Austin Peay State University (APSU)
Clarksville, TN – The survivors were ushered into a large room where they sat in groups, trying to figure out what just happened. One young woman simply cried, unable to control herself.
When family members arrived, the lack of information led to shouting matches, and a group of counseling graduate students, trying to offer help, quickly found themselves overwhelmed.
“Because they’re all in the same room and emotions are high, people get loud,” Dr. Kim Coggins, Austin Peay State University assistant professor of psychological sciences and counseling, said. “You get lots of personalities in a group, and you have to know how to manage that.”
The crisis that evening was only a training exercise, designed to mimic the aftermath of a school shooting. Coggins wanted to prepare her counseling graduate students for disaster and crisis situations, but she also wanted the chaos of that type of environment to feel real. Her students wouldn’t get the full benefit by having their peers pretend they’d experienced a traumatic event.
“In the counseling program, they’re friends, and they already know what counselors are trying to do,” she said. “I thought acting students would be much better at being real people and responding in real ways.”
That’s why Coggins contacted Talon Beeson, assistant professor of acting/directing, and earlier this month, students from two different APSU colleges – the College of Arts and Letters and the College of Behavioral and Health Sciences – met in the Morgan University Center for the disaster training exercise.
“I train my students to disrupt. That is the goal. Be real, be alive, disrupt the scenario,” Beeson said. “It was purely improv for them.”
When Coggins contacted the theatre professor, he knew his students could help, but he also saw the experience as something they could take with them in their future careers as actors.
“This is a viable way for an actor to make money, to pretend to be in a disaster scenario or help with medical diagnosing,” he said. “There are lots of ways to make money as an actor, and you have to use all of them. If you don’t have experience doing them, you might be afraid of them, so I said, ‘let’s get it out of the way now.’”
“The skills they learned will be very good for quick crisis interventions,” she said. “They may never directly intervene after a disaster, but they’re likely to lead groups with different personalities. They were surprised by what they were able to do, and identified areas they weren’t prepared for.”
This is the second year the two different colleges collaborated on the disaster training. Both Coggins and Beeson see the partnership continuing, with the idea of collecting data and expanding their research in this field.
For information on Austin Peay’s counseling graduate program, visit www.apsu.edu/mscounseling
For information on Austin Peay’s Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theatre and dance, visit www.apsu.edu/theatre-dance/