By her sophomore year, she knew she needed help. She couldn’t sleep, and she had to force herself to function. Even though she prayed constantly about things like her career and her relationships, she felt overwhelmed. Now there were problems with family, problems with friends, too. Her parents suggested that she see what the Broene Counseling Center could do, and she decided to give it a try.
She liked the Broene center. She liked her counselor’s matter-of-fact manner. “Isn’t this the worst thing you’ve ever heard?” she asked about her story, and he told her about the many students who were going through similar things. She was relieved—and hopeful. She learned that she could take ownership of her life and the decisions she prayed over so carefully. Now a senior, she’s hard at work completing an English degree. Her relationships are better. She’s happy with her boyfriend and grateful to the staff at the Broene center for helping her to reclaim the best parts of her life. “I would have lasted at college. I don’t give up very easily,” she said, “but I would have been a lot more miserable.”
“She” is an actual student, one of the 700 who visited the Broene Counseling Center last year. They come because their parents are divorcing or they’re having trouble with their significant others or they struggle with alcohol or pornography or with eating disorders or their sexual identities or they’re in abusive relationships or they’ve been sexually assaulted. Many come because they’re anxious or depressed, some to the point of feeling suicidal. “What we do here in Broene is like any psychological outpatient clinic in the area,” said Randall Wolthuis ’55, who has directed the center for 10 years. “The nature of the problems we see here are the same as what is seen in any outpatient counseling setting.”
It was not always so. Until the 1960s, there was no counseling center at Calvin. “In those days, if you had a problem, you had a problem,” wrote professor of English emeritus John J. Timmerman ’33 in Promises to Keep of the pre-Broene era. The Calvin community back then reflected the culture of the times, said Phil Lucasse, who served the college first as dean of men and then dean of students from 1956 to 1969. “People weren’t thinking in psychological or psychiatric terms yet,” Lucasse said. “There was Pine Rest (Christian Mental Health Services), but that meant if you were very ill, you went to Pine Rest … . Generally in those days, if a student didn’t fit into this community, he left this community and went home.” For a while, Lucasse recalled, the college brought in a professional for a day and a half per week to counsel students. It wasn’t until 1965, however, that the leadership at Calvin decided that student problems required a larger effort.
In May of that year, the college opened the Calvin Psychological Institute, an operation modeled on a similar effort at the Free University of Amsterdam. “This Calvin Psychological Institute was set up as an independent agency that reported to the board of trustees and supplied psychological services to the local Christian schools, including Calvin College,” said Calvin archivist Richard Harms.
The institute was run by Dr. Roelof Bijkerk and headquartered in a house on Sylvan Street. And that house was named The Johannes Broene Center after a two-time Calvin president who was the college’s first professor of psychology. In 1971 the executive committee of the Calvin Psychological Institute proposed to the college’s board of trustees that the institute be incorporated into the college and named the Broene Center.
The early Broene Center counselors offered more career guidance than counseling. (In 1988 the center was re-dubbed the Broene Center for Counseling and Career Services.) “The emphasis in the ’60s and even the ’70s was adapting to college, choosing a major, vocational testing and, once in a while, a few sessions dealing with your roommate,” said Wolthuis. Gradually, the different functions of the center became specialized and in 2000, Career Services became an independent entity within the college.
These days, the Broene Counseling Center has four full-time and two part-time counselors on staff. In addition to their one-on-one sessions with students, they run groups for students struggling with alcohol, pornography or issues of sexual identity. “The groups vary from year to year depending on what we think the needs are,” said Wolthuis, who runs a premarital workshop for students.
“Most of our work is with students who are depressed in a serious way,” Wolthuis said. “I’m not talking about sadness here. I’m talking about not sleeping, withdrawing from people, not going to class. Depression is the most common reason for people seeking help—also anxiety disorders, relationship problems and ADHD—that covers about 98 percent of it.”
The work is challenging, said Wolthuis: “Working with college students: just when you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t.” Over the years, the Broene has seen an increase in more difficult cases, such as students with severe bipolar disorder. “The reason we think we’re seeing that is that medication is allowing people to function in college who normally wouldn’t be able to function,” said Broene counselor Cynthia Kok ’81.
“When students are non-compliant with treatment, when they go off their medication, helping them can involve a lot of college resources,” Wolthuis agreed.
And treatment can be cut short for things a counselor can’t control: “This is first and foremost an academic facility and not a treatment facility,” said Kok. “Maybe I feel like we’re doing good work in therapy, but maybe they’re put on academic probation and are not permitted to return.”
While the work is challenging, however, it is rewarding: “I really love working with college students,” said Kok. “For one thing, they’re thoughtful and verbal, and they have hope that things can be different and that they can change. Helping them to change at this point in their life can have so many positive consequences for years to come. And so I feel that I really make a difference—that my work really makes a difference for people.”
Faith plays a big role in the work done at Broene. “We don’t hit them over the head with it,” Wolthuis said, “but most of our students have a faith. We bring faith and God into the conversation when we think it can help them.”
The Broene Counseling Center (a name Wolthuis is eager to advertise because he remembers his student days, when he didn’t know what “the Broene Center” was) currently sees 17 to 18 percent of the student body, which is double the national average for college counseling centers. And more students come every year. “People are more and more willing to seek help,” Wolthuis said. “I do think that the stigma of seeking professional help for personal problems is lessening in this age group.”
There’s another angle on the popularity of the Broene, he admitted. “It’s not that our students are more troubled than the national norm … We know for a fact that students know us and like us … We’ve got a really good thing going. Students flock to us. Now, it causes problems because we’re busy, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Nor would he have any other job. “I’ve worked in a lot of settings, and this is by far the most gratifying place to work,” Wolthuis said. “We support each other, and it’s a team in every sense of the word. We need each other more than other people need each other because when you’re going through heavy stuff, it’s good to be able to lean on someone else.”
Wolthuis is also gratified when he ventures outside the Broene and walks around the Calvin campus. Often he runs into a student he’s treated or whom one of his colleagues has treated, a student who might not be at Calvin if she or he hadn’t visited the Broene Counseling Center. “The sizable number of students we work with, we run across them on the path, and it’s just a nice friendly greeting,” he said. “It’s a private satisfaction.”
Myrna Anderson is Calvin’s senior writer.
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