Situated in the California desert midway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Barstow has seen its students grappling with many of the same issues other college students have faced during the pandemic: the stress of online classes, lack of social contact, job loss, uncertainty, and illness. It’s the way the college has handled these issues that has set it apart.
"Our mission at Barstow has been to get mental health education, training, and resources to students in our area by all means possible," says Tanesha Young, dean of counseling and student success for Barstow Community College. By removing barriers to counseling and other services, “We allow for more student access, and therefore success. And we know that when students succeed, our community succeeds."
Barstow has committed itself to providing wraparound services for students, meeting as many needs as possible so that students can focus on their academic goals. In addition to counseling, the school provides breakfast and lunch services, a pantry with fresh produce, a voucher program for students and their families who are insecurely housed, and community-building Thanksgiving dinners at both the Barstow and Fort Irwin campuses.
“Barstow Community College stands out because it demonstrates a driven stance on mental health and well-being by providing free services to students through in-house providers and community partnerships,” said Alison Malmon, founder and executive director of Active Minds, when announcing the award. The college “is a model for prioritizing mental health for its students by engaging the local community.”
Christa Banton, EdD, is a mental health counselor with Barstow’s The Mindful Space counseling center. She notes that counselors had to be extremely flexible for the past few years, allowing students to make appointments in person, online, over the phone … or even in 15-minute increments when they are taking a break from work. The Mindful Space provides individual psychotherapy, coaching, group therapy, and crisis intervention, and partners with governmental and community-based agencies so that a student can access counseling services during the summer, for example, or get the help they need for a specific issue.
In years past, Barstow assisted struggling students in much the same way other schools did: by giving the student a list of professionals within the community. Having a counseling center on campus has been a game changer. “I walk around campus. I go to graduations. I do presentations for students and faculty,” says Banton. “Students get to know me and are aware of the services we provide.” If there’s one bright spot that has come out of the COVID era, she says, it’s the release of the stigma about mental health, and the open discussions about the need for services.
“By far, the number one issue we’ve seen is anxiety … about technology, managing their classes and their families, about the loss of work and insecure housing situations,” says Banton, adding that the typical Barstow student is economically disadvantaged, which compounds problems. “Some call for counseling from their cars, some are holed up in a closet... anywhere they can find a private space.”
Barstow has also demonstrated a commitment to equity across all groups within the school, establishing a Student Success and Equity Committee with the aim of improving academic achievement for those deemed to be of higher risk for falling short of their academic goals.
“We are ‘the little college that could,’” says Banton. “We recognize that our students come to us with complex lives, with children, with emotions and personal struggles. Seeing this really drives home the realization that there is a great need out there.”