ITHACA, N.Y. – Three months ago, Cornell Graduate Students United organized a rally calling on the university’s administration to reform mental health services for graduate students. They submitted a petition listing six demands to President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff, with more than 900 signatures attached. CGSU never got a direct response to that petition. Nevertheless, when they gathered again for a rally on Thursday, March 21, they did so with newly secured commitments from the university in hand and the Chair of the Board of Trustees in attendance.

Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, sent an email to the Cornell student community on March 20 promising an external review of the university’s mental health services, the first demand on the CGSU petition.

“To explore how our clinical mental health services align with the needs of Cornell students, we have engaged an external review team. The team will come to campus and evaluate our services through the lens of best practices in collegiate and community mental health. We have already engaged these external reviewers and will begin sharing data with them this spring,” Lombardi wrote.

Lombardi’s letter also said students should expect quicker access to phone consultations, more available counseling appointments, and enhanced access to prescription medication through Cornell Health’s Counseling and Psychological Services division in the coming months. (See the full text below.)

Related: Cornell graduate students urge university to improve mental health services

At Thursday’s rally, CGSU leaders celebrated signs of progress. “CGSU has made huge strides,” Natalie Hofmeister, the union’s grievances chair and a doctoral candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology, said to a crowd of about 60 outside the Statler Hotel. She said the email from Lombardi is evidence that the administration is listening to graduate students’ concerns.

At the same time, Hofmeister and her colleagues emphasized that their work to improve campus mental health services is far from finished.

“This is a significant step forward,” David Blatter, CGSU’s secretary and legal affairs chair and an ILR School student, said through the megaphone, “but it’s not enough.”

Natalie Hofmeister urges graduate students to keep pushing for better mental health services. (Devon Magliozzi/The Ithaca Voice)

Speakers said graduate students need to keep pressure on the university administration until concrete changes are implemented and all the demands laid out in the December petition are addressed. They brought their renewed calls for improvements to the Board of Trustees, who were meeting on campus this week and were represented at the rally by Chair Robert Harrison.

While Harrison stood listening, Blatter read aloud a response to Lombardi’s letter. In addition to reiterating earlier calls for improved therapy referrals, group therapy, gym membership reimbursement, advisor sensitivity training, and training for CAPS staff to support LGBTQIAA students and students of color, the new list calls for increased CAPS staffing, representation of graduate students throughout the external review process, increased transparency as the administration considers changes, and a meeting between CGSU and the Board of Trustees.

Students shared personal stories of seeking mental health care on campus while Harrison looked on.

Jacy Tackett, a doctoral student in German Studies, drew a contrast between the ease of getting a physical health issue treated through Cornell Health and the challenge of finding a therapist. For an ingrown nail, she said she got a referral to a podiatrist in under 15 minutes. For mental health issues, she said she was given an unvetted list of therapists in Ithaca, told they may or may not be in her insurance network, and advised to check Psychology Today’s online directory.

She said getting that amount of guidance took hours of “having to explain my problem over and over, which was frustrating and simply inadequate.”

Related: Letter: Cornell graduate student calls for comprehensive mental health reform

Thea Kozakis, an astrophysics doctoral student, said once she managed to get through a weeklong wait for a phone assessment while going through an acute crisis, her experience with CAPS was mostly positive. She said she’s been supported by her counselor there and has benefitted immensely from a support group for graduate student women. However, Kozakis said students who are not in crisis have a harder time getting appointments, and said the support group she joined, which serves 10 students per semester, is the only one offered.

“I won my battle, but I know a lot of you are still dealing with it,” she said. Kozakis called for more CAPS staff and additional support groups with more diverse offerings, in addition to improving access to existing resources.

Harrison took the megaphone to address the assembled students, but said he didn’t have an immediate response to their demands. He said student health and safety are the greatest priorities of the Board of Trustees.

“I will take the letter and petition and read it very carefully, and I can assure you the administration will do the very best it can,” Harrison said.

By day’s end, the union was still without a direct response to the issues they raised from those in charge. While they recognized Lombardi’s letter as progress, CGSU speakers pointed out that it never specifically mentions graduate student mental health needs, and the letter does not list CGSU as one of the student organizations that worked collaboratively with the administration to develop changes to mental health services.

Nevertheless, the group took the university’s commitment to an external review as a step forward and is optimistic additional changes will follow. “As grad students, if we know how to do anything it’s to keep trying despite tons and tons of rejection,” Kozakis said to knowing laughter. As Harrison returned upstairs, the crowd began to chant a union mainstay: “I believe that we can win.”

Here’s the full text of the email from Ryan Lombardi to the Cornell student community:

VP Lombardi Email March 20 by on Scribd

Featured image: David Blatter reads CGSU’s demands to Robert Harrison. (Devon Magliozzi/The Ithaca Voice)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.