Cultivating Wellness: Educating College Students for Life

John Sexton / December 16, 2016

In early November, the Mary Christie Foundation brought together 24 college presidents representing a cross-section of American higher education to New York University for a conversation on "New Thinking on Student Health and Wellness.” The expectation was that these leaders would exchange information, and a fair amount of angst, about the health, wellness, and behavioral and psychological issues of their students. Instead, the conversation quickly turned to a much broader – and much more fundamental – topic, as the presidents used the forum to articulate what they viewed as the central role of wellness in the education of college students (especially "coming of age" traditional students) for joyful, fulfilling, and useful lives.

Rising rates of stress-related illness, depression, isolation, and fear among millennials, often leading to manifestations like poor academic performance, eating and behavioral disorders, substance abuse, or other destructive behaviors are part of the landscape of higher education today. In many cases, institutional principles such as freedom of speech, campus civility, privacy, and safety have been implicated, igniting emotional conversations in schools across the country. And the divisive narrative of the national election only exacerbated the situation on campuses.

Against this backdrop, it was heartening to witness the commitment to students and their wellbeing expressed by the presidents at the Mary Christie Foundation Colloquium. It was inspiring to hear how they were focused on preparation for a balanced and healthy life as a core element of the education provided to every student. This group of leaders was second to none in advocating for aggressive efforts to address the pain and suffering often found on campuses; yet, they emphasized with equal enthusiasm the need for greater attention to educating the "whole student" for a good life and as a corollary to advancing wellness on their campuses.

These college presidents not only got it, they owned it. In comment after comment, the presidents at the colloquium embraced both their responsibilities for and their influence over the psychological, emotional, and behavioral health of their students. They did not ask: "How do we best react to incidents involving student health and wellness?" Rather, the question of the day was: "How do we do more to inculcate in our students the habits of life and wellbeing that will help them build the lives that they deserve?”

Joel Seligman, president of the University of Rochester asked early on: “How can we create a campus climate where people feel more secure, more comfortable talking about issues, and more able to deal with the problems associated with growing up? Even in happy lives, there are grim moments. If we are to help our students create the former, we must teach them how to handle the latter." He then went on to posit that such a campus climate would best thrive if colleges and universities embraced, as a core element of their mission, attention to wellness as a fundamental element of a joyful and successful life.

This view struck a chord with the other presidents. Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College, noted that much of the public conversation around colleges and universities focuses narrowly on career preparation. And there was a time, he said, when thinking on campus reflected this narrow view. But, he continued, we now know that a narrow education is just that: narrow. If a college or university wishes truly to educate its students, it must address the whole student. In the short term, the wellness of every student affects the ability of every student to learn and, in the long term, it affects the ability of every graduate to use what has been learned to construct a good and useful life.

Some schools, particularly religious institutions, have an explicit mandate to develop the “mind, body, and soul” – the very essence of wellness. But this attention to the whole person proved more pervasive than the casual observer might think. In a very moving moment at the colloquium, the former chancellor of the University of Missouri, Brady Deaton, recited from memory the 4-H Pledge he had been taught as a boy: "I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living for my club, my community, my country, and my world." There was consensus in the room that the colleges and universities of the twenty-first century, whether religious or secular, must attend to developing such an ethos and the skills to live by it.

As the presidents embraced this point, several emphasized its particular importance at minority-serving schools and schools with truly diverse populations. Moreover, as greater numbers of international students appear on campus and as more and more institutions strive to make higher education still more broadly available, the pressure on the services that create community and wellness will increase. This, of course, will present challenges; but if met, these challenges will be revealed as opportunities, for students at colleges or universities who succeed will learn both the advantages that flow from living in a diverse community (better, a community of communities) and the skills to maintain those advantages throughout life. Every student must learn the skills to turn the challenge of a complex world into an opportunity: Though the needs of a minority student may be different from those of an international student, or of a student who comes from a homogeneous background, or of a student wrestling with a psychological issue, every student shares the reality that his or her wellness is fundamental to his or her ability to thrive in school and, ultimately, in life.

