DAY 6: Drawn from experience (Cultural Factors)

Janette Neuwahl and Janette Neuwahl

At just 4 years old, Marva Golden stood on her family’s front porch trying to console her mother, who sat in a rocking chair with tears streaming down her cheeks. Golden’s 2-year-old brother had just died from what doctors said was probably sickle-cell anemia, and Golden knew she had to get her mother to move past the grief.

It was that line of work — helping people — that soon became her life-long calling.

Golden is now the only full-time counselor at Northwestern’s Women’s Center and devotes her life to helping college students overcome all kinds of physical and emotional difficulties. She said her job is a natural extension of her childhood, when she would comfort not only her family but also her friends on the playground.

“It’s almost innate,” she said. “(Counseling) connects to my life as a little girl always reaching out to other little girls.”

But Golden said she has a broad perspective on dealing with tough issues. Not only did her brother die at a young age, her father also died in a log hauling accident near their Mississippi home when she was 14.

“I was mad then because I wasn’t consoled and I learned that I wasn’t supported,” said Golden, who comes from a family of nine children. “All I knew was that I just wanted my father back, and I’m finally able to articulate it now.”

Golden now tries to help others talk about their problems in the past tense.

From her second-floor office, furnished with a few chairs, her desk and a wall of self-help books, Golden works alongside a staff of five women at the center. All of the adult staff and the center’s two student interns are trained in crisis intervention and walk-in counseling. Most weeks Golden schedules at least 20 appointments with students.

“We’re working to help them regain control of their lives and take the lead in what they are working on,” Golden said. “We don’t want to be experts for them.”

Some students are referred by Counseling and Psychological Services if they need long-term help. When students come to the Women’s Center, Golden decides how long therapy may take on a case-by-case basis. Although some students need as few as three sessions, others require up to 52, Golden said.

On a typical day, Golden helps students deal with issues such as sexual assault, depression, sexual harassment, eating disorders, dissertation jitters for graduate students and general relationship problems — one of the more common topics of conversation. Often, however, the hard part is uncovering those issues. Sometimes it takes her two to three sessions to find out what a student is struggling with, Golden said.

“Students come in and present a problem,” she said, “but many times this might not be the actual problem they’re dealing with — after we build a more solid relationship, that’s when they’ll talk about the deeper issue.”

Golden said she has learned a student’s crisis can be caused by things as trivial as a class paper or a personal discussion that brings back painful memories, often those they didn’t even realize were harmful until coming to NU, such as childhood domestic or sexual abuse, Golden said.

“There’s something about the distance that makes things shift for them — maybe they get a better sense of themselves as an adult that triggers these memories,” she said. “I get to witness them gain a clear awareness in the world as survivors.”

Both “survivors” and co-workers at the Women’s Center appreciate her willingness to stick with students and make sure they can come to grips with emotional pain, said Renee Redd, director of the Women’s Center.

“One of the most difficult things to do is to sit with someone who’s in distress and to allow the pain to come out because people have to go through that before they can heal,” Redd said. “Marva’s a great person for that because she has tremendous patience.”

Though services are offered to anyone at NU, most students that Golden deals with are women and typically not minorities, she said. In a typical year, Golden said she counsels about five men.

But she said she wants to reach out to minorities who don’t often seek therapy.

“Often they are cloaked in a lot of shame that has to do with socioeconomic and cultural influences,” she said. “In the African-American community, you resolve it within, or you go to a minister, but you don’t go outside for help.”

Golden honed her counseling skills in the women’s services department at Chicago’s Metropolitan YMCA for five years before coming to NU in 1988. She also was a founding counselor at one of Chicago’s first battered women’s shelters, the Greenhouse Center. Before that, she majored in counseling at Northeastern Illinois University.

Golden decided to come to NU after some goading from a friend who had worked with her at the YMCA. At first Golden didn’t think she would feel as needed by students as she did by mothers in Chicago, but now Golden can’t fathom leaving her job.

“I reluctantly said ‘yes’ and I haven’t regretted it a day since,” she said. “I love it here.”

She said the challenge of her job keeps her going.

“At the end of the day, I can’t sit back and say my work is done,” she said. “It’s a process, but once I witness someone’s goals reached I gain sense of satisfaction.”