Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center has been ranked No. 1 for Best Counseling Services in the 2021 edition of the Princeton Review’s Best 386 Colleges.

According to a Princeton Review announcement of the 29th annual college rankings, Best Counseling Services is a new category that “names the colleges at which students most highly rated their school's mental health counseling services. The Cook Counseling Center is staffed by more than 40 mental health practitioners including doctors, therapists, and counselors.

“The ranking is meaningful particularly because it comes from the students,” said Ellie Sturgis, director for Cook Counseling Center. “We have excellent staff members who work really hard to be available for students. Our staff love their work and their clients and this shows. And support from the university shows. Virginia Tech clearly values the mental health of our students.”

Frank Shushok, vice president for student affairs, views Cook Counseling Center as a leader in the effort to build a campus culture of well-being. “There are so many hopes we have for our students, none more important than equipping them with skills to build lives of well-being.” Shushok said. “When we do this well, our graduates not only take good care of themselves, they take good care of others around them. This brings to life our motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), in the most practical of ways.”

Virtually every year for the past decade, Cook Counseling Center has had double-digit increases in the number of students seeking services and in the number of appointments provided to students. The center has added counselors and psychiatric professionals to meet demand. In the past five years, Cook Counseling Center has added 16 professional staff. 

“I am extremely grateful to the administration of Virginia Tech for being supportive of the counseling center and for adding resources,” said Christopher Flynn, executive director of Mental Health Initiatives at Virginia Tech. Flynn was director of Cook Counseling Center from 2006 to 2019. He now leads the campus-wide implementation strategy related to the recommendations from the 2019 Mental Health Task Force report.

“I believe that Cook Counseling Center is ranked No. 1 because of student involvement in the planning and development of resources for students – so my deep thanks go to the Hokies who ranked Cook so highly. The students appreciated the very hard work of each and every member of the Cook Counseling Center staff, including administrative support staff, counselors from every mental health field, and the psychiatry team – the ranking is really recognition of their efforts and commitment to students,” said Flynn.

Chris Wise, assistant vice president for health and wellness, provides leadership to diverse departments with a primary goal of integrating health and wellness into everyday life at Virginia Tech. Wise cites Cook’s staff dedication and willingness to be creative in how they work with students. 

“We were one of the first campus counseling centers to offer pet therapy," Wise said. "We were also innovative in yoga class counseling, resource workshops, and group interventions around common challenges and opportunities for college students. We developed a peer education program that provided outreach to the entire student body and more targeted outreach to specific communities. But the one thing that will always make Cook Counseling Center the best in my eyes, is the people who work there. They care so deeply for our students and put others first in multiple ways to help students become successful in their daily lives.”

Cook Counseling Center offers group, individual, and couple’s therapy; workshops; trainings for students, faculty, and staff; and presentations on campus. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the center has moved to a telehealth model in which staff meet with clients virtually.

“We were fearful that telehealth would not allow us to be as effective,” said Sturgis. “However, we have discovered that it is possible to develop the therapeutic relationship and trust that were possible in the in-person sessions. While we would prefer to be sitting across from students, the telehealth platform has worked well. Many students have said that they actually prefer this mode for therapy and hope we will continue to offer it when the pandemic is over.”

The Princeton Review college rankings are entirely based on surveys of college students, who rate their schools on dozens of topics and report on their campus experiences exclusively for the project. The ranking lists are based on surveys of 143,000 students at the 386 colleges in the book.

“The Princeton Review is a gold standard feedback loop precisely because it represents the student voices above all else,” said Shushok. “For Cook Counseling Center, success is measured by our students’ success. They’re tireless, empathetic, student-centered, and relentless in their commitment to student well-being and mental health. They didn’t just get lucky. Cook Counseling Center had a clear vision, a thoughtful and ambitious plan, and an abiding commitment to students and their well-being. I don’t know of a university counseling center doing better work than our Cook team — and I’m glad our students saw this too.”

In addition to the #1 ranking for Best Counseling Services, Virginia Tech came in at #7 for Their Students Love These Colleges, #8 for Best Campus Food, and #15 for Town-Gown Relations are Great.

The Best 386 Colleges is one of 150 Princeton Review books published by Penguin Random House.

— Written by Sandy Broughton