In need of support

MTU holds panel on ways to help Iranian students

Panelists Wallace Southerland, Kellie Raffaelli, Crystal McLeod, Lindsey Wells and Ranit Karmakar listen to a question during a discussion on the Iranian protests and what Michigan Tech University can do in support. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo)

HOUGHTON — As protests in Iran enter their third month, Michigan Technological University students heard from a panel of administrators and student representatives about ways they can help Iranian students dealing with the strain.

Protests have continued for more than two months after the September death in custody of Mahsa Amini, who was detained by Iran’s morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.

The widespread protests in support of women’s rights have been met with violent crackdowns. After the Iranian government curtailed internet access, many of the Iranian students have not been able to talk to friends and family over the past nine weeks, said Hossen Tavakoli, a member of the campus group Iranian Community at Michigan Tech.

Students in Iran have been at the forefront of the protests, many of them from universities students on campus had attended.

“The members of the Iranian community on campus are really struggling and are having a hard time concentrating on their work because it’s constantly on our minds,” Tavakoli said. “Our family and friends are in danger, and we feel bad about it.”

Iranian students demanded Tech condemn and demand an end to the assaults on the academic community in Iran. They also asked for a boycott of Iranian university officials and academics who are helping facilitate regime attacks on Iranian students and scholars.

University representatives said the university’s response would be constrained both by the need not to take sides and by a lack of connections on the ground in Iran, as in the case of a question about how to help prospective students. They did point students towards resources available on campus for students who are having a hard time.

Kellie Raffaelli, Director of International Programs and Services, encouraged students to talk to her or to a counselor to get the help they need. She said she could help bridge the gap with faculty for students who might not feel comfortable sharing their struggles. In some cases, they may be able to get excused absences when necessary, she said.

“Come talk to us,” she said. “We have the resources. At the very least, we can lend support.”

Crystal McLeod, acting Director at the Center for Student Mental Health and Well-being, said students can be dealing with secondary trauma, which can impact relationships and overall mental health and lead to greater problems with sleep and concentration. Students can also feel guilty for being away from home, she said.

She urged students to find a balance between keeping tabs on things and limiting their exposure to graphic footage.

Tech’s mental health center is located on the third floor of the administration building, and has walk-in hours available daily.

“Our clinicians are licensed professionals in the state of Michigan who follow their code of ethics and confidentiality pieces,” she said. “So everything that is shared within our department stays there.”

Tech students can also get telehealth support through the My SSP app, which can connect them to a clinician at any time.

Tech also offers support groups for students dealing with grief or loss, she said.

Many Iranian students are on visas that do not permit re-entry into the United States, adding to their mental health burden, Raffaelli said. She said one step the university could take is lobbying for the relaxation of some visa restrictions, as was done for Ukrainian students after the invasion by Russia earlier this year.

The university senate will introduce a resolution in support of Iranian students at its meeting this week. It’s a frustrating situation, since they don’t have any direct impact over the Iranian government’s actions, said Lindsey Wells, chair of the senate’s Committee for Promoting and Facilitating Equity and Understanding.

“We really don’t like releasing resolutions that seem performative because all they’re doing is talking about the problem,” Wells said. “But in this case, it seems like that is the best we can do, is just release something saying that we’re offering emotional support.”

Wells said the senate could look at adding language about banning Iranian scholars who have not supported the protests or are too friendly with the government. The Senate is also asking individual members of the tech community to raise awareness of the protests, or even just giving some slack to students who may be affected by it.

Whether the university would participate in a boycott wasn’t something the panelists could answer. Because of the magnitude of the issue, that would probably have to go all the way up to the Board of Trustees, said Wallace Southerland, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students.

“All public universities need to walk that very fine line of being caring, but also not taking sides to create other problems for the university,” he said.

An Iranian student in the audience talked about his difficulties in accessing a counselor over his feelings of helplessness. Some of his former schoolmates had been in prison, and some of his closest friends had been harassed for posts they made on social media.

He had gone to the university’s mental health center, but left when he learned it was outside of the walk-in hours. He came back two weeks later, but was initially thrown off but the amount of paperwork required. Eventually, he made an appointment and met with a therapist.

But that system isn’t helpful for students who don’t have chronic problems, he said. He suggested the university mental health center set up a “freeway” with expedited access for people with immediate issues.

“Maybe they just need to talk five minutes with a counselor, and they don’t want to answer thousands of questions,” he said. “Maybe someone’s in need, and because of that question, he doesn’t come back, if she doesn’t come back … then you guys haven’t done your job.”

McLeod said there is round-the-clock access through telehealth, as well as relaxation rooms at the center where students can wait until they are able to see someone. Clinicians will also work with students if they’re feeling intimidated by the amount of paperwork and questions, she said.

“We will sit with you, we will be with you and get you to a place where you feel like ‘Okay, I can do what needs to be done,’ so that your information is protected,” she said.

Sutherland said he was moved by the student’s sincerity. He told students if they can’t reach someone at the mental health centers, there are many other staff people in student affairs they can reach out to for support.

“I am one of those individuals,” he said. “You should feel comfortable talking to anyone for five minutes, because it’s easy to listen.”


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