Student Affairs

Reflections with Raquel: Contreras Looks Back on Career with Counseling and Psychological Services


Raquel Contreras joined the Clemson Family in 2002 after working her way up the ranks in psychological services at Texas Tech University. Following a tenure as training director, she served as director of psychological services at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, specifically for the pain clinic in the anesthesiology department. Her clinical and administrative experiences led her to Clemson, where she became director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) — a position she held for the past 18 ½ years.

Contreras is retiring at the end of February. She recently joined us for a look back on her extensive and highly accomplished career at Clemson.

Q: You joined Counseling and Psychological Services in 2002, and at the time there were about seven clinicians on staff. How do you look back at those early years with CAPS?

Raquel Contreras, Clemson University’s director of Counseling and Psychological Services since 2002, is retiring at the end of February.

Contreras: It’s really interesting, because I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting and life review of sorts. Back in 2002 when I first came, we had seven full-time staff, one administrative support staff and three doctoral-level interns. We had several part-time employees we hired on an hourly basis. We were busy then trying to meet the demands of the students at a time where the enrollment was lower. By comparison, the enrollment has increased, and we continue to work to meet the demand. We have grown as an institution, and the need for the infrastructure to grow along with the people (staff, faculty and students) is evident. At present, we have 20 full-time clinicians (we currently have two vacancies), but we really have 22 on staff. So, we’re looking at a much larger staff.

These are people that are here and are dedicated to their jobs. It calls for a different level of commitment than just part-time staff. This is their primary job. We have Psychiatric Services with one full-time psychiatrist and a second telepsychiatrist through a partnership we entered with MUSC. Back then, we only had a part-time psychiatrist. We have one dedicated nurse, two administrative support staff and one part-time counselor. We’ve grown our training programs. We are a very proud of CAPS as a training site. We have doctoral psychology internship training, with three interns each year. It’s accredited by the American Psychological Association and it sets the stage for the other training programs.

We’ve come a long way; I’ve seen the commitment of the staff come into focus. Our dedicated staff are caring and do the work that involves looking at the emotional distress of students. I am amazed to see what they do, day in and day out. We may have a rough day, only to come back the next morning to do it all over again with a smile. They are committed to our students! Over 18.5 years I’ve been here — like I said, I’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing — that’s a really rewarding way to think about it.

Q: Demand for mental health services is at an all-time high at higher education institutions. Can you give us an idea of how the demand has increased throughout the years at Clemson?

Contreras: Generally speaking, I think we — as a field — have made great strides in raising awareness about mental health. We’ve also worked very directly on lowering the stigma associated with accessing care. We are seeing students entering higher education with the expectations that there will be resources available to them. I’m proud of how systematic we’ve been in raising awareness. Clemson has joined some of the national awareness campaigns for eating disorders, relationship violence and suicide prevention — to name a few. When people that have been in treatment or in therapy come out and make statements — particularly models our students look up to — it adds to the students’ willingness to be able to come in and begin addressing their own needs. The demand has increased. The University has responded to the needs of the students and we’ve added resources and still need more. Of importance is the fact that students regain hope and desire to improve their lives. This is not the time to go hide and live in dysfunction. Students are coming in and taking advantage of the services we provide. But on the other hand, we’ve also seen advances in psychotropic medications that allow students to lead successful lives and take on the challenges of higher education. It’s really good to see that we’ve taken positive steps.

Q: CAPS provides Clemson students with a continuum of services, from the lowest levels of severity to extreme cases. How has this range of services expanded during your tenure?

Contreras speaks to a student alongside another clinician, Dr. Nick White, from Counseling and Psychological Services.

Contreras: When we first started, we had one specialized program for substance abuse. It was very effective and the providers on that treatment team were very dedicated, their hearts were in it and they did a lot of assessment and intervention. It was a very active program. What we’ve done is expanded the clinical teams concept and have grouped services under 13 programs. To name a few, we have a specialty program for relationship and sexual violence known as CU CARES. We have an Eating Disorder Program that addresses eating disorders from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Group services has grown and, in addition to group therapy, we offer psychoeducational workshops, some time-limited groups and some that last an entire semester to address their needs. So much of what we do is in relationships. What better way to work on your issues than in a group? We have a continuum of services we can tailor and recommend to the student when we assess their needs. Some are toward the lower end, some are higher risk to themselves or others. We have adopted a stepped care model of service delivery. The concept is not new, but the framework is. It allows us to lean on theory and be more formal in our thinking to do what is in the best interest of the student. We decide the treatment level, the “step” for entry into care that allows the student the most autonomy in the least-intensive environment. It takes a strengths-based perspective, where we focus on what the student has already been doing and builds on it to increase effectiveness and lower distress. The stepped care model allows us to do that in a systematic, collaborative manner. It’s good to see the continuum of services has become more structured and we’re more effective in our pairing of a student with the appropriate treatment level.

Q: You recently announced your retirement from CAPS and your final day serving as director will be February 28. As you look back on your career, what are your fondest memories?

Contreras cited relationships and connections made with colleagues among her fondest professional memories.

Contreras: All of my memories have something to do with relationships. I remember my connections with CAPS staff, staff from other departments and with my administration here in Student Health Services. I made friends with the janitors who cleaned the building, because I was often here after hours. Outside of Student Health Services, I recall my connections to higher administration, faculty and staff. I have enjoyed my connections, even if less formal — such as the brief contact with the person who served me coffee and bagels at Hendrix Student Center. Those are experiences that emphasize my need to connect on a meaningful level. Those are my fondest memories. I look at the need to connect pretty strongly. Looking back, that’s really the common thread that cuts across my journey — my connections and relationships across the board. Of paramount importance is also the therapeutic relationship I have formed with my clients. These are rewarding in the sense that students come in at a point of need and allow me into their lives. We do the work and then they carry on; this has provided for great satisfaction.

Q: What are you most proud of from a professional standpoint?

Contreras: I would say CAPS being established as a training site. I started my career as a training director at a previous university. That really molded my thinking of how we could train emerging psychologists and counselors in the process of delivering services. In some ways, therapy is a craft, an art and a profession that can simultaneously be both challenging and rewarding. To have developed our center as a reputable training site, it’s the thing that stands out to me. When I first came to CAPS, we had a doctoral internship program, as I mentioned earlier. But, it was not accredited. The accreditation by the American Psychological Association is the gold standard for training doctoral-level trainees in psychology. For a site to become accredited takes strategic planning and staff cooperation. We worked on it as soon as I came in. We had administrative support both within Redfern and from higher administration. We were accredited within the first three years I was here. That was monumental. After that, we added the counseling internship for master’s students and eventually the undergraduate internship. Most recently, we added the post-doctoral fellowship in conjunction with the Athletics department. We have the entire continuum in our training programs. That’s my proudest professional achievement. Of course, none of this could have been accomplished without everyone’s support — especially CAPS staff. It literally takes a village!

Q: What is next for you?

Contreras: I am not quite ready to spend five days a week golfing and hiking (laughs). I want to do a lot more of that and hope I get to do some hiking. I’m not a golfer. I look for meaning in whatever I do. I plan to relocate closer to my daughter and son-in-law in Columbia. That’s the plan, to lay low and play the retired role for several months. Thereafter, I plan to get back to Texas and work for a few years; if I work 40 hours a week, it’ll be like cutting back. I’m looking forward to doing a lot of clinical work; I love being part of people’s changes. In the short run, I look forward to getting up without setting the alarm. I think I’ll enjoy that.