When Vicki Boman joined Carleton University as a student-support case manager within the student affairs office three years ago, she was the first to take up the role at her university and was one of only a few to hold such a position in Canada. That’s beginning to change as a growing number of universities and colleges begin to hire case managers – approximately 20 such positions have been created across the country – with backgrounds in either educational counselling or social work. Ms. Boman recently spoke to University Affairs about the role she plays and how professors and other staff may also benefit from her work.
University Affairs: What does a student-support case manager do?
Ms. Boman: It’s very similar to what social workers do within the community but within the university context. That means helping students to find services on campus and helping to advocate for them.
UA: Do you know how many universities have case managers?
Ms. Boman: We’re starting to see case managers popping up at universities of different sizes, so I think it really ties into where schools are in terms of their mental health frameworks. At Carleton, we’ve had our mental health framework since 2009 – we were pretty early in putting it together.
UA: How many students do you work with in a given year?
Ms. Boman: My case load last year was about 260 students. There were about 100 of those that I considered closed cases at the end of the year, meaning that they didn’t require more work.
UA: If a professor is concerned about a student’s health and well-being, how can they share that information with you?
Ms. Boman: At Carleton we have a form called the “care report” which predates the role of the case manager. It is a way of identifying students who are at-risk. It could be from a prof who says, for example, they have a student that came to see them about an assignment but then they discovered the student doesn’t have a place to live or doesn’t seem to have enough money for food. Professors have that closer contact with these students and they can work with them if they need an extension, but now they have somewhere to send them where we can help deal with the bigger picture.
What’s good about my role is that I’m outside of health and counselling services. I am able to reach out and contact other departments under the FIPPA regulations [privacy laws that allow information to be shared on a need-to-know basis within an institution]. That’s why it’s OK for a professor to contact me and say, “This is what the person told me.”
UA: What do you do once you receive a care report?
Ms. Boman: I reach out to the student primarily through email. I introduce myself as the case manager and I let them know where they’ve been referred from. I usually ask whoever is reporting if it’s OK if I say it came from them; otherwise, I can say it’s from that department. I let the student know a little about what has been communicated to me and invite them to come and see me. Sometimes I just talk through things with the professor or staff member and it’s not necessary for the student to come in. In more serious cases, I ask them to come and meet with me because they might be more willing to talk to someone who is not their professor.
UA: Do most students respond once you try to contact them?
Ms. Boman: There are a lot of students who choose not to respond – a rough estimate would be around 15 to 20 percent – and I am sure their reasons vary. It may be they received help from another resource on campus and that person asked if they wanted to be connected to the case manager for more support, and they said yes in the moment but didn’t really want more help at that time. Sometimes they may be referred by a professor or other staff member who is concerned about them but they don’t want the help. However, if a student seems to be in distress and does not respond, that would be different. If I am concerned about their safety, I will involve our department of university safety to check on them.
UA: What are the most common types of problems that you’re seeing?
Ms. Boman: It’s primarily mental-health concerns. If it’s an ongoing illness that’s causing the problem, we need to ask: Are you well enough to be here? They think they are helping themselves by getting some more time [to hand in class assignment or write exams], but sometimes, depending on their illness, that extra time just increases their anxiety and makes things worse.
UA: Once you’ve met with a student based on a care report, do you go back to the person who sent it to provide an update?
Ms. Boman: I’ll usually give them a brief update and let them know whether or not we have met with the student and made a plan. Sometimes the prof doesn’t want to give an accommodation if it’s not going to be in the student’s best interest. I might just offer to open the lines of communication – students can get very nervous about approaching their professors because they’ve already developed a conversation in their heads about the way it’s going to go.
UA: What’s your sense of how professors are responding to your role?
Ms. Boman: They love it. They really do. I think they carry a lot of the burden when they don’t know where to go. So when they realize there is someone who can actually follow up on these personal student matters, I think that’s really a comfort. The more profs hear about what we do, the more they tell other profs. It’s like I’m getting referrals!
UA: Should other universities hire case managers?
Ms. Boman: When we look at best practices, the research is showing that most campuses need a case management position. There is one person who is able to coordinate services and actually manage and understand what’s happening with a student who is experiencing difficulty. Without a case management position, you might have something popping up in athletics, and something popping up in the library and something popping up in the class. If there’s no one place to put those pieces together, we don’t see that there’s a bigger problem. I think nearly every university is starting to understand that.