Formation and Flourishing at Georgetown

Marjorie Malpiede / March 13, 2017

Georgetown combines institutional values with new thinking in student health and wellness

Georgetown University is currently immersed in a student mental health and wellness effort that is deliberate, comprehensive, and potentially transformative. It is called Formation and Flourishing, a title chosen for its intent to use what we know about young people’s development to create a university experience that is joyful and meaningful as well as academically enriching.

Formation and Flourishing is not so much an initiative as it is an exploration and a stated desire to provide a more emotionally attuned environment that will promote social, emotional, and relational learning at a school that attracts some of the brightest students in the world.

The premise for Formation and Flourishing is the assertion that academic life provides an unparalleled foundation for the work of personal formation. Georgetown’s approach to harnessing this opportunity is both unique to the school and instructive for others. Drawing on the works of philosophers and psychologists and immersed in the best practices in the field of student mental health and wellness, Formation and Flourishing seeks to understand the drivers behind the steep rise in demand for mental health support services that is evident at colleges and universities everywhere.

“Formation and Flourishing is about both culture and programming,” said Georgetown President John (Jack) DeGioia, the force behind the effort whose own development was shaped by 40 years at the school, many of those in student affairs.

“We want to learn as much as we can from around the country and apply that to strengthening our programs here in a way that makes a tangible difference in the lives of our students.”

DeGioia is a moral philosopher who is devoted to Georgetown’s Jesuit foundation, including its motto “Cura Personalis,” to care for the well-being of the whole person. His adherence to the Jesuit mission has shaped his major decisions, including the school’s recent historic move to atone for its early participation in the institution of slavery, through engagement with descendants and a memorial on campus. Earnest and self-effacing, DeGioia downplays his obvious intelligence with humor and humility. Colleagues describe him as the regular guy at the plenary session who knows more than anyone in the room.

Jack DeGioia went to Georgetown as a teenager in 1975. He became a resident assistant (RA) as an undergraduate, a dorm director in graduate school, and, years later, in 1985, the Dean of Student Affairs. After holding several leadership positions at the school, including academia’s equivalent of COO, DeGioia assumed the presidency in 2001.

DeGioia launched a formal process for Formation and Flourishing about a year and a half ago but he has been thinking about it for over three decades, starting with his years in the dorms as the first point of contact for students in distress. The difference, he says, between those days and today, is that we now have the resources and knowledge to move beyond protecting our students to helping them flourish.

Constructing the Safety Net
Given the Jesuit framework of “mind, body, soul,” Georgetown was perhaps exceptionally aware of student mental health early on. As RAs, DeGioia and his peers were trained back in the ‘70s to recognize challenges student were experiencing and to refer them to the help they needed. Each residence hall had a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist that met with the RA’s regularly to catch students at risk. They called it “constructing the safety net.”

Developing the safety net continued when DeGioia was head of student affairs. To reduce waiting lists for counseling, he combined the counseling center with the health psychiatry center, now called Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) to better serve both the acute and ongoing needs of students seeking help; and he expanded Georgetown’s utilization of community partners.

Then, as in now, he focused on the trends.

“The statistics tell us that schools should expect that a third of our kids, at some point, will cope with depression; that 15 percent will be predisposed to have alcoholism as part of their future; that 15 percent of women 17 to 24 have eating disorders. How do we identify these students and get them into a setting where we can address these concerns?” he said.

DeGioia expanded the RA psycho-educational model to staff and faculty who could serve as “eyes and ears” of the institution as first line of contacts. Specialists were added in substance abuse, eating disorders, and sexual assault. Addressing student mental health at Georgetown is now a classic case management model where key players including counselors, professors, and coaches meet every week to review the profiles of the people they’re tracking, some 30 or 40 at any given time.

“It is fair to say that when it comes to the safety net, I am obsessed,” DeGioia admits. “When you come to a community like ours, and you’re experiencing a problem, I am just not comfortable with saying we didn’t do absolutely everything in our power to help you.”

St. Ignatius meets Erik Erikson

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, DeGioia began to dig deeper into the factors that influenced students’ emotional health and explored the connection between science, environment, and mental health and wellbeing. This involved reconciling the school’s deep religious foundation with new information in the fields of psychodynamic development and cognitive neuroscience.

He was curious how great thought leaders in student affairs like psychologists Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson could help the school understand what was going on in the minds of young people. He believed Georgetown’s rich moral and spiritual framework lacked an explicit psychodynamic character and he wanted to explore where the school’s faith tradition intersected with developmental theory.
“What we were trying to figure out was how could we support the formation of our young people that required more than just the resources of the faith,” he said.

DeGioia believes that universities can influence students in their personal formation— which includes the primary question “What constitutes an authentic life?” At the time, the effort to incorporate this in a tangible way was only marginally successful though it paved the way for new initiatives. Complementing the safety net, the school developed a broad range of programs that fall under the category of student wellbeing. These include the Engelhard Project for Connecting Life and Learning, a curriculum infusion program that focuses on teaching to the whole person with health and wellbeing topics intertwined with academic course work.

These concepts and their impact on student health and wellbeing stayed with DeGioia like a brilliant discovery whose time had not yet come. Years later, DeGioia formally reengaged in the school’s exploration of developmental theory, this time assigning mental health professionals and senior leaders from across disciplines. For obvious reasons to those who know the history, he named it Formation and Flourishing.

