A New Model for Campus Health: Integrating Well-Being into Campus Life

THE FOLLOWING BLOG POST IS AN EXCERPT FROM "A NEW MODEL FOR CAMPUS HEALTH" ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN LEADERSHIP EXCHANGE VOLUME FIFTEEN, ISSUE THREE, FALL 2017.


Learning how to be happy may sound more like a topic for self-help books than for college and university leaders. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy would disagree. During his tenure, he prescribed happiness—"the long-term emotional well-being that comes from fulfillment, purpose, [and] connectedness"—at presentations throughout the country, and he shared the science that supported his prescription.

While higher education has been dominated by headline-grabbing issues such as funding dilemmas and free speech protests, a quieter but more pervasive issue—student well-being—has been capturing the attention of college and university presidents, vice presidents for student affairs (VPSAs), and other administrators. The results of Great Jobs Great Lives: The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report, a study of more than 30,000 college graduates across the United States, affirmed the responsibility of higher education institutions to equip students to not just pursue better jobs, but to successfully pursue better lives. The report broke well-being into five areas: purpose, social, financial, community, and physical, and explained how student experiences on campus affect their engagement in future jobs and overall life satisfaction. As the report noted, "The odds of thriving in all areas of well-being more than double for college graduates when they feel their college prepared them well for life outside of it."

A Shared Responsibility

Being well is not a new concept. Workplace wellness initiatives have grown steadily since the 1970s. Today, stand-up desks, walking meetings, and step challenges are the norm, and companies devote entire campuses and company policies to foster well-being. Such measures, which look beyond return on investment to total value added, have proven to help increase candidate pool competitiveness and retain workers.

While higher education often lags the business sector in embracing such cultural shifts, most campuses can still point to some level of established wellness efforts, such as substance abuse education classes through the student health center or nutrition through campus recreation. In fact, according to NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation’s Institutional Data Set (IDS), the online benchmarking tool for NIRSA members that analyzes trends within collegiate recreation, 89 percent of campuses report managing at least one wellness program and 80 percent report at least one dedicated wellness space.

It makes sense that the majority of campus wellness efforts have traditionally landed in recreation departments. More than 75 percent of students on a given campus visit recreation facilities, but relegating wellness efforts to the jurisdiction of campus recreation fits with old, dated concepts of wellness. That model of wellness is concentrated in the realm of physical fitness, nutrition, and weight loss.

"If you Google Image search the word ‘wellness’, what most frequently pops up are stock photos of an apple next to colorful handheld weights, wrapped up in measuring tape," says Stacy Connell, first senior director of health initiatives at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and former associate director of university recreation at North Carolina State University (NC State). Conversely, a search for "well-being" more frequently yields images of multicolored charts and infographics highlighting its interconnected and multilayered nature.

Today, well-being encompasses the collective and interdependent combination of how people think about and experience their lives. This concept transcends any one program or departmental effort. The Gallup-Purdue Index Report found that "only 11 percent of college graduates are thriving—strong, consistent, and progressing—in all five elements of well-being. More than one in six graduates are not thriving in any of the elements." For those concerned with student development, those numbers simply are not good enough.

No one department can own an institution’s well-being efforts; every department has a responsibility to support health and well-being, and the ability to do so can make a campuswide sustainable difference. Colleges and universities are moving toward an upstream approach to well-being. As Suzy Harrington, executive director of health and well-being at Georgia Tech, described during the 2017 NIRSA Annual Conference, "upstream" is a public health concept that acknowledges that while we need to help those who are currently suffering, we must focus on preventing issues from occurring. This means helping build preventative measures—such safety nets are frequently the purview of traditional wellness models—and keeping people thriving upstream so they never approach the proverbial cliff edge.

To make progress in this area, some universities have combined efforts. At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), five departments form the health and wellness unit: Recreational Sports, Cook Counseling Center, the Schiffert Health Center, Services for Students with Disabilities, and Hokie Wellness. These departments have been reporting to one assistant vice president since 2006, capitalizing on synergies to strengthen efforts toward student well-being. Today, four of the unit’s five departments can be found under one roof: McComas Hall. Chris Wise, assistant vice president for student affairs, has noted that removing barriers and combining expertise have enabled students at Virginia Tech to more fully engage in the higher education experience, which they are unable to do if they are struggling with their health.

Georgia Tech also found success in integrating units. It created a new Office of Health and Well-Being in 2015, bringing the Campus Recreation Complex, Office of Health Initiatives, and Stamps Health Services under one umbrella. Integrating efforts has allowed staff to reach broader audiences through cross-marketing initiatives, to present a unified voice on well-being content, and to increase departmental exposure to students and employees. The sheer number of students that use campus recreation services daily and their willingness to use this asset in partnership with others have helped maximize the office’s reach and effectiveness...

Read the entire article in the latest edition of Leadership Exchange


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