University counselling services – help on hand


Counselling may not be the first thing you think about when you are coming to university, but it’s one of the ways in which you can get some good support if your plans aren’t working out or things are starting to get tough. I work as part of a counselling team working with students who are seeking help of some kind.

Dealing with the unexpected

Most of us start off at university with high hopes and plans to succeed, whether this is about your chosen area of study, or about the social life and other opportunities that university offers. But here, like anywhere else, life has its ups and downs. Sometimes people find that their course isn’t what they expected, or maybe a relationship goes badly wrong and then everything feels difficult. Well, it’s at times like these that people come in to see a counsellor. As it’s all confidential I can’t give you examples of real people we have worked with but here are some examples, with fictitious names, so you have an idea.

Coping with course work

It’s common when students first arrive at university for them to wonder if they are going to be up to doing the work. Ben was one such student. Despite having done quite well at school, he wasn’t at all sure that he understood his course work well enough. He lacked some confidence. We were able to help him to find his feet, recognise the real strengths he had and to carry on more confidently. This year he has just graduated and got himself a great job just where he wanted.

Relationship issues and their impact on career plans

After the fun of getting stuck into a new social life and a new relationship, Ahmed found things rather difficult when his relationship went wrong, because he saw his “˜ex’ every day in lectures. He started skipping work and hanging out with a different crowd. This seemed fine until the exams were coming along and he hadn’t done much work. When he arrived at the counselling service he felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. He was sure he was going to fail, but if he did he was sure his family would disown him. Talking with a counsellor helped him to recognise that he really wanted to do well, so he decided to take some time out of his studies before returning to start the year again.

He also found that his parents were a lot more understanding than he’d expected and the counsellor was there when he returned to university the next year, to help him get back on track. Now he’s doing fine, a bit older and wiser, and his course is going well.

Getting through tough times

Lastly I’ll tell you about Alice. Alice was fine with her course, but it was swimming that really grabbed her
attention; she put in all her spare time swimming and had the potential to do really well. Unfortunately Alice was involved in a rather serious car crash and was left partially paralysed; her serious swimming days were over. It took a long time for Alice to come to terms with the change in her lifestyle, but her counsellor gradually helped her to discover other strengths and interests. And one unexpected outcome was that she got into a great relationship with someone she met while recovering.

So, although working as a counsellor is sometimes difficult, ultimately I find it very rewarding. So don’t forget if you’re going to university that there is help and support available if you need it.

Mark Phippen, Head of Counselling, Cambridge University

Mark Phippen’s career trajectory – electronics degree to university counsellor

At school I was good as maths and science and did a degree in electronics after A-levels. During my degree I found I was good at the theory, but not the practical work: wiring electronic circuits together left me very confused.

Nonetheless, I stayed and got my degree. But then I left electronics and worked as a driver and caretaker for a year in a day centre for adults with severe learning difficulties – the first job I could get. This led to a post doing unqualified social work with a charity for adults with learning difficulties. And from this I applied to do a post-graduate counselling training course. I qualified as a counsellor when I was 27 and have specialised in working with students in colleges and universities ever since, now heading up the team in Cambridge University. I haven’t forgotten my electronics entirely though, as I have a “˜back-bedroom business’ writing specialist software for counsellors!

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