Formation and Flourishing
Formation and Flourishing is Georgetown’s attempt to move beyond the safety net, and secondary prevention, using the fusion of science, psychology, and religion to create a university environment focused on emotional and relational learning in addition to academic knowledge, all the while strengthening the safety net.

To lead the effort, DeGioia tapped long-time colleague and friend, Mary Dluhy who he calls, “one of the greatest social workers of our time.” A clinician with a specialty in group dynamics, Dluhy originally came to Georgetown in 2003 and later oversaw the implementation and engagement of Georgetown’s newly created LGTBQ Resource Center.

Dluhy says Formation and Flourishing is the essence of Georgetown and of DeGioia. “It’s directly related to “Cura Personalis.” she said. “We are trying to create a community for students that helps them feel a part of something bigger than themselves so they become effective human beings, not just successful students.”

The effort is informed by the continued breakthroughs in science and psychology related to young adult development that emerged at the end of the century up through to today. This includes the “positive psychology” work led by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania; cognitive brain science advances by neuroscientists like Dr. Francis Jensen, author of “the Teenage Brain;” and Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, of the University of Chicago who wrote about the psychology of “flow,” meaning full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of an activity.

Flow relates to flourishing, which is Georgetown’s term for wellness. Flourishing has deep roots in the Catholic tradition and connotes performing at your best in the richest way possible. Sourced in Aristotle’s “eudemonia,” flourishing involves embracing the multiple elements that make up our humanity – including love, art, knowledge, and friendship. DeGioia calls it “well-roundedness.” (The school has a course in “Flourishing” which provides first year students with the knowledge, self-care skills, and support systems they can call on to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle.)

It is through this philosophical framework that Georgetown is addressing a number of very practical problems. As is widely reported, counseling centers at schools around the country are experiencing drastic increases in utilization rates for students seeking help for a variety of mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

Despite attempts to combat stigma associated with mental health, 40 percent of students with diagnosable mental health conditions do not seek help.
Highly competitive schools like Georgetown have even more reason for concern. Admissions criteria are such that only the highest performing students are accepted, which can make for an environment comprised of over-achievers and high pressure.

Recent national survey data show Georgetown students suffer higher than average levels of stress. Demand on Georgetown’s safety net, as on its equivalent in most schools across the country, is as high as it has ever been. Over the course of four undergraduate years, one-third of each class will come to CAPS which has recently increased its professional staff.

DeGioia believes the stress students experience at schools like Georgetown start well before they begin the arduous process of getting themselves through the door.

“We need to ask ourselves: are we contributing to this incredible intensity that our young people are living with? If so, what can we do differently?” said DeGioia.

Much of the work of Formation and Flourishing involves asking these hard questions. It reflects DeGioia’s insistence that the effort be both intentional and authentic, as was the safety net build which required a level of honesty and transparency that made some uncomfortable.

To help them in their journey, DeGioia and Dhuly engaged Dr. Kavita Avula, an international psychologist specializing in trauma, group dynamics, crisis and critical incident response. DeGioia, Dluhy and Avula, together with senior leaders from across the university, have been meeting every month for a year or so immersing themselves in the discovery phase of Formation and Flourishing. They are confident a plan will emerge but patient with how long the process may take.

“When we started this, we really wanted to get at the heart of the issue – not just tack on a program or hold a conference,” said Avula. “It’s an organic process; it’s a reflective process; and its very much a work in progress”
The group’s focus is sharper than its timeframe as it sets out to address a number of strategic questions that are relevant for Georgetown and other schools: How can we shift the culture on college campuses from a narrow academic focus to embrace a holistic approach to student development and well-being in addition to achievement? Is it possible to design programs that support formation and flourishing than can be incorporated more fully into programs in schools?

Can we collaborate with high schools in developing programming that supports the formation of our young people? Can we develop new models where more members of our community can receive sufficient mental health services? Can we address the ways in which our practices (admissions, curricula, career preparation) contribute to the anxiety and depression that confront our students?

Finally, how do we understand the efficacy of our interventions? Are there new metrics we can develop for happiness or wellbeing?
The group has sought advice from experts in a number of areas including resilience, relational learning, suicide prevention and technology. To date, they have hosted discussions with Dr. Kelly Crace, of William & Mary, who created the Life Values Inventory that helps students clarify their values and pursue behaviors that align with them; Dr. Tim Marachell of Cornell University; Cory Wallack, Director of the Syracuse University Counseling Center who developed a gatekeeper training program called CampusConnect; and Charlie Morse from Worcester Polytechnic Institute who created a sought-after course called the Student Support Network that trains students at the academically-rigorous school to support one another.

Formation and Flourishing also involves an assessment of Georgetown’s own programs, from the safety net through to some of the broader environmental interventions. The Formation and Flourishing team believes all of this will no doubt lead to changes in programming and policies, recommendations and new initiatives.

But for now, Dluhy says they are going to keep exploring until they figure out what needs to be done.

Given the school’s history of doing bold things in big ways, there is an expectation that Formation and Flourishing will produce something of real value and impact, for Georgetown and, perhaps, other schools around the country.