(opinions) cook fees

The entrance of Cook Counseling Center, Apr. 11, 2019.

Hokies have faced many disappointments during this pandemic — online classes, the cancellation of traditions close to our heart like Ring Dance and the Big Event, and separation from friends and family when we need them most. However, the biggest blow we’ve faced is university administrators’ utter lack of compassion or consideration for students’ needs during such a stressful time — and Tech’s recent announcement about the new Cook Counseling Center fees was perhaps the worst insult of all. 

The announcement stated that psychiatric visits would now cost students $15 per appointment and basic psychological counseling services would cost $20 per appointment after the first 10 sessions. Both of these services were originally free for students. In response to intense backlash from students and alumni, Vice President for Student Affairs Frank Shushok Jr. released a statement reversing the decision, citing “courageous student voices” and feedback from student leadership. 

While I am thankful for this change in policy, it feels like slapping a Band-Aid on a fresh wound. It is doubtful that students can view this as a victory when the university never should have tried to implement these fees to begin with. Administrators’ attempt to charge for previously free counseling represents genuine ignorance and selfishness — and it should not have taken hundreds of furious Facebook comments for them to realize that. 

Cook played a large part in providing me with the tools to succeed as a freshman. My first semester at Tech quickly became overwhelming as I added on the stress of a totally new experience to the pressure to succeed after a middling high school career and some challenging interpersonal conflicts. Cook became my lifeline, the place where I learned how to ease the anxiety I felt around classes, friends and planning for the future. I knew that, regardless of what was going on, the approachable doctoral student in the colorful cardigans would be there to listen and help once or twice a month. It wasn’t perfect, but few things provided by student services ever are; what mattered was that when I needed it, the help was there.

I was lucky to have parents who supported my desire to seek help and would have paid any extra costs; however, many students don’t share that fortune, which is what makes Cook so enticing. Many students who go to Cook know that it’s not designed to serve as a long-term option, but it’s free, and that’s important. During a pandemic where national unemployment skyrocketed to 14.7%, the highest it has been since the Great Depression, and 39% of workers in households earning $40,000 a year or less lost their jobs, affordability is even more critical for impacted students. 

If you are not a college student, then you might not understand the nature of the mental strain the COVID-19 pandemic has put us under. While countless Americans have faced even greater struggles as a result of the pandemic, we have been dealt some unique obstacles that most undergraduates have never encountered before. We have found the education we value ripped away, replaced with a cheap online imitation of what we once paid for. For five months, many of us had to go without seeing friends or significant others for our own safety and the safety of our loved ones, taking away vital support systems at a time when we needed it most. Many internships and jobs were canceled, and the likelihood of those being able to take place even next summer seems increasingly slim, meaning that many of us will be forced to apply for jobs in fields we have little to no real-world experience in. 

For some of us, we’ve stressed about the possibility of our small departments losing funding, and if you’re majoring in a foreign language like me, you’ve probably asked yourself how you can ever truly achieve fluency when all of your written and oral practice is taking place through Zoom. We have lost the ability to participate in the clubs and organizations that truly make the collegiate experience, and though some meetings might be able to take place in a modified capacity this semester, we know it won’t be the same. Those of us approaching our junior and senior years grapple with the fear that this pandemic may not cease before our undergraduate years end, an anxiety that kept me up many nights this summer. 

We have watched the probability of our college life ever returning to normal decrease as countless Americans refuse to wear a mask or abide by social distancing guidelines. We are floundering, lost and unsure of what to do in this turbulent time, and yet so few actually seem dedicated to helping us. Even our own universities appear to prioritize making money over our health, pushing the majority of the accountability onto students to prevent outbreaks and reminding us that if we fail to do so, funding and jobs will be on the line, a burden far too heavy for us to carry alone.

During a pandemic where almost 41% of college students report being depressed and 60% of college students say COVID-19 has made it harder to receive help for mental health issues, Virginia Tech chose to ignore the needs of a student body that deserves free and easy access to mental healthcare now more than ever. For as much as the university has thrown the phrase at us during the pandemic, can administrators really say they believe in “Ut Prosim” if it took blatant student outrage for them to realize how deeply they had wronged us? 

None of us are ignorant to the reality that colleges are currently experiencing incredible financial strain. We know that the deficit must be accounted for somewhere if we are to save jobs and department funding. However, targeting such a critical resource for the student body during an especially vulnerable crisis feels cruel, money-hungry and immoral. 

Our university should be taking every possible measure to tell us that we are not alone, that help is available and there will be no barriers to getting that help should we require it. Instead, Virginia Tech sought yet again to make money wherever possible and nearly failed thousands of students in the process. 

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