This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.
Close Up

Introducing a world of mental health to UB’s international students

Xuhua Qin’s personal experience as an international student gives her a unique perspective when working with UB’s international student population. Photo: NANCY J. PARISI

  • “Counseling is a big stigma for international students.”

    Xuhua Qin
    Counselor, UB Counseling Services
Published: February 18, 2010

Psychology was still a foreign concept to many in Asia in the early 1990s. Mental health issues were mainly kept within the family or to oneself. So when Beijing native Xuhua Qin wanted to pursue the study of psychology in college, her parents were mystified about what her future would bring.

More than a decade later, Qin is well ensconced in the role to which she aspired. She has been a counselor with UB Counseling Services for the past year and a half, specializing in working with international students. She is familiar with many of their challenges because she was an international student herself not too long ago, having come to the U.S. in 2002 to pursue her doctorate.

“Counseling is a big stigma for international students. Many countries do not have counseling,” she says. “I felt that there wasn’t much focus on the challenges that international students face here. That’s when I decided to do something to help international students.”

While pursuing her PhD at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, she helped develop a mentoring program to assist international students in adjusting to the new culture and the academic environment. Shortly after she arrived at UB, Qin introduced her concept to administrators in the Office of International Student and Scholar Services, which led to the International Student Mentoring Program being adapted here last fall. The program has attracted a significant response from student mentees and volunteer mentors. “I definitely see a big future for this,” says Qin. “I’m hoping that with our success, we can share that experience with other universities and build that into a solid module that others can follow.”

Qin’s work in Counseling Services includes individual and group counseling and crisis services. The mental health concerns she encounters range from roommate issues to relationship concerns, depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, adjustment, family of origin concerns, multicultural issues, eating disorders, sexual orientation concerns, trauma, grief and psychotic disorders.

Qin sees an average of 18 clients (students) per week in sessions ranging from 30 minutes to one hour. Students can meet with counselors for up to 14 sessions each academic year. She has both short-term and long-term clients.

Of all students who use Counseling Services, about 9 percent are international students. Most of what brings international students into Counseling Services is academic concerns. If they’re failing a class or their grades are suffering, their professors may refer them for counseling.

“After we talk with the students, we notice that behind academic concerns there can be lots of other issues that are going on—isolation, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, cultural adjustment, eating and body image concerns, or even more severe ones,” she explains.

She says students also may be referred for counseling by Health Services after physical examinations. Whenever any difficulties, such as stress, are noticed in an individual, a referral may be made. In the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, says Qin, more attention is being paid to any warning signs regarding a student’s behavior.

Counseling Services has a variety of psychotherapy counseling groups that are open to all students. The only one specifically targeted to international students is the International Student Discussion Group that Qin now leads. “Most students come from China, Korea, India, Iran, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. We talk about their experience, adjustment and culture confusion. In talking about those issues, people begin to bond with each other, sharing more about their personal issues. They may talk about their struggles with their parents, advisors and issues like intercultural dating,” she says.

Qin also has developed outreach programs for international students. She started Taste of Asia, celebrations of Asian cultures that were held on successive Fridays last July in Goodyear Hall. The focus was on the top four countries represented at UB—India, Korea, China and Japan. More than 200 international and domestic students attended the weekly exhibition of cooking, crafts and performances. According to Qin, it was an event that helped homesick international students who couldn’t return home during the summer. She says it will be expanded to include other countries this summer and be called Taste of the World.

To increase awareness of international student challenges regarding mental health issues and decrease the stigma, Qin is coordinating an International Student Wellness Day to be held on March 31 in the Student Union. The event will include a photo contest for international students to express themselves, a panel discussion and information tables.

Qin is determined to continue breaking down the barriers of mental health for international students. She really likes the campus environment and surrounding community. “People are talking about diversity and respect it. That really makes me feel welcome,” she says.

Qin has a 14-month-old son, Jaden, born shortly after her arrival here. Her husband, also a native of Beijing, is in Boston and trying to find an engineering job in this area so the family can be together. Qin was warmed by the reception she received at UB as a new employee—pregnant and alone. “There were a lot of challenges for me, settling down and adjusting to the new environment,” she says. “My colleagues gave me a lot of support and the university as well. I’m very grateful for that.”