Q&A with New Associate Dean of Health and Wellness and Director of the Counseling Center, Dr. Rae Chresfield

Emma Fletcher-Frazer, Staff Reporter

Q: Why did you choose to come to Whitman?

A: Actually, it was a lot of different things, it just felt like it was the place that would permit me to utilize all of my background and experience, and the desire to continue to work with students and I’ve never seen a undergraduate situation that had a counseling center and 24-hour health center that connected, and so when I saw that opportunity I said, ‘OK, this’ll be really good.’ but then I did the interview and met the people and went ‘No, this is really a place that I can become a part of the community and just really engage with people but people can also engage with me. So, it was the position and the people.

Q: Could you talk a bit about your previous work?

Contributed by Harvey Mudd Colle
Dr. Rae Chesterfield joins the Whitman community.

A: This is probably my third or fourth career, it feels like. Initially, I received my training in behavioral science but when you have a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science, there is not a lot that I could have done with it back then and so I started working in a doctor’s office and then went to school to get training as an LPN. A lot of that actually came out of that I was in New York on 9/11, and New York just became a completely different place, and I wanted to get out of the city for a while, and my son was also exceptionally traumatized so I went and started nursing school and I worked in a few hospitals in San Antonio, Texas, and I had a twelve-year-old maternity patient and I knew that the baby that she had just had might not survive, and it wouldn’t be because of malice, but because she was twelve. And I sat and really tried to teach how to care for a baby, but she really wasn’t paying that much attention, because she was actually watching Jerry Springer and I’ll never forget that. She has a baby on the other side of the room, on a bed, with no blanket, no hat, and it was just like ‘Wow’. That really made me think about what it is I wanted to do, and I went home after that shift and I started looking at what was really on my mind, and counseling and psychology just kept coming up over and over again, and that was how I made the decision that I was going to leave everything and pursue a Masters degree in mental health and wellness. And I moved back to New York and went to NYU and I started working in a college counseling center. Historically, I’ve always been either in a college counseling center or a hospital, in outpatient work, mental health services, and then became director for a counseling center and kind of just kept moving along. And so, every opportunity that I’ve had to work with college students, I’ve taken, because it’s just my preference, but also it allows me to stay with a population of people that are always changing, and growing, and it just permits me to have a lot of fun when I go to work.

Q: Could you talk about some of your accomplishments that you are proud of?

A: That’s a tough one for me. So, being first-gen and initially from a low-income neighborhood, the way I think of accomplishment might be a little bit different. Because certain things I just never really envisioned a lot of –– to be completely honest, when I got my Masters degree, I  graduated with Latin honors, and I just didn’t fully appreciate what that meant. And so, the education that I’ve received, you know, getting my Master degree and doctorate were not things that were on my radar. I’m proud that I’ve done them –– other people think of them as accomplishments, but also in the community I come from, it is an accomplishment. And so I think, for me personally, doing some research, being able to present at some conferences around the experiences of college students was good for me. But truthfully, I think even smaller, when I can sit with a student who has felt like they couldn’t tell something that occurred for them, be it big or small, where they  just didn’t have words, or didn’t have a voice, or didn’t have the space, I’m really pleased that I have been able to invite people to share their experiences, that I’ve gained the trust of the people that I’ve worked with, specifically students, I feel like that is an accomplishment, when you can build rapport with people, and they can feel safe with you. It is really big for me, and I think when I can see where someone may have come in initially and was just really distraught or just really depressed, around their expectations of the teacher, and then they can learn that there were unlimited possibilities, I’m really pleased about that, that I can walk with someone, and just kind of point out, ‘Well, what about…?’ and how to plant seeds. I’m really happy about the way that some of the students I’ve worked with, when I see folks trying to find their own way, I’m really pleased to hear their stories, and even though it’s not my personal accomplishment, I’m happy that I was able to help others in theirs.      

Q: What are some challenges you’ve encountered in your career?
A: I think a big one is there a lot of misunderstandings around mental health: what it is, and what it is not. I feel like there have been so many initiatives to remove  stigma but I don’t feel like there have been enough initiatives to create understanding and to differentiate between a skill deficit and and an actual diagnosis. It’s really really, challenging, when I’ve sat with people who were clearly given the wrong diagnosis, but the way that it was given to them, that the person believes that ‘this is all I am’. That’s very, very challenging, especially when it’s wrong, but also when people feel like that is all that they are, that’s hard to me to fix, and just kind of go ‘Wow, this is where a person is’. And it’s not something that you can make someone think differently about, or something that they have to experience, and that it is really up to them if change takes place. So that’s one, is the misunderstanding. And also feel like there’s more of generational divide around you know, what millennials are like and what Gen X’s like and yes, there’s definitely differences, it’s just I would really like to see more of that generational crossover for compassion and understanding. That’s a challenge, especially if something occurs –– because the onset of mental illness is during undergrad years –– it sometimes hard for families to understand that it wasn’t the college per se, that this was the onset. And so it’s difficult for people to differentiate what’s happening. And that’s been a challenge.      

Q: As you transition into your new position here at Whitman, what are some goals that you have?

A: To really get to know the community, and its needs. I would really like to create connections. Every position that I’ve had, I have had the real privilege of knowing people all across campus, they all feed into student experience. I want to meet the folks that are in admissions, in financial aid, I want to meet faculty, and I want to look for ways beyond connection that we can collaborate to improve the experiences of students and to really create an environment where there are multiple punch points for people. That it isn’t just that the learning for mental health and wellness happens at the counseling center, but that if someone were to see something, like in financial aid, ‘Oh, okay, well we know to reach out to this person’. I just would like more connection and more collaboration. I don’t know what the current status is, but that’s really one of my goals, is to create connection and collaboration with people.  

Q: What is something you would like students to know about you?

A: I think that I’m approachable, and sincere. I try to remember folks’ names, because I think it’s important to be able to see people, and recognize the individual. I laugh a lot, typically with my co-workers, and I laugh with students, too, and I want to get to know people, not just because they are seen in the counseling center, but because just because they are at Whitman. Oh, and also, probably now and then I might saw things and the New York accent periodically comes up, and sometimes I’ve have situations, like over the past few days, where people are like, ‘Wait, say that again?’  

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: I think, just as a final note, I’m really entering the community with a stance of learning, with an openness, and a real desire to be a member of the community and also to create the changes that are the best practices, and that connection and collaboration, but my primary focus is students, and their experiences.