From 2005 through 2015 I taught in the music department at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Mount Mercy is a Catholic liberal arts school with a full-time enrollment of less than 2,000 full time students that are a combination of traditional-aged undergraduates, transfer students, graduate students, continuing education adults who also work full time, and online and distance learners. Many of the traditional-aged undergraduates live in residence halls on campus, but many commute. The university is most well known for its Nursing program, but has strengths in several other areas as well.
Mount Mercy, like many schools, is an interesting juxtaposition of many students with widely varied education, heritage, socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicity, and despite being a Catholic university, even religious beliefs. While exposure to all of these differences is certainly invaluable in many ways, it can exacerbate feelings of isolation or marginalization for some students during an already uncertain and, at times, volatile period in their lives.
As a faculty member teaching piano, I had the unique opportunity to interact with each of my students in a one-on-one setting every week. Studying an instrument in this way is a very vulnerable situation for students, and building their trust was paramount to developing a comfortable environment. To do this, I would spend the first portion of every lesson chatting about their weeks, with topics ranging from their studies to their personal lives. Most students felt comfortable revealing many things to me, often regarding topics they felt uncomfortable discussing with their friends or families. Some wished to change their major but feared disappointment from their families. Others faced broken hearts for the first time in their lives as relationships would end. Some experienced issues with mental and emotional health, which may or may not have correlated to the life events they were experiencing. I would often refer students who were struggling to navigate through certain thoughts and feelings to speak with the university’s free counseling staff. In instances when I had deeper concern about the student, the university had a protocol for submitting a form that was available to any student, staff or faculty member, who could choose to remain anonymous. On the very few occasions I pursued this measure, I would always request follow up and offer to speak directly with staff from the support services. A couple of the students I reported thanked me and expressed the relief they felt from the help they received. A couple others never spoke of the matter, but did seem to respond well to the professional support they received.
I always valued the opportunity to be connected enough to my students that I could serve in this capacity. I felt honored to be let into their lives enough to know when someone was in a potentially unhealthy place, and to be trusted enough to be open to speaking with a more qualified professional. This ability to care for and influence the lives of students is the thing I miss most now that I am no longer in academia. It is comforting, however, to know that there are many other faculty members at schools everywhere that also view this service as a deeply meaningful part of their job.