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Voices of ACES Blog

Advice from Mark Layng, ACES Embedded Counselor

Mark Layng, ACES Embedded Counselor

ACES embedded counselor offers tailored support for students

Mark Layng, embedded counselor in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, has a passion for helping people and an incredible journey that brought him around the world and back to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.  

After graduating from Kansas State University with a degree in sociology, Layng worked with church youth groups, where he came to the realization that he wanted to further his education. He obtained a master’s degree in counseling and went on to work in various settings, including an in-patient drug and alcohol program, a private organization, and his own not-for-profit, helping people in their unique journeys towards healing. He also spent fourteen years in Beijing, China, working with ex-pats from different cultures and backgrounds. 

Embedded counselors are part of the U. of I.’s Counseling Center but dedicated to specific colleges across campus. As the ACES counselor, Layng focuses on supporting ACES students with their unique challenges.

Layng encourages every student to seek assistance to learn more about their mental and emotional health. College is a vulnerable time, and we can all feel lonely, but “this is an opportunity where you don’t have to be on your own to grow and change,” he says.

Asking for help can be difficult and you probably have a lot of questions. Here are some answers from Layng: 

How do I know when I need to come talk to someone? 

“Are you breathing? Are you alive?... then you need to see somebody.” You don’t have to come from a state of tragedy, but you may never have had the opportunity to grow in this area of your life. 

As Layng asks, “Have you ever received a structured class where you can grow in your emotions and learn how to manage them?” More than likely, the answer is no. Students often come into college with little training about mental health or how to manage their emotions in daily life. 

What services does the counseling service offer? 

All ACES students are encouraged to utilize the counseling center services, including workshops, one-on-one sessions, and group therapy.

The counseling center can help find the best fit for you. Your first step could be a short, 15-minute meeting with Layng where you will talk about where you are and explore the best course of action.

Layng reaches students throughout every step of their college career. Before they even set foot on campus in August, he spends 5 minutes with incoming students who are registering throughout the summer to help them get them into the mindset of “this could be an opportunity where I could grow and develop myself in the direction I want to go,” he says.

During their first year, Layng teaches students about the difference between pressure and stress, and how to handle the changes that college brings. The following year, he helps students understand three primary motivators – fear, desire, and passion. “Our strength comes from our passion and our values,” he notes. During students’ final years at the university, he tailors lessons to a specific class or student to help them in their unique battles. 

How can I manage stress during finals season?

It is easy to get caught up in studying, studying, studying, because we perceive this as the best way to prepare for a big test. Layng explains it is important to just breathe during stressful times.

Breathing consists of inhaling and exhaling. You can’t do one, if you don’t do the other. In this analogy, inhaling represents the necessary things that keep us going like eating, sleeping, and exercising. Exhaling is studying. Try breathing out for just a minute without taking any air in. That is uncomfortable and unhealthy. Instead of putting off healthy habits like eating well, staying active, and getting enough sleep, it is important to find time to inhale when all you can think about is exhaling. 

Test anxiety is a common culprit, stealing good grades away from people who deserve them. “Anxiety has you living in the future,” Layng notes. To take the test that is sitting in front of you, you have to find a way to be thinking in the present. What are five things that you see in the room right now? This simple task can help ground you in the moment and is not only useful on tests, but any time you are overthinking about the future and forgetting about where you are right now. 

“What we have found is that if student practices the method at the beginning of the test it helps them get through their initial anxiety and they are better able to focus on the test rather than their fear”, Layng says. “Which allows their mind to produce results from what it has been taught regarding the test material”, he continues.

Furthermore, “Doing this with one test doesn’t develop a new habit of reduced anxiety and so the student may be anxious on the next test and have to continue with the practice of mindfulness. After a season of practice they may be able to enter a test without/or reduced the anxiety when taking the test,” Layng concluded. 

I feel like I need to be studying all the time, how should I find that balance? 

Prioritize what makes you joyful and take a break from studying or working to build relationships. “A break” commonly implies you stopped, but a break is like breathing. It is necessary. If we continue to hold back from finding relationships or seeking out fun activities, our body rebels and this can commonly show up as depressed moods and feelings of being helpless, alone, or isolated. “Balance allows us to live how we were designed to live,” Layng concludes.

Mark finds his own balance and peace in the outdoors, gardening, working on home-improvement projects, and playing disc golf. He continues to be passionate about his job and grateful for the opportunity to make a positive impact on others every day. 

ACES students wishing to receive counseling from Layng can send him an email at or call the Counseling Center and ask for him at 217-333-3703.