Ashley Vanstone, the new SGS Graduate Counsellor.
Grad Students Get a New Counsellor
by Sharday Mosurinjohn
Ashley Vanstone has become Queen’s School of Graduate Studies’ (SGS) first embedded counselor. The brand new position is funded for two years—including summer months.
In this role, Vanstone is pleased to be “one more person on campus who can see students for counseling,” and is especially excited to “specialize in working with a diverse and interesting student group.” It is a privileged group, recognizes Vanstone, but also one with its own vulnerabilities, including financial constraints, the possibility for problematic relationships with supervisors, and the stresses of academic life at grad school. “The tension between having adult responsibilities while ‘still being at school’ poses a really interesting set of challenges to work with,” he says.
Vanstone himself has studied and worked at Queen’s since 2004, beginning with his Master’s in Psychology under the supervision of Dr. Lola Cuddy in the Music Cognition Lab, where he is also about to finish his PhD dissertation. His training has been in the Clinical Psychology stream within the Psychology Department. Students in this program not only complete coursework and conduct their own original research, but gain hundreds of hours in practicum work, preparing them for clinical practice. “The capstone of clinical training is the internship year,” explains Vanstone, which he completed with a consortium of different services within the Queen’s community.
Vanstone also worked for three years in a role similar to this one in the Queen’s commerce program. There, he explored ways to realize mental health resources to the fullest. “The program staff were fully on board,” recalls Vanstone. “Demand for service skyrocketed, and there was lots of helpful cross-talk between me and the front-line program staff—subject, of course, to rigorous privacy standards.”
Students who sought Vanstone’s services had the option to give consent for him to talk directly to their instructors or program staff if they thought doing so would be advantageous in working toward their academic and personal wellbeing. The same is true for his services through the SGS. “I have the privilege of serving within the SGS unit in a consultation and program development role. At the same time, when I am in a counselling relationship with a student, that person’s dignity and wellbeing are my foremost concerns.”
Students check in at SGS reception desk for the first appointment, describes Vanstone, but their files don’t move past the reception desk. “Academic staff don’t have access to who I’m seeing,” he emphasizes. “And I don’t access their student records, either. This is important because, understandably, students in academic difficulty may want to keep their cards close to their chest.” All client records are kept with HCDS, separate from student records.
Currently, Vanstone’s office is located on the 3rd floor of Gordon Hall below SGS offices. Renovations will soon be happening to bring it up into the same office suite. For professional development and clinical supervision purposes, he works with Queen’s Health Counseling and Disability Services (HCDS).
Vanstone clarifies that his role is not as a lobbyist to take student concerns and lobby for change at a systemic level—this is the job of the SGPS student advisors. “My role involves research—piloting and demonstrating the effectiveness of this new model of service. I think of it as a case study in how this kind of service could be effective for graduate students,” reflects Vanstone, “and as an opportunity for identifying other possible initiatives.”
Prior to becoming an SGS counselor, Vanstone’s own research has been in the area of music psychology. He earned a B.Mus. with a focus on piano at Brandon University in Manitoba, where he grew up. His decision to later pursue psychology was, to hear him tell it, a bit “random.” “I had a job in the music library,” he remembers, “and it subscribed to a journal called Music Perception. I was intrigued that you could study music through psychology, using the tools of behavioural neuroscience to look at music.”
Vanstone “finally” took a psychology course in his fifth undergraduate year. At this time he also had a job working with adults with developmental disabilities, using music activities to bring out musical behaviour as a mode of connection. “I loved it,” he says. “And I got an A+ in the psych course at the same time as I got a D in organic chemistry, so that was a clear indication of what type of learning I was suited for.”
Completing a second undergrad in psychology at York in just two years taught him the value of having clear goals. “As a slightly more seasoned student I had the confidence to talk to my professors about common interests,” Vanstone observes. He also got involved in the psychology students’ association, first as the PR person—in a brand new school, no less—and then as president. “I was fortunate also to develop a kind of mentorship with some of the grad students, as well,” he notes with gratitude.
Coincidentally, when he arrived at Queen’s to work with Dr. Cuddy, she had taken over editorship of the journal that had first sparked Vanstone’s interest in the discipline. The two have spent the last several years researching how people with damage to some of the brain’s structures used to process music, like Alzheimer’s patients, are able to continue engaging enjoyably with music.
The hypothesis is that there is a lot of redundancy in musical information, so we can tolerate a certain amount of static or loss in the signal. This is perhaps a ramped up version of what we do when we listen to speech on the telephone, or in a crowded café. There is a lot of overlap in how our brains process music and speech, he explains, yet there are some important differences. In both scenarios, Vanstone’s research posits, we also use a wide variety of cues—localization cues, visual cues, visual and nonverbal cues, contextual cues, and prior knowledge. Vanstone’s “best guess right now is that listening to music can still be a meaningful experience, even if we’ve experienced declines in our ability to process it.”
In this transition from Queen’s student to SGS employee, Vanstone is “happy to be staying in Kingston.” The city has “become home for me after my time in grad school,” he says, and he and his partner enjoy living downtown. Vanstone has been active in the community, volunteering on the board of directors of Reelout Film + Video Festival, and cofounding a group called SWAY, “a collective for interdisciplinary performance theatre” with two other recent Queen’s grads.
Vanstone says he is encouraged by the SGS’ interest in promoting student wellbeing. Committed to creating a supportive and non–judgmental space for his clients, he is also happy to take some of the load off HCDS. Vanstone can be reached through the Queen’s Counseling Service at 613-533-2136 (32136)