Helping Students Overcome Personal Obstacles to Academic Success

Helping Students Overcome Personal Obstacles to Academic Success

By: Barry Telford
Barry Telford, CEO, Universities West, Sodexo North America & President, Sodexo Canada

Barry Telford, CEO, Universities West, Sodexo North America & President, Sodexo Canada

Wednesday, January 18, 2017 - 11:15am


College can be a stressful time for many students. They often face greater demands, expectations and workloads than in high school. It is also the first time many have been on their own and away from familiar support networks such as friends, family and their local community. The stress of a new environment, lack of familiarity and heightened academic demands can take its toll on a student’s well-being and potentially have a significant impact on their performance and ability to succeed. The transition can be even more challenging for students who must deal with issues that go beyond academics – issues that can have a significant impact on their overall achievement.

Mental Health: The Unseen Threat to Students’ Well-being

Many campuses offer programs to address students’ physical health, such as nutritious menu options in dining halls, workout facilities and recreational events. However, there is another equally important aspect of student well-being that is all too often overlooked on campus: students’ mental health.

Mental health issues affect many people in the United States. Each year, 26 percent of adults live with a diagnosable mental health disorder. Despite the prevalence of mental health disorders, college students are particularly unlikely to express their need for help. Although 75% of mental health disorders are present by the time individuals reach age 25, those between the ages of 18 and 24 are the least likely to seek assistance for mental health issues.

Chronic stress and the pressures of college life can significantly impact students’ mental health and ability to succeed. Almost one-third of college students report having felt so depressed that they had trouble functioning. More than 80 percent of college students admit they have felt overwhelmed by all they had to do, and 45 percent have felt things were hopeless. Mental health issues among college students are associated with lower GPAs and a higher probability of dropping out of college.

Addiction Recovery: Navigating Campus Life

Another issue some students struggle with is substance abuse. More than 500,000 young people emerge from addiction treatment programs in the United States each year. Individuals recovering from addiction sometimes find that college campuses, which often feature late-night parties and widespread availability of alcohol and even drugs, are especially challenging to their recovery efforts.

Some colleges have created unique programs to support students recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Institutions can get guidance on how to help students in recovery from the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, which supports the development of collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) on campuses throughout the United States.

In a recent article published in President to President, Dr. Paul C. Pribbenow, President of Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN, writes about how he and his administrators developed the StepUp program for students recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. The program provides a dedicated, chemical-free living environment and mandatory support meetings for students. It creates a strong sense of community for students in recovery and makes it easier for them to reach out when they need help navigating the tricky landscape of college life.

Food Insecurity among College Students: A Growing Trend

Another issue students may face is food insecurity. It can be hard to balance the rising costs of college attendance with living expenses. After paying for tuition, books, housing, transportation and other necessities, some students have no money left over for food.

More than 42 million people in the United States live in food-insecure households, lacking sufficient access to adequate levels of nutritious food. In a recent study of food insecurity among college students, 48 percent of respondents experienced food insecurity in the previous 30 days. Food insecurity can have a major impact on a student’s academic performance. In one study, 80 percent of students felt their performance in class had been impacted by food insecurity; more than 55 percent indicated that food insecurity compromised their ability to attend classes.

One potential solution is to work with the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) to set up a food bank on campus. CUFBA has guided 400 institutions in the planning, implementation and management of campus food bank programs. Because students can be reluctant to admit they need help, it’s important to structure a campus food pantry program in a way that allows students to access it discreetly and maintain their dignity and privacy.

Meeting Students’ Needs with Welcoming Campus Communities

To ensure student success on campus, it is vital to create programs that support those who are fighting to overcome challenges that can interfere with their academic success. Identifying students in need can be a major hurdle, as students struggling with mental health, food insecurity and addiction are often reluctant to express their need for support.

It is vital to create vibrant, inclusive and engaging campus communities that give students a sense of belonging and prepare them to thrive in college and in life. Campus programs that alleviate student stresses, such as robust mental health counseling services, unique resources for students recovering from addiction and onsite food pantries, are a few examples of how colleges and universities can support student success outside of the classroom.


Barry Telford is the CEO of Universities West for Sodexo North America and the President of Sodexo Canada. A strong advocate for the new performance frontier: Quality of Life, Mr. Telford believes that great performance is driven by strong, inclusive leadership based on family and community-centered values and a commitment to serve others.   Mr. Telford serves on the Board of the Sodexo Stop Hunger FoundationToronto’s Second Harvest and the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business (CCAB).