From the parched, enervated ground of West Africa to the verdant Oregon State University campus, Jim Gouveia has found that hope—in soil and soul—begins with the planting of a seed.
With an unlikely background in agriculture and social work, Gouveia has seen both draught and bloom, first in the land and now in the lives of OSU students. A licensed clinical social worker in OSU Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Gouveia is a staff therapist and coordinator for the Suicide Risk Reduction Program.
Last school year, 203 OSU students stated they had, at some point in their lives, attempted suicide. That figure is based on the 1,646 students who sought CAPS’ assistance. The actual number likely is much higher. Nationwide, suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students; and last year—while not all of them involved OSU students—there were four suicides on campus.
But suicide is not about statistics. It’s about people and life’s shifting contours. Matthew Keefe, 20, a food science technology major from Kentucky, is remembered for his conviction, brilliance, wit and spirited Elvis impersonation but after a weekend of alcohol, prescribed sleeping medication and a soured relationship, the National Merit scholar shot himself in his fraternity’s parking lot last October.
CAPS does not release information about patients, but contacted through social media, Keefe’s mother, Stephanie Schmitter said she has left his bedroom in tact and has kept his cell phone active, so she can call him and hear his light-hearted greeting.
“When Matthew took his own life, he took mine as I knew it,” says Schmitter. “There’s not an hour that goes by that I don’t think about my son, either with a smile, imagining what Matthew would say or do, or with a sudden stab of utter despair that I will never see him again on this earth.”
Thoughts of suicide can approach like a thief, with silent footsteps and concealed intent. Other times, its path is more methodical and recognizable. In Gouveia’s outreach work, he teaches OSU employees and students to be aware of warning signs and seek assistance.
“There are a lot of high risk groups,” Gouveia says. “You have poverty, people who grew up in poverty and are still experiencing poverty. LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning) is a high-risk group, especially bisexuals. People with trauma histories, either sexually abused or physically abused, they’re all here. It’s a sense of not belonging and being a burden.”
And so he plants seeds.
“I tell them that there are ways of alleviating suffering, and if you just stick with counseling, it can help you get there. I think that’s been a guiding post for me.”
As students arrive on campus each fall, they immediately begin searching for their new beginnings; and, almost always, they are greeted by chaos: waiting in line to unload bicycles, suitcases, boxes filled with pet photos and lamps wrapped in towels. They carry campus maps wondering which way is north. They are, literally, lost.
Classes begin, and they discover the bar has been raised. They wonder if they can meet heightened expectations, connect, overcome. They question themselves in ways they never have, and through a haze of doubt, their obstacles seem impenetrable
“Suicide is complicated, but normally suicide, especially for young people, is an irrational avoidance of what they think is a permanent problem, but it’s really a temporary problem,” Gouveia says.
Losing momentum that carried them in the past can cast students into turmoil and even peril. Gouveia’s task is to help them mine for perspective based on individual, fundamental characteristics and experiences.
“Western culture teaches how to do. It doesn’t teach us how to be. It’s when we’re stressed out that we’re all about failure. In the state of being, it’s much easier to find our place in the world, so part of what we do at CAPS is to say, ‘Who is the whole person and how do you help yourself understand the whole person?’ It’s not just about achievements. It’s an understanding of: “What are your values? How do you live? How do you feel wellness? How do you thrive?”
It’s a process of watering roots to stabilize the stalk.
His work inherently requires an ability to listen and see life through eyes of others, a process that began as a child when his parents, Portuguese immigrants, returned home from work. His mother worked seasonally in canneries, while his father was a heavy equipment operator whose exhaustion and lamentation stayed with Gouveia. While he didn’t have clear vision of his future, he knew that at day’s end he did not want to feel such emptiness and disdain.
It took some looking and some living, so Gouveia set out to discover new places, people and ways of life.
“I lived a very sheltered, fearful existence in the suburbs of California. I had not been exposed to the bigger world at all, really. It was a working class family in a working class neighborhood, but it was Silicon Valley, and there wasn’t a lot of diversity.”
That changed quickly. After earning a degree in sociology with a minor in psychology from California State University at Stanislaus in Turlock, California, he joined the Peace Corps and was stationed in Ghana, where he taught English and helped farmers learn more productive agricultural techniques.
When he returned to the United States, he pursued a master’s degree in agriculture intending to return to Ghana. He got the degree but never returned. He found himself, instead, in his father’s shadow, selling corn and sorghum seed to dairy farmers in central California—and hating it. He learned that his interest in agriculture had more to do with people than crops, so he turned back to his sociology/psychology background and received a master’s of social work at San Jose State University.
In 1987, he worked with abused children in Santa Cruz, California. In 1990, he arrived in Oregon, where he worked as a therapist for Linn County, then Children’s Farm Home, Casey Family Program, Benton County and, after working in private practice for three years, arrived at OSU in 2010.
His spouse of 35 years, Chareane Wimbley-Gouveia, a faculty member and coordinator of the Learning Center at Linn-Benton Community College, provided him with another view on life.
An African American, Wimbley-Gouveia once was chased down the street by a man screaming racist slurs, forcing her to escape into a store for protection. She was seven months pregnant at the time. Hate messages were left on their windshields, and they were denied housing.
Gouveia has learned from life what it is to feel anger, sadness and moments of desperation. The youngest of his two sons was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 14. Not long after that, Gouveia was diagnosed with leukemia, which, he says, was effectively treated and unlikely to cause further harm.
He says working with students gives him the opportunity to witness transformation in students as they pass through blizzards of pain and self-doubt. Through their lives and his, he has seen what can happen when trade winds strip the fields and students lose their ways.
The effects, he says, can be devastating, but within each seed is the possibility to overcome and the potential to flourish.
500 Snell Hall
Story and photo by Duane Noriyuki