FreshStart Support Groups Cancelled Due to Insufficient Student Participation 


By Gea Villa / News Reporter || Edited by Ilenia Reale

Gianicolo building entrance, location of the Counseling Office. Credit: Gea Villa. 

ROME — The new FreshStart support groups offered by the Counseling Office for first-year students were canceled before starting, due to lack of participation. 

“The FreshStart Group was thought as an emotional support group,” said Carolina Meucci, Doctor and Head Counselor at JCU. “A safe space for emotional and psychological support to [first-year] students struggling with difficulties, from adjusting to a new school and being far away from home for the first time, to culture shock, social anxiety, loneliness and isolation,” said Dr. Meucci. 

Two weekly randomly selected groups were to be conducted by experts to diversify perceptions of different scenarios and situations and give students the opportunity to learn from experiences lived by peers, supporting and advising each other on what works in a given scenario. 

Some students expressed interest in participating, saying the sessions would be an opportunity to grow and adjust in a new environment away from family, especially for students who start college studying abroad.   

“I feel that it would be beneficial to talk to students in a similar situation as me,” said Sophia Ghantous, a first-year student from Northeastern University. “Going abroad for my first semester has definitely been challenging, so a support group would make that transition a bit easier.” 

JCU Health and Wellbeing Coordinator, Camilla Alessi, said that FreshStart support groups were offered directly to first-year students during or after their first counseling session with one of the therapists. Students first had to meet with a counselor for an assessment and, if eligible (referring to students who did not have issues that were too complex or too severe), they would be introduced to the FreshStart Groups. 

According to Dr. Meucci, a perceived resistance to the groups may have been that the JCU community is small, and students may not feel comfortable confiding their difficulties in a group where maybe there could be students they know, live with, or go to class with. 

“I don’t think I would feel comfortable participating in a support group,” said Audrey McGuff, Business Administration and Communication major from Northeastern University. “I think it’s common for people to feel like their problems are either not relatable or not important enough to share with others, at least in my case.” 

Dr. Inez Eva Sant, a psychotherapist based in Rome with 20 years of clinical experience, says that in addition to the simple initial fear of confronting a group of people as opposed to an individual session with a psychologist, young people may be reluctant to participate because they feel they are wrong or different and do not think it is worth revealing their limitations to others.  

Divya Dhawan, a first-year student also from Northeastern University, said she would be willing to participate in the groups, but avoiding “too deep conversations.”  

According to school psychologist, Leslie Cooley, college can be a disruptive step for a student, and having a support around is significant in coping with busy college life, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“The obstacles in deciding to participate are also the reasons why a person should participate in groups,” said Nicola Petrocchi, Adjunct Professor of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapist at JCU.  

Considering the many requests that the Counseling Office receives from a growing population of students each semester, the hours that would’ve been devoted to the new FreshStart Groups group were made available for individual counseling meetings. 

Counseling service performance from Spring semester 2021 to an estimated outcome for Fall semester 2022. Courtesy: Carolina Meucci.

Knowing about the support groups has been one of the challenges students have encountered. Rachel Tulk, a first-year study abroad student from Northeastern University, said she had not heard much about these support groups yet, or the other services offered by the Counseling Office. 

“I don’t think Counseling Office and its services are well publicized, because if it wasn’t for hearing of the counseling from some friends of mine that shared their experience, I wouldn’t have known about that,” said Martina Ventrella, senior degree-seeker majoring in International Affairs at JCU. 

The introduction of these kinds of services generally takes place at the beginning of the semester during Orientation Week, when the university sends out a list of mandatory Orientation Activities to follow, which cover workshops and sources offered by the university such as the Mindful and Compassion Group led by Professor Petrocchi. 

The FreshStart Groups, however, were mainly dedicated to first-year students and their advertising was narrow and targeted.   

The groups were designed as “non-psychotherapeutic,” thus purely emotional support, and Dr. Meucci said they were intended to help students better manage the challenges of studying abroad or first college experience in a group setting to also develop more effective communication. According to the Counseling Office, the ideas was to complement and support the one-on-one meetings required by students to create a safe environment in which to express themselves, similar to what is done in Professor Petrocchi’s Mindfulness and Compassion Groups. 

Other services from the Counseling Office 

The Counseling Office is a service included in tuition fees that JCU offers its students for their academic and personal well-being. It staffs six counselors and two psychiatrists and works alongside the Health and Wellbeing Office for student needs. The office offers short-term individual counseling sessions in English and Italian, located in the Gianicolo Building.  

“I think it is extremely important to have access to counselors that are free and accessible to help with mental health,” said Audrey. “Every person is in a different situation financially and of family support, so having access to free mental health support can drastically improve someone’s mental health.” 

Mindful and Compassion Groups are another service offered created five years ago by Professor Petrocchi. The sessions are held every Monday from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. and are open to all students who want to experience the benefits of the mindful and compassion attitude.  

Despite the difficulties that the COVID-19 pandemic has created in socializing, students continue to take part in the sessions, saying they see them as a neutral environment where they do not necessarily talk about their concerns. 

Plans for the coming semester focus particularly on individual sessions and the continuation of the Mindful and Compassion Groups. The Counseling Office is discussing other ideas like offering “packages” of four or five practice sessions to get students used to the group environment and help them feel comfortable. 

 Health and Wellbeing Counseling Office Mindful Compassion