One strong theme that emerged from the discussion was the idea that young adults at critical periods of their development can be well served by communities that offer a shared purpose and a sense of belonging. Robert Berdahl, who formerly led the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Oregon and the Association of American Universities, noted this has been a finding of studies of the young men and women serving in the military who work alongside one another in an environment of shared commitment to something beyond themselves. Referencing Sebastian Junger's book "Tribe," Berdahl pointed out that psychological problems most often occurred for veterans when returning to a highly individualized society where tribe support no longer existed. The value of connectedness and community as an important element for college men and women of a similar age bears consideration.

James Wagner, president emeritus of Emory University, suggested that colleges and universities seeking to build community should meet students where they are – for example, seizing opportunities found in activism.

“Students engaged in protests are seeking to serve something bigger than themselves,” he said. “We should be pulling upon that noble sense rather than pushing back."

The presidents, drawn as they were from a cross-section of institutional types, spent time discussing how the size of a school or its relative resources affects the kinds of strategies used in advancing an agenda that incorporates aggressive attention to the wellness of students. Susan Scrimshaw, president of the Sage Colleges, offered the view that while “family” is a term more often heard on smaller school campuses than on larger ones, micro-communities can be created even at very large schools. Various strategies can be introduced so that these micro-communities could offer special advantages, so long as they were interconnected somehow to prevent them from becoming silos. Robert Caret, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, added that scale could be a major advantage in terms of return on investment when implementing university-wide wellness programs.

Wellness takes on many forms and, as was discussed in New York, can involve everything from mindfulness and stress reduction to community service and peer support. From my experience, these strategies, taken together and combined with strong leadership, can have a significant impact on preventing emotional and behavioral problems. Such strategies benefit students first but also allow schools to fulfill practical goals in terms of retention and admissions.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ 2012 College Students Speak survey, 64 percent of survey respondents said they were no longer attending college because of a mental health related reason. The American Psychological Association published a Strategic Primer on College Student Mental Health, which stated that “students who participate in counseling report improvements in their satisfaction with their quality of life — a more predictive measure of student retention than GPA.”
Perhaps President Pelton said it best.
“There is a connection between our core mission and the state of wellbeing,” he said. “If you are not well, you cannot learn.”

The presidents agreed that making our campuses places of improved wellness and wellbeing should not be misconstrued as coddling students or returning to loco parentis – quite the opposite. As President Biddy Martin of Amherst College said, “What is needed to address student wellness is a great deal of more expertise, knowledge and research.” Not to mention, significant buy-in from faculty.

Colleges and universities have both enormous intellectual capital and limited opportunities to distribute it among institutions. Making wellness a common agenda for schools that view this as a priority could help change that. Science exits in this area, as do best practices. We should continue to seek opportunities to share our experiences to the extent they are instructive for others.

When I was president at NYU, we created a wellness exchange that was available to students 24/7. We produced a Broadway-style musical for all students with frank talk about sensitive issues such as identity, racism, and sexual assault. We prioritized our work in student health and student affairs to the highest levels of university authority. At NYU, not having wellness programs is like not offering mathematics.

Regarding the value of community, we commissioned a study early on in my tenure, which indicated that the two student groups that felt the most satisfied – and the most inclined to remain at the university – were athletes and minority students who had strong connections to their student peers. We acted on this data by creating clusters within large dorms that created connectedness across all types of students, from poetry enthusiasts to poker players.

Now, as chair of the Mary Christie Foundation, I believe strongly that colleges and universities have a unique opportunity to help prepare students to be well and live joyful and fulfilling lives. In addition to gaining knowledge, students can learn balance, resiliency, and purpose. I was delighted to learn from the colloquium that so many of my colleagues share this view. Now comes the harder work of reshaping institutional norms so that wellness is the expectation, not the exception.

John Sexton is President Emeritus at New York University and Chairman of the Mary Christie Foundation