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60 Seconds with Kelly McConkey ’08

Mental health counselor, NC State Counseling Center

Photography by Marc Hall ’20 MA, NC State

Kelly McConkey was honored in 2023 as the national College Counselor of the Year by the American College Counseling Association. She was recognized, among other things, for reaching out to different groups on campus and for incorporating the arts into some of her counseling sessions.

Why did you make a career out of counseling? I’ve been dealing with anxiety since the third grade, and I’ve had amazing therapists throughout my life who have helped me. It never dawned on me that I could be a therapist until I moved to New York and took a class with a former therapist. It started hitting me that this was something that would be meaningful.

Talk about incorporating art into your work. When I’m struggling with things, I use art as a coping mechanism and a healing device. Expressive art therapy incorporates all the different art forms — visual arts, narrative therapy, drama therapy, movement. It’s a unique therapeutic practice, with evidence that it truly helps.

The last few years have been difficult for many students at NC State and other universities. Why are so many students struggling? The world is tough right now, between social and political issues and divisions and a worldwide pandemic, which I believe created a trauma response in so many people. Isolation, being kept away from friends and family, not being able to develop those social skills for some students. Being thrown back into a university of 35,000 people can be extremely overwhelming. Identity concerns play a role in it for many students.

How does social media contribute to that? You are inundated by what’s going on in the world around you, and the media focuses a lot on the not-so-great things that are happening. So students are constantly getting these messages that the world around them is dangerous. And they compare themselves to each other constantly. Everybody else is posting these pictures where they’re happy, they’re with friends, things are so great, but I don’t feel that way. Everybody has their stuff, but social media makes it seem like they don’t. So we’re constantly feeling like we’re a problem, like there’s something wrong with us.

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