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Where are Safe Spaces for Students in Need?

by Nicole Cortino

Most students are adapting to virtual learning well, but there are students struggling with things other than academic challenges. These situations could involve abuse, handling high-dysfunction and unhealthy environments, or unsupportive homes.

There are multiple people, organizations, and programs to turn to in these kinds of situations. Sheila Confer, EdD, director of the Academic Village and instructor in Theatre Arts and First Year Studies, is on the Wellness and Resilience Instruction Team and has worked with several students dealing with these issues.

“In the case of where there is abuse, my first recommendation is have them contact the Blackburn Center,” Dr. Confer said. “We are very lucky in Westmoreland County to have an agency like Blackburn, who is not only committed to doing the work in regards to the counseling and advocacy work, but is also committed to addressing what the issues are and transforming society so that violence is no longer a thing.”

The Blackburn Center is different compared to other agencies. There is an anonymous 24-hour hotline number that anyone can call. Although their focus is on sexual and domestic abuse, they are supportive for all people and unique struggles.

“There aren’t a whole lot of agencies that do that. Other organizations are very reactive. They have shelters, they have counseling, and so, once this bad thing happens they will react for your needs,” Dr. Confer said. “On the other hand, Blackburn responds to an incident and says, ‘We will help you. We are going to try to make it not happen again.’”

Gayle Pamerleau, director of Counseling, can help students work through these challenging situations as well as inform peers about the right precautions to take when listening to another peer about these struggles.

“Telling someone to simply break up with a toxic partner may be dangerous,” she said. “It’s best to listen actively, believe, and refer them to resources such as the Counseling Center and Student Services. The staff and faculty are really great with that as well.”

Pamerleau welcomes all students to the Counseling Center, whether they are in challenging situations or simply need a person to talk to.

“For the transition in the spring, everyone had to find ways of coping. Change causes stress. Our coping options were limited. We all know this,” Pamerleau said. “I encouraged students to go for a walk when everything closed abruptly. Some students could not find quiet spaces to study or even have safe spaces for themselves.”

Pitt-Greensburg staff and faculty are always ready to work with students to create solutions to their problems. Some students had no home to go to when the campus closed in the spring.

“Even though the campus was shut down, they were able to stay in the residence halls. Troy Ross was the one who orchestrated that,” Dr. Confer said. “For extenuating circumstances, the campus is able to make accommodations.”

Pamerleau hopes students are better adjusted now than last spring.

“The faculty and staff prepared well throughout the summer and were trained well. I am not hearing of any concerns of not being able to communicate. The classes seem to be working better. We’re still learning and adapting to technology,” she said. “But the concern that is still here is the question ‘can students actively and thoroughly learn well while completely virtual?’”

Dr. Confer and Pamerleau both understand that virtual communication during the COVID-19 pandemic has caused unique difficulties for students.

“Sometimes it’s hard because when students are home, and there’s family around, since everything is virtual – if you were in a bad situation, it wouldn’t be helpful to be in an environment where people are around to hear when you are trying to seek help,” Dr. Confer said.

Pamerleau acknowledges the same issues virtual communication poses when she is scheduling teletherapy appointments virtually, too.

“Teletherapy works very well in general. It is not the same as being in the same room with someone. But, in order to be in the same room with someone we’d have to wear our masks,” Pamerleau said. “There’s so much communication that deals with facial expression and tone of voice that would get muffled or taken away when you’re wearing a mask. I’d rather do teletherapy where I can see your face. Most of the time it works well.”

Anyone can set up an appointment at the Counseling Center. Appointments can be made by email at, or by phone at 724-836-9917.

Dr. Confer recommended other additional resources:

  • Planned Parenthood’s anonymous text line, where students can text or chat to ask questions about things like sex, the body, pregnancy, contraception, and sexually transmitted diseases. Anyone can access the chat line on their website, or by texting “PPNOW” to 774636 (PPINFO).
  • Blackburn Center’s 24-Hour Hotline: 724-836-1122 or 1-888-832-2272
  • The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County coordinates health and human services agencies. This is useful for people who have a specific problem but do not know where to find help. The Community Foundation can direct individuals to specialized organizations who work with their unique issue. They’re located at 41 W. Otterman Street, Ste 520 Greensburg, PA 15601 and can be reached by phone at 724-836-4400.
  • The Union Mission is a men’s shelter located at 2217 Harrison Avenue, Latrobe, PA 15650 and can be reached by phone at 724-539-3550.
  • Welcome Home Shelter is another local shelter located at 218 South Maple Avenue, Suite 200 Greensburg, PA 15601 and can be reached by phone at 724-838-9133.

2 Comments on Where are Safe Spaces for Students in Need?

  1. Nicely done, Nicole. Lots of great resources for students!


  2. Lori Jakiela // October 6, 2020 at 11:48 am // Reply

    This is so helpful, Nicole. Thank you!


4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Editorial: Stay Home, Stay Safe – The Insider
  2. Editorial: Where to Turn When Everything is Online – The Insider
  3. Walk a Mile With the Blackburn Center – The Insider
  4. Editorial: Check on Your Friends and Classmates – The Insider

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