Carleton Catching Students When they Fall with FITA Program

Life is what happens when you were planning something else and there are times when life becomes very hard to manage for university students. At Carleton, we support students whose lives seem to be going sideways with a program called From Intention To Action (FITA).

Over the last four years, we have significantly improved the lives and grades of our students by focusing on the relationship – the therapeutic alliance – between student and co-ordinator. At FITA, students feel known and understood as they meet with their co-ordinators over time. In exit interviews, most students speak about the importance of having people “get”’ them and having a “go to”’ person to help them problem solve when unanticipated challenges arise.

Recent research is showing that students who fail to graduate do so because of poor mental health and/or not being able to solve life problems. This is different from the commonly held and somewhat erroneous view that students “flunk out.” Our research shows improved scores on a mental health composite scale when they are offered support. These are potentially good students who might have otherwise dropped courses or quit instead of achieving higher grades that lead to completed programs and graduation.

We are currently submitting research for publication that shows that as the bond between student and co-ordinator (again the therapeutic alliance) improves, so does mental health and well-being. As agreement between student and co-ordinator on a development plan improves, grades improve.

It is no surprise that improved mental health results in improved grades leading to graduation.

We look for students who are committed to a process that requires at least 12 weekly appointments and completing an assessment piece at the start to sort out goals and identify strengths that can be built on to overcome challenges.

We refer to advisers at the Student Academic Success Centres because we want students to have a clear path to graduation. We also work with Health and Counselling Services and the Paul Menton Centre. We take a holistic approach that looks at career goals, academic skills, learning strategies, work, housing, finances, health, mental health and life situations, along with problems associated with low mood, worry and lack of well-being.

I meet with each FITA student wearing my psychologist’s hat to review intake assessment findings and to help them develop an understanding of the factors that make up higher order thinking and emotional processes (or “metacognition”) necessary for academic success. Improved self-awareness and understanding helps each student develop an inner map to greater success and well-being.

Individuals studying counselling at the masters level complete a two-term internship with FITA and work as co-ordinators who meet with the bulk of FITA students on a weekly basis. These people are committed to careers in counselling, have completed undergrad at a level that secured graduate school placement, and have taken a year of full-time classes in counseling to prepare them. They are young, bright and relate really well to university students. These interns are supervised by a master’s level psychotherapist and myself to develop and implement interventions.

The FITA program is accessible; all students can self-refer. We take students at all levels from first-year students who learn about FITA from their high school guidance counselor to PhD students grappling with complex issues.

Over the past two years, FITA was funded through Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities from their Innovative Mental Health Program Fund. A manual to help schools develop the FITA program was completed. Humber College and the University of Toronto (St. George) have been inspired to start up FITA pilot projects on their campuses this fall. Other universities are expressing an interest in developing FITA pilot programs as well.

So while life may take unexpected turns, we try to help failing and overwhelmed students make the corrections needed to get back on track. In this way, students who need help and can make the commitment obtain their own personal GPS.

John Meissner is a registered psychologist who works with team members to bring real-world solutions to people seeking support. He has worked as the co-founder of the FITA program with Larry McCloskey, director of the Paul Menton Centre.

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