Get to know Counseling and Psychological Services Director, Nicole Ruzek!

Nicole has been with UVA since 2012 when she started as a staff CAPS psychologist and the Groups Coordinator. In 2014, she assumed the position of Assistant CAPS Director –Clinical Director and in 2016 assumed the position of CAPS Associate Director of Counseling Services. Prior to her tenure at UVA, she served as a psychologist and research coordinator at Cal Poly University from 2006-2012.

1. The work/life pathway to where you are now, was that totally planned? Organic? Some combination?
I have always been interested in psychology. However, I had originally wanted to do research and planned to pursue the traditional academic career path. Along the way I realized something was missing. I was interested in philosophical and spiritual questions that science could not always address. I wanted a more holistic understanding of how people function – one that integrated the physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of what it means to be human. I was interested in how people make meaning, form healthy relationships, create an identity and connect with a sense of belonging and purpose beyond the self. As a result, I began reading philosophical and spiritual texts from a number of traditions.

Eventually I decided to pursue clinical work and found the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology to address many of my interests. In gaining clinical experience, I did a postdoc at a university counseling center and from there realized that working with college students was what I felt most passionate about. College is a time when people start to become the authors of their own story and begin making meaning through pursuing academics, forming relationships, and engaging in self-discovery. It is a terrific period of growth and change, and I feel honored every day to be able to help students navigate barriers, connect with their strengths, and become more fully aware and connected to an authentic sense of self.

2. What most excites you about your work at UVA?
I am excited to be leading CAPS at a time when Student Health is growing and developing new ways to provide high-quality integrated care. I think there is tremendous opportunity to help students address health concerns from a holistic, integrated perspective. We have already implemented this model with our Eating Disorder Consultation and Treatment Team. So far it has proven quite successful and has been of great benefit to students, their families, and the greater UVA community. As we move forward I hope to continue to find new ways for CAPS to interface with other departments in Student Health as well as other areas of the UVA community in order to provide care that addresses student needs in a connected, coordinated way. This ties in deeply with my philosophy that all aspects of our lives are connected and wellbeing is most possible when we take a whole-person perspective.

3. What do you find most challenging in your work either at UVA specifically or in your field generally?
As mental health clinicians we are challenged by our own success. Nation-wide utilization of counseling services at colleges and universities is outpacing increases in enrolment by 5x. Students are realizing that seeking help for mental health concerns is nothing to be ashamed of and can be extremely helpful. As such, more students are coming into CAPS seeking care. The challenge in this is being able to provide excellent care to the greatest number of students. In order to do so we need to think creatively about how we reach students and provide services. This may mean that in addition to traditional one-on-one counseling that we also increase our group offerings, consider online or mobile self-help options, engage in more outreach focused on addressing subclinical concerns, or partner with other departments to provide population-specific resources that will best meet the needs of an underserved group.

Although challenging, thinking of ways to better serve our students is something for which I feel a great deal of passion, and I look forward to working with my colleagues as well as students and families to consider how we can best make this happen.

4. Whose work (scholarly, artistic, or pop culture) inspires you to work harder or think differently?
William James has been a source of inspiration for a very long time. His studies of psychology, spirituality and consciousness allowed me to see that understanding people requires thinking from multiple perspectives. I used to keep his collected works at the ready, and when I needed a boost of inspiration I would open to a random page. Another source of inspiration is Sharon Salzburg, whose approach to compassion has been a reminder to treat myself kindly and give others the benefit of the doubt.