormack says. At the same time, she began seeing more students with eating issues or even “full-blown eating disorders.” Among today’s clients McCormack reports “a high incidence of anxiety and depression,” for which nearly a third are prescribed medication by the center’s psychiatrist. “We’re also seeing students with psychiatric disorders that are already well managed, but who need ongoing support while they’re here.” Meanwhile, the generation gap has all but closed: students are far more accepting of adult social norms, she says, and “most are very connected to their family and parents.” In fact, while still guarding student confidentiality, “our counselors now spend a lot of time communicating with concerned parents.”
Last year the counseling center staff included three full-time counselors, a one-day-a-week consulting psychiatrist, and a half-day-a-week specialist in eating disorders. Each year about 370 students stop in for either brief or longer-term counseling. Now with the end of McCormack’s leadership, the center will have to start a new era.
McCormack says she loved spending time with students and “appreciated the intimacy and trust that I shared with so many.” She concludes, “I’ve been touched, educated, and energized by those students. I just hope that I’ve also touched some of them in a meaningful way.”