Common Goals: Coe and Tanager

Emily-Barnard-and-Tanager-volunteers_web-.jpgIt’s a whirlwind, the days leading up to moving to college. The anticipation, packing, hugging and tying up loose ends all lead to one last night in your childhood bed before you’re a college student. You stare, toss and turn, knowing the next night you’ll be in a new bed, with a new ceiling to stare at and a new person suddenly in startling proximity as your roommate.

It’s all new and it’s not always easy. But it is exciting, and with the right support systems, any rough patches can be smoothed.

“These students are starting from the ground up looking to establish support systems, keep up with more intense academic demands, follow through on first-time responsibilities, all while trying to figure out how to live as an independent person for the first time,” said Heather Ward, a licensed mental health counselor with Tanager.

To help with the sometimes stressful transition to college, Coe is at the forefront of increasing access and reducing stigma surrounding mental health resources among the college population. As part of those efforts, Coe has proactively secured additional counselors by partnering with Tanager. Ward, along with fellow Tanager counselor Tara Wheatley McLaughlin, spends time each week on Coe’s campus to supplement the resources full-time Coe staff members provide. 

Coe and Tanager have been growing their partnership throughout the years, beyond integrating counselors on campus. Staff members from Tanager attend Coe’s annual activity fest and career fair, Kohawks work at Tanager as interns or volunteers and, this past year, Tanager CEO Okpara Rice joined Coe’s Board of Trustees.

On campus, the Tanager presence is welcomed. As licensed counselors, Assistant Dean of Health and Wellness Emily Crook Barnard ’02 and Student Care Coordinator Cathy Schilling Muller ’10 serve students by offering counseling sessions and referrals. Tanager staff complement their availability with additional counseling appointments each week on campus. Each student can engage in six sessions of free short-term, solution-focused counseling. If further treatment is needed, either Coe staff or Tanager staff offer a referral.

Barnard said, statistically speaking, the first onset of mental health conditions typically present in childhood or adolescence with many delaying treatment or intervention until years later, with approximately 75% of lifetime conditions presenting in the mid-20s. Because of this, and many contributing and secondary factors, the college population tends to experience a higher prevalence of mental health conditions and why access to services on campus and partnerships like Tanager are critical to the success, persistence and wellbeing of our students. Some of the most common reasons college students across the country seek counseling are stress, anxiety, relationship issues, concerns related to academic performance and past or present trauma. Tanager specializes in care for children and young adults facing these and similar issues.

“This is the exact time and space where therapy can be such a significant help. Therapy allows people to process their feelings, curiosities and experiences in a nonjudgmental space with a professional who is trained to support them in their journey of wellbeing. College can be a wonderful time for students to gain insight into themselves, learn new habits and build skills for managing the stressors of life as a young adult,” said Joella Gerber, the clinic program manager at Tanager.

“Tanager is fantastic to work with. They have been a pillar in our community providing services to youth and young adults, and we are very thankful to have them as part of our campus. Our partnership brings additional options to our Coe students for short-term counseling as well as an immediate opportunity to be connected to longer-term, specialized care and services,” Barnard said.

Previous generations of college students haven’t had the additional stressors today’s students encounter, said Maggie Vickers Hartzler ’08, the clinical services director at Tanager and a fellow Kohawk. She said the pandemic and social media have created a more difficult atmosphere, but at the same time, she has seen an increase in empathy as well.

“The wellness and success of one of us impacts the wellness and success of all of us. That is why partnerships like this are so important. We believe that when we can improve the lives of young people, it puts out into the world this ripple effect of those young people improving the lives of others,” Hartzler said.

A vision for serving student and community needs and improving the lives of others remains the core of the partnership. While mental health counselors from Tanager assist Kohawks as they adjust to newfound independence, Kohawks have assisted Tanager as interns, volunteers, work-study students and even part-time employees. Hartzler herself started as a part-time employee with Tanager when she was pursuing her undergraduate degree.

The human services agency focuses on children, teens and young adults, supporting more than 4,000 youth and families per year — primarily in Linn and Johnson counties in southeast Iowa. Tanager creates and runs programming and services aimed at prevention, treatment and outreach for young people in difficult circumstances. The Coe community has supported these efforts engaging as servant leaders and youth service workers.

“I still remember my first day walking in the door of the cottage [at Tanager]. I was overwhelmed by the warmth and brightness the space held for kids. And since that day, I have continued to feel like every service we have provided is truly done in ways that are best for the people we are serving,” Hartzler said.

Hartzler pursued a psychology degree at Coe, and her volunteer story is similar to others. She said having that lived experience working with children and realizing her potential impact led her to grasp some of her classroom concepts in a deeper way. In the end, she was confident her educational path was in alignment with her career path.

It’s a common story for many Kohawks who engage with C3: Creativity, Careers, Community, regardless of field of study, according to C3 Director Joe Demarest. Gaining experience in the field is critical to being confident in your career choice.

“Tanager is a strong community partner, particularly for students in the social sciences. They can gain hands-on experience working with a range of students and truly determine if youth counseling and the related fields are viable career paths,” said Demarest. “It’s also a place where our students can feel like they are making a difference.”

In 2023, Coe’s partnership with Tanager grew even stronger. To continue to enable support and opportunities for Kohawks, Rice joined the Coe College Board of Trustees. As the Tanager CEO since 2015, he has utilized his extensive experience in mental health, child welfare and human services to provide direction for the organization to offer programs and serve over 4,000 young people each year. Throughout his professional career, he has demonstrated a history of advocacy, coalition building, collaboration and goal attainment. His leadership skills are valued  throughout the Corridor, as he holds various positions outside of Tanager. In 2020 Okpara was honored as an Iowa History Maker by the African American Museum of Iowa and was named to the Corridor Business Journal’s Most Influential Leaders List.

“Okpara has been a wonderful addition in a multitude of ways,” said Coe College President David Hayes ’93. “This includes, of course, strengthening our connection with Tanager. In the long run, we have similar missions and to be able to share resources with such an important organization in the Corridor and eastern Iowa is a blessing.”

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