Congratulations to International Student Services (ISS) Life Management Counselor Denise Contreras for receiving a Graduate & Professional Student Council (GPSC) Achievement Award in the category of Outstanding Administrative Advocate for Graduate/Professional Students!
Contreras is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) for the State of Arizona and is part of a Campus Health Counseling & Psych Services (CAPS) initiative that embeds counselors full-time in UArizona colleges and departments where there is a unique and recognized need for specific support.
Each year, the GPSC recognizes graduate and professional students, staff, and faculty who have made outstanding contributions to the campus and, in particular, to graduate education. In addition to the hundreds of undergraduate students at UArizona there are many international graduate students on campus, and some of them have partners, are parents, or may be caregivers. These students and their families benefit from the additional support Contreras offers in the form of life management counseling.
“Denise has worked tirelessly to build a community with staff and faculty to help them better support international students,” said Joanne Lagasse-Long, director of International Student Services. “This award is a testament to her efforts on behalf of all students.”
Until recently, UArizona did not have a counselor exclusively serving the international student population, but with the growth of international students on campus, there was a recognized need for someone with a specific focus. Contreras came to the International Student Services team in May of 2022, and immediately began attending virtual orientations and other ISS functions to make herself visible and available to students.
“Denise is working above and beyond to reach and support the students and staff. Her soft and gentle demeanor helps students feel comfortable and supported,” said Lagasse-Long.
Now Contreras works alongside ISS staff to ensure that international students are supported in all aspects of their educational journey at the University of Arizona. From providing tips on how to best work with students to being available for last-minute student consultations and developing a referral process for students to work with CAPS, Contreras always goes the extra mile. This may mean staying late to help a student in need or organizing an emergency group meeting to discuss international events.
“Supporting international students is often more than just the issues they are dealing with,” said Contreras. “Anything that happens in international news may bring about new concerns. There are country and culture-specific dynamics at play, and we must listen carefully and try to understand with sensitivity the nuances of these dynamics.”
Contreras, alongside the CAPS team, is dedicated to helping students thrive, supporting students in this time of tremendous growth, experimentation, and change. Managing school, current events, daily living, and personal growth can be challenging and overwhelming for many students, especially those from abroad, who are also adjusting to a new country and culture.
What Contreras offers students is validation that their experience is real, and a safe and confidential place to explore it. “According to the American Counseling Association, providing international students specifically with a person-centered approach and cognitive behavior therapy are effective approaches to how cultural factors are influential in the counseling process,” she said. “I utilize their areas of study at the U of A, being fully present, and aware that in order for change, I must be ready to receive the client and in return, the client must feel understood and received by the therapist. The collaboration is specific to their needs and my responsibility is to educate myself on the stigma with counseling, student self-disclosure and confidentiality, and language competence.”
In this supportive environment, Contreras ensures that students can freely express themselves and collaboratively develop personalized plans, fostering their growth and authenticity.
“My goal, through life management counseling,” Contreras says, “is to provide a space for students to feel understood and received by me as I am a representation of my work and of CAPs. Students can be assured that confidentiality and privacy are key factors and that integrated cross-cultural knowledge provides my framework for genuineness, empathy, and acceptance within a counseling setting. It is a privilege to work with international students because these students and their culture continue to enrich our local community on and off campus.”