Blazing His Own Trail: James Cox, director of Pitt’s Counseling Center, helps students find their roads to success

Issue Date: 
February 22, 2010
James CoxJames Cox

James Cox has traversed a variety of paths in life, beginning with his childhood in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a globe-trotting trip at age 16, service in the U.S. military, and earning three academic degrees. He eventually returned to Pittsburgh, where he is now director of the Counseling Center within the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Student Affairs.

Cox’s professional responsibilities are considerable. He supervises a 25-person staff comprising a psychiatrist, psychologists, social workers, clerical personnel, part-time therapists, and interns. In addition, Cox’s office provides a full range of mental-health services for students with personal and emotional problems as well as career and academic concerns.

Cox arrived at his current position following an impressive array of work and professional experiences. He served in the U.S. Army, was stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as a psychiatric specialist, and worked as a professional counselor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and at Duquesne University. He was employed as a therapist for insurer HealthAmerica and also worked as a private practitioner for a time. He joined Pitt in 1992, became the associate director of Pitt’s Counseling Center in 1999, and assumed the center’s directorship in 2003.

From his office in the William Pitt Union, Cox helps Pitt students understand that there are many roads to success—some are straight, while others have detours; some are traditional, while others break the mold.

“I believe that some of my most meaningful lessons in life come as a result of life experiences outside the classroom, such as marriage, the military, traveling to foreign lands, family, and spiritual beliefs,” he said.

Cox received a bachelor’s degree in social science from Excelsior College, a master’s degree in counseling education from Pitt’s School of Education in 1984, and a master’s degree in social work from Pitt’s School of Social Work in 1990. He also holds an advanced certificate in labor and industrial social work.

The seeds of knowledge about the necessity of a good education were planted by Cox’s father, the late Rev. James A. Cox, a minister and educator who graduated from Pitt’s School of Education in 1947. The elder Cox wanted his children to expand their horizons, and for his son James, that opportunity came during the summer before his senior year at Schenley High School.

During his high school years, Cox worked at the Centre Avenue YMCA in the Hill District. In the summer of 1967, he participated in a YMCA program that allowed him to travel to the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Alaska.

It was a formative time for the 16-year-old Cox. There were new sights to behold in new countries—and riots and antiwar protests in his own country. “I saw the newspapers when I was away, and there were pictures of tanks in the streets,” he recalled. “People questioned me about why the United States was fighting in Vietnam and why there were riots. I thought it was propaganda against the United States.”

It wasn’t until Cox returned home to the Hill District that he realized the riots and protests had really occurred. He was shocked to learn that the store in his neighborhood, where he had worked his first job at 14, had been burned to the ground during the riots.

“I realized that racial problems were much bigger in the United States than I had imagined. I guess I was naive and in denial. I was changed positively and negatively by this experience. I never saw things the same after that trip and that time,” he added.

Cox’s family moved to Harrisburg, Pa., during his senior year of high school, and after graduation, he entered George Williams College, a small liberal arts college in Downers Grove, Ill. He left school after two-and-a-half years and returned to Harrisburg to work at the YMCA. Soon after, he married and joined the U.S. Army. He also served three years in the Pennsylvania National Guard. Cox achieved the rank of staff sergeant before his honorable discharge in 1983.

Cox said he’s had many mentors along the way, among them Penny Crary (EDUC ’70G), a former Pitt Counseling Center director who recruited him to Pitt, and Grady Roberts (EDUC ’74G, GSPH ’71G, SOC WK ’65G), a retired associate dean and professor in Pitt’s School of Social Work, whom Cox met while serving on a Pennsylvania College Personnel Association committee.

“I had been thinking about getting a PhD in psychology and becoming a licensed mental health professional,” said Cox, explaining that social workers had gained licensure around that time. “Grady Roberts convinced me to come to Pitt’s School of Social Work.”

Cox said he really enjoys counseling students. “Students wrestle with a number of issues,” he said. “They are anxious about their futures and worry about them from the time they come to the University until they leave.”

Cox said he feels that it’s important to have balance in one’s life and imparts that advice to those he counsels.

The golf clubs in the corner of his office are not just for decoration. Cox, an avid golfer, chips balls at Mazeroski Field during lunchtime if the weather is nice.

“It’s important to take care of yourself,” said Cox. “If you’re advising students and clients to have balance in their lives, it’s important to be a good role model.”

Cox volunteers in the counseling ministry at Mt. Ararat Baptist Church, where he is a member. He also helps with Pitt’s Reaching Inside Your Soul for Excellence (RISE) program, an intervention program to improve the University’s retention and graduation rates.

“I am blessed to have the life I live and to have the people I have in my life,” said Cox. “It’s interesting to see how life changes. My grandmother didn’t have the opportunities that my father had. Young people might not realize that others blazed trails to make things possible for them.”

Cox said that today’s students feel like they have to go to college even when they don’t really know what they want to do.

“Students who are artistic and have a lot of talent often don’t get support because what they want to do is viewed as not being practical,” said Cox, pointing out that his brother is a happy and successful musician living in Nashville.

“Being happy is not always measured by how much money you make or how many degrees you have,” he concluded.