In 2016, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart SM ’85, PhD ’88 announced the realignment of key student support organizations into the Division of Student Life. “Our network of support is strong but I believe it can be stronger,” Barnhart wrote. “We must make it easier for students to access support resources; we must strengthen the connections between residential life and student support; and we must proactively reach the students we know are more likely to need our help.” The reorganization enables closer collaboration among Student Support Services (S3), Violence Prevention and Response (VPR), Student Disability Services (SDS), and Community Development and Substance Abuse (CDSA), united under the leadership of senior associate dean for student support and well-being David Randall.

Behind the acronyms, some key points:
A new “CARE” (Coordination, Assistance, Response, and Education) Team will become the thread woven through the support network. For students experiencing acute difficulties such as hospitalization or a family tragedy, the CARE Team will serve as their central MIT point of contact, coordinating as needed with additional resources such as MIT Medical, Mental Health and Counseling, Undergraduate Education, Student Life, and the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education (ODGE). Support can range from retrieving clothes and study materials, to connecting campus resources, to working with families, to tracking follow-up care—all while providing emotional support to the affected student. Randall emphasizes that students remain in control of the process: “We prioritize trust and transparency.”

Student Support Services serves almost 70% of undergraduates at least once during their MIT experience. (Grad students receive similar support via ODGE.) S3 handles approximately 6,000 student contacts per year. It’s a low-barrier access point for help and referrals on a range of issues, Randall says, but one issue above all: “What MIT students care about first and foremost is academics.” With MIT’s quick pace, even a brief absence can disrupt coursework. S3 has developed solid relationships with professors so it can advocate for students in cases where they must step away from academics to prioritize their well-being.

Faculty are requesting more guidance on how to support students. Says Randall: “We are developing a handbook for faculty on how to recognize and respond to students in distress, along with online training modules. I want to create a menu of options for academic departments to educate their faculty in a way that’s kept current with the Institute’s processes.”

Redefining “help” is part of the process. MIT students, says Randall, “like to solve problems on their own”—whether those are engineering challenges, or bumps in life’s road. One of his office’s goals is to reframe that inclination. “The message that we try to get across consistently to the students is that reaching out for help is a sign of strength,” he says. “It’s something that we all need to do.”

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