By Melanee Terry
At the University of Maine at Presque Isle, Ralph McPherson has been helping students navigate the changes to their education and social life due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the campus counselor, Ralph has been busy since last March motivating and encouraging students, which is what makes him an Owl Hero on campus.
A large part of Ralph’s job is providing counseling to students who may be experiencing social and emotional issues. He helps students with their time management skills and introduces them to different ways that they can cope with change. Many UMPI students just need a safe place where they can talk about their struggles and Ralph is that person.
Last March was a defining month for Ralph because it determined how he was going to move forward with his counseling. His entire counseling system had to change because he could no longer meet with students in-person. Despite feeling very overwhelmed, Ralph did not let the changes of the pandemic affect his work.
“I am thankful for what we have and that we are back in school helping each other. Being thankful is always my message during change. It’s not to say we minimize how we feel. We can be angry and frustrated. That is healthy. We cannot, however, let it define everything about us,” Ralph said.
A year since the pandemic began, Zoom has become a critical part of Ralph’s job and how he counsels students. The majority of his students enjoy meeting through Zoom, so he has become very familiar with the application.
“I certainly use Zoom more than I ever have. But, that is the advantage with Zoom. Distance or location is not a barrier. Zoom used to be the exception, now it is the norm,” Ralph said.
Although the majority of his counseling is done through Zoom, Ralph is allowing students to join him in-person if that makes them feel more comfortable. Students who see him in-person are required to sit 6 feet apart and masks are mandatory. Meeting with students in-person has many benefits, but it means that everyone has to wear masks. A big aspect of Ralph’s counseling is reading student’s facial expressions. Masks have made this harder, but he is still grateful that he has the opportunity to see students in-person.
Ralph has noticed a great deal of changes in students during counseling sessions. The pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of a college student’s life, including their academics and social life. He advises students to use technology to stay connected with friends and loved ones. Ralph encourages students to practice the basics of self-care. He believes that every student should have good nutrition, healthy sleeping patterns, and plenty of exercise. Ralph also motivates students to control what they can control. Students cannot control the course of the pandemic, but they can control their attitude and actions.
“I give students a lot of support and allow them to talk about their frustrations. I talk about hope with the students. This pandemic has been difficult, but it will not take my hope,” Ralph said. “I also talk about perspective with students. Despite how difficult this has been, I have them look at what we can be thankful for. We all need this reminder, regardless of a pandemic.”
Ralph’s job revolves around UMPI students, so the importance of creating strong bonds with them is crucial. This pandemic has taken away many of the social interactions students have around campus or with friends. Ralph recognized the social struggles students are facing and he has done his best to be a friend and mentor for them.
“I enjoy the students so much. They give me motivation and I learn so much from them. A lot of pressure has been put on our youth to figure it all out,” Ralph said. “I enjoy talking with them and reminding them that life is about growth and journey.”
Despite the abrupt changes in his job last March, Ralph has been able to continue his counseling in an effective way. Staying healthy and safe has been a priority for every college student and Ralph has been a huge advocate in helping UMPI students do that, which is what makes him a hero on UMPI’s campus.
“I hope we can remember to be thankful for our health, our opportunities, and our blessings. It is my sincere hope that we have learned valuable lessons about relationships and the importance of people doing crucial jobs to keep us going,” Ralph said. “We have to be kind to our bodies and kind to each other.”