The Time to End Stress is Now: An Interview with Pat Ponto, Director of the Counseling Center

By Allison Tinsey, Editor-in-Chief

In a recent interview, Director of the Counseling Center Pat Ponto answered The Index’s questions about stress at Kalamazoo College as part of this week’s theme issue. Ponto has been the Director of Counseling since October, 1986.

Index: In your time at K, what have been the most common issues that students approach you with?

Pat Ponto: When I was first in the counseling position, the number one presenting concern was difficulty in a romantic relationship…After about ten years, there was a shift to depression as the most frequent concern.  For the last six or seven years, the largest number of students have come to discuss their anxiety and stress. 

Index: How many students visit the Counseling Center every year? Does the demographic change between class years? 

Ponto: Last year, we had 400 student clients.  Sophomores are our largest group. Because many juniors are away, we see the fewest juniors. The sophomores seem to struggle with what is known as the ‘sophomore slump’: harder classes, less excitement than the first year, big decisions about majors and study abroad. The seniors’’ stress usually comes from their SIPs and plans for the future.  First-year students are dealing with the whole huge transition to college life. 

Index: What do you think contributes to stress being such a wide-spread issue across campus?

Ponto: I think the quarter system packs the academic work into a short amount of time and produces a chronic sense of urgency.  It seems to me that K is also a work intensive place, in terms of numbers of assignments, tests, and quizzes.  Often, students report that their friends at other colleges and universities seem to have much less to do. I think we have developed a culture of stress at K, where we admire those of us who are most stressed and compete to be one of that “elite” group that does more.

Index: How are students negatively or positively handling their stress? Positively? Are they handling it at all? 

Ponto: Some students do very well with the stress — they tend to be well-organized, skilled at time management, and adept at making decisions and developing a routine that is built on clear priorities.  Some of the negative responses to stress include procrastination, use of alcohol and other drugs, lots of time on video games or the Internet (Facebook, blogs, etc.).   

Index: What are the resources available to them? Are their specific groups that meet and focus on stress and its various causes? 

Ponto: The Counseling Center and all of the Academic Resource Centers are available to students to help them manage their academic work and their stress.  This quarter, the Counseling Center offered groups to the international students, students of color, and students with ADD.  We are always willing to offer additional groups if students have ideas about what would be helpful.

In a final comment Ponto concluded, “The culture of stress is pervasive at K and affects not only students, but faculty, staff and support staff as well.”

Ponto hopes that with the combined efforts of the Counseling Center, the student organization Active Minds, and others, that the campus can take a step back from the chronic sense of stress and think about other ways to accomplish our goals.

“I don’’t think the stress culture has been questioned or evaluated by the community in any general way since I’’ve been here.  It’’s time to do so.”