Everyone Needs Someone To Talk To

A female and a male student pose for a picture in front of a brick building.
Kimberley Valenzuela ’25 and Michael Greco ’25 are two of the new peer wellness coaches at Holy Cross.

A group of students trained in providing support, peer wellness coaches offer students a private alternative to struggling on their own.

As a twin, Michael Greco ’25 always felt like he had a built-in support system in his brother, but said there were times he felt he needed to talk to someone outside his close circle. He wanted to talk to someone who was more of a neutral party and who was also his age and had similar experiences.

“The way I look at it, everyone in life and in college needs a resource or a person to talk to at the simplest level,” Greco, a Chinese and political science double major, said.

Finding that nonjudgmental sounding board was priceless for him, he noted, so when the opportunity arose in the spring 2023 to be part of a new peer wellness coaching program at Holy Cross, he knew he wanted to be part of it.

“It’s not a weakness to come talk to someone and look for help. It’s a way to improve, better yourself and gain a new perspective. Peer coaching is a resource that lets you work through a problem with someone outside your friend group,” he said.

In October 2023, Greco and 12 other students became Holy Cross’ first group of peer wellness coaches, launching the program under the oversight of Elizabeth Drexler-Hines, director of student wellness education, and Joy LaGrutta, associate director,  and with support from a group of alumni focused on improving access to mental health services for students.

According to Drexler-Hines, Holy Cross provides multiple services for students struggling with wellness-related challenges. The goal of the peer wellness coaching program is to help students build coping skills, handle challenges as they come, manage stress and successfully navigate relationship issues. Working through these items with peers who have lived similar experiences can take the pressure of formality out of the process and make it more of a conversation.

“If they can learn and develop these skills now it will help them in the future,” Drexler-Hines said.

The peer coaches are not licensed and are not considered confidential; however, they receive training to keep information private, make appropriate resource referrals and consult with their advisors if they have concerns. “We want to make sure they feel comfortable and confident in their role and they know who to talk to if they’re concerned,” Drexler-Hines said.

There’s a feeling of vulnerability and discomfort when you initially say that you’re feeling a bit iffy. Sometimes that’s the first step to getting you back to a place where you feel like yourself again.

Beck Schutte ’26

New Approach

Although an established practice in various professions, wellness coaching is relatively new in higher education, according to the American College Health Association. When applied effectively, "wellness coaching provides preventative resources, coping skills, and opportunities for effective-goal setting and attainment for students who wish to proactively address their well-being, or who are in early stages of mental or emotional distress," according to the ACHA. Peer wellness coaching, specifically, can provide a deeper understanding of how students juggle competing demands, such as academics, socialization, and wellness, and identify their unique needs.

“The uniqueness of peer wellness coaching is that we get to be sounding boards. It’s more of a family-feel approach and less clinical. We want to be a welcoming, relaxed space,” said Beck Schutte ’26, a sociology major and rhetoric minor. “There’s a feeling of vulnerability and discomfort when you initially say that you’re feeling a bit iffy. Sometimes that’s the first step to getting you back to a place where you feel like yourself again."

When he meets with students, Schutte focuses on the growth, not goal, mindset: “You don’t want to set such an unrealistic goal so that any little misstep feels like they’ve failed. It’s about incremental change and improvement.”

Prior to the establishment of the peer wellness coaches program, Myra Mayn ’25, a chemistry major and environmental studies minor, found she needed someone to talk to about issues that were plaguing her and affecting her physical and mental health. Meeting with Drexler-Hines, talking through strategies to better care for herself and avoid burnout changed her approach to life on campus. “It was incredibly motivating,” she said. Based on her experience, Mayn was one of the first students to apply to serve as a peer coach. 

“Life in college can be difficult. There are so many important things that demand your attention. Prioritizing those and balancing it with your own wellness can be tricky. Going through this process helped me so much that I want to be part of helping someone else,” she said.

A group of students in black sweatshirts pose for a selfie.
Photo by: Ava Marenna '26
A group of students pose for a picture wearing their new black hoodie sweatshirts.
Photo by: Ava Marenna '26

The coaches said the effort is also about taking a holistic approach to problem solving and wellness is broadly defined. It can mean working with someone to improve nutrition or establish an exercise routine; it can be a nonjudgmental ear listening to relationship conflicts; or working on a plan to establish academic-life balance. The coaches emphasize privacy and establish rules for how they’ll interact, or not, if they see each other on campus. Students seeking assistance can register for an appointment online or stop by Ciampi Hall Monday evenings during drop-in hours.

Students don’t necessarily receive direct answers during their one-on-one meetings with the peer coaches. Instead, the coaches guide them through a series of prompting questions that help them create an attainable and realistic plan to meet their ultimate goal.

As a first-generation college student, Kimberley Valenzuela ’25 said she values the support she received from her mother and friends as she navigates being a woman in STEM — a physics major and studio art minor — and the stress that can come from the experience. She learned that she doesn’t have to have experienced a traumatic event to need to talk to someone and that it can be beneficial to talk to a neutral party.

“We’re here to help with stress related to exams, if they’re feeling down and just not like themselves,” Valenzuela said. “Some people aren’t always comfortable talking to someone they know and they’ll keep their feelings and worries inside. We’re another connection for them and someone who can often relate to what they’re going through. We can help lift a weight off their shoulders.”

For many students, the peer coaches are their entry points to the campuswide support network, which might include referrals to the chaplain’s office or  the College’s licensed counselors.

“We’re working to make mental wellness a less stigmatized issue and let people on campus know that they’re not alone. The students who are coming are returning. We know we have something good,” Greco said.