The Demand for Diverse Counseling Centers

A conversation with Keith E. Smith, a counselor at the University of Vermont and a coordinator of the Men’s Outreach, on the importance of recruiting and retaining clinicians who share the experience of interacting with the broader, white-dominant, white-supremist system.

A therapist gives a session. A therapist gives a session.

Two high-profile student protests — separated by four academic years and nearly 1,150 miles of travel — recently drew national attention to a developing problem: the lack of mental-health counselors of color on college campuses. At the University of Kansas in 2015, a student protest group, Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk, stormed the stage at a public forum in the Kansas Union and demanded that KU establish a team of multicultural mental-health counselors to work with students of color. And in November 2019, a similar group at Syracuse University, #NotAgainSU, demanded the university hire more counselors of marginalized identities during an eight-day sit-in at a campus wellness center. But many other students across the country also have voiced similar concerns. Protests at Marquette University, the University of Northern Colorado, and Brandeis University included demands for diversifying counseling staff.

The statistics inform these demands. During the 2017-18 school year, 72.4% of staff members at U.S. college counseling centers were white, according to a survey released by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. A little more than 27.5% of staff members at those counseling centers identified as a racially underrepresented group, according to the survey. That data — which is the most up-to-date information available through AUCCCD — sharply contrasts with national student demographics for fall 2017, where 47% of undergraduates identified as a racially underrepresented group, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Counselor Demographics

A 2018 study by the AUCCCD revealed the racial demographics of college counseling centers arcoss the US.

“On campuses across the country, students of color are demanding from their institutions that there be a wider range of representation among faculty,” says Kevin Kruger, president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. “The same thing can be said here, that if you’re looking at some of those issues, having a diverse counseling center is an important component.”

To better understand this national issue, The 61% Project interviewed Keith E. Smith, a long-time mental-health counselor at the University of Vermont. Smith, who is Black, has served as the Men’s Outreach Coordinator at UVM Counseling and Psychiatry Services since 2006.*

The 61% Project: How big of an issue is this broadly, across the country? Is this something that’s noticeable around the higher-education landscape?

Keith E. Smith: Well, first of all, there’s not as many people of color in the country as there are white people. Just statistically, the number of people pursuing degrees in counseling and psychotherapy is probably very thin or slim. I mean here at [the University of Vermont], we have six of us, which is unusual. To have six counselors of color at a predominantly white institution, I’m not sure how it all happened. But that’s an unusual thing. It’s not the norm.

61%: What are the natural barriers to hiring a diverse, mental-health counseling staff? You’re saying it’s the population, the number of people going into the profession.

K.S.: Right. This is a profession that’s also dominated by white women. The main people who access counseling are white women. So, it makes sense that they would be the majority. And, there’s a lot of stigmas in various communities around mental health. Populations of color, whether it’s Asian, or Latinx, or African American, there’s a lot of stigma associated with mental-health counseling, and so, again, if there’s stigma in the community, how would you end up pursuing this as a career? I think that’s also a barrier. Here, we’ve been making efforts to take away some of the stigmas and make it more accessible. So, for instance, we have a Mosaic Center for Students of Color, and we’re over there five days a week now. It gives students access, and it’s not as much of a barrier [as] prior to us being there.

61%: What about the training counselors receive? Does that play a role?

K.S.: White clinicians are not really trained or adequately trained to deal with students of color. The training itself in counseling programs, it’s weird, most of the subject focuses on white men, which is interesting because it’s predominantly white women who access these services. While I was in school I was very aware that many of the books are written by white men. I mean every book was [written by] the same two white folks. I asked why do we keep studying these two people, and their approach to counseling, when there are hundreds of thousands of diverse perspectives on student counseling? I think this is why a lot of white clinicians really are not adequately prepared to deal with diverse populations because most of the materials they are reading are from white folks and predominantly white men.

61%: So, in terms of promoting a diverse mental-health programming staff, it’s not necessarily a question only specific to universities. It’s a question posed to the structure in place through which counselors and therapists are coming into the profession?

K.S.: Exactly.

headshot of Kevin Smith

Men’s Outreach Coordinator Keith E. Smith attributes much of the University of Vermont’s success and innovation to student proposals regarding access to therapists of color, which led, for example, to staff being present across campus at identity centers such as the Women’s Center, The Mosaic Center (for students of color), and The Prism Center (for the LGBT community). Photo courtesy of Keith E. Smith.

61%: What can universities do better to promote the hiring of counselors or therapists of color?

K.S.: Well, you can encourage people of color to work for you. But that’s just a step, you know? You have to think about: ‘Are we going to be able to retain these people?’ So, if a clinician of color comes to an all-white environment that is not dealing with issues of race and racism, odds are that person is not going to stay there for very long. And so it’s a very complex issue. It’s not just ‘We need more clinicians of color and all of our problems will be solved.’ Because if you can’t retain people and keep people in your workforce, then they’re not going to be there.

61%: Do you ever hear from students of color concerned about a lack of counselors or therapists of color?

K.S.: For sure. That’s why we’re over at The Mosaic Center. Actually, it was a student who wrote a proposal to the student government about the need to have counselors of color present and available and accessible to students. And, that’s kind of how we ended up over there. It didn’t come about because the director here, or the university, said we need to address this issue. It came about because students made it an issue. Although, from my perspective, it was an issue I had been talking about for a long time. But it never turned into any sort of action.

61%: Some colleges offer specific time slots during which students of color can request to speak with a counselor of color. Is that an effective solution?

K.S.: Well, the way we’ve dealt with this, and there was resistance initially, is the front office staff is asking students who identify in a particular way if they would like to see a clinician of color. That initially made white people very nervous, the idea of asking such a question. And that’s because white people don’t talk about such things. So, the idea of even talking about it in a professional setting made them uncomfortable. It was like, ‘This is your discomfort. It’s not students’ discomfort.’ I said I have never met a student who was insulted because you asked them, ‘Do you identify as a person of color?’

61%: Tell me more about that and what it suggests.

K.S.: So, again, these are some of the barriers that we encounter. Because, if it had not been for a staff of color sort of saying, ‘No, we should be asking students if that’s what they want,’ the students were not going to call up and request that on their own. They may have never been to counseling before. They don’t have that “cultural capital” to know ‘Oh, I can ask.’ We have made it known that we are addressing these issues. And so students, I believe now, are much more comfortable either asking or we are more comfortable in asking them if they have a preference.

61%: It sounds as if it is working there? These are some of the conversations that colleges should be having about accessibility?

K.S.: Yeah, because the traditional way that services are offered don’t work if they work for the dominant group, but they don’t work for other groups. So, we’re also at the identity centers. We’re at The Women’s Center, we’re at The Mosaic Center for Students of Color, and we’re at The Prism Center, which is kind of the LGBT community center, too. We have staff all week at those different centers. And again this is a new thing. I think we’re on year two. This came about because students were asking for it, and finally something was done directly.

61%: So there’s been a noticeable difference then, in terms of the number of students of color using the services?

K.S.: For sure. Yeah.

Demographics of Mental-Health Staff by Gender, Sexual Orientation, and Disability

Therapists of color are not the only demographic that lacks representation. The same AUCCCD study revealed that college and university counseling centers also lack representation in terms of gender, sexual orientation, and disability, making it harder for students to find a mental-health professional who shares their identity.

61%: Some research suggests matching students with counselors who share their identity doesn’t improve results but does improve access. What are your thoughts on those studies?

K.S.: I think it gets the student in the pipeline. We’ve been much more intentional, trying to match students of color with clinicians of color. It may not be an exact cultural match, but it is at least a clinician of color who has more of a sense of what is the experience of another person of color and potentially interacting with the broader, white-dominant, white-supremist system. Bringing that lens to the counseling process, I would say, increases at least the possibility of the client, or the student, having a positive experience as opposed to being with a white clinician who does not address issues of racism and white supremacy.

*This interview and questions posed have been edited for clarity.


Find a Multicultural Therapist at, an online therapy directory that lists out mental-health clinicians around the United States. One of the website features redirects users to multicultural counselors based on city or ZIP code, if available.

View a complete list of resources.