Q&A: Dr. Paula Johnson

Marjorie Malpiede / April 6, 2018

The president of Wellesley College on guiding students in a complex world

On a cold day in December, Wellesley’s campus is a curious dichotomy as modern, young women move purposely amidst Gothic architecture and historic grounds. Much has changed since Wellesley College was founded nearly a century and a half ago to provide an outstanding education to women across the socioeconomic spectrum. But its mission to “graduate women who will make a difference in the world” is as relevant today as it was in 1870. Famous alumnae include Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69, Madeleine Albright ’59, Diane Sawyer ‘67, and Nora Ephron ‘62. Wellesley’s current leader is their highly-accomplished 14th president, Dr. Paula Johnson.

Before coming to Wellesley in the summer of 2016, Johnson was already making a difference in the world as the Grayce A. Young Family Professor of Medicine in Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School and Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, as well as the head of the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology, which spearheads breakthroughs in the medical treatment of women. A cardiologist and public health expert, Johnson’s training became evident as she talked about a preventative approach to student wellness, where developmental issues among young people are acknowledged and anticipated.

President Johnson spoke of the school’s enduring mission in a complex and challenging world and its implications for today’s “Wellesley women.” She talked about the role of colleges and universities in helping students find their path. Asked to choose what one thing she would give her students, she said it would be more time, a commodity rarely enjoyed by millennials, particularly the hardworking women who make it to Wellesley.

Mary Christie Quarterly: Health and wellness is your background, but how are you thinking about the emotional and behavioral health of students in your new role as a college president?
Paula Johnson: I think it’s very important for us to think about the emotional and behavioral health of our students in a way that puts it in context on several fronts: Who are young people in the 21st century? What is the context in which they live? What are the issues they face even before they step foot on campus? And how does that all play out once they are here?

It has become very clear to me that our campuses are far more complex than they were 25 years ago. We fortunately have far more diversity in our student body, including greater racial and ethnic diversity, gender diversity, economic diversity, more first generation students and more students from around the world.

That’s the good news. But when you think about that in terms of community (and that our students come from so many different backgrounds), and when you think about a world that is far more complex and uncertain, we have to take a step back. We must more clearly understand our campuses as a reflection of that world. We need to both better understand our students who enroll and better understand the experiences they will have as they struggle to make sense (and interact) with the world.

Within that context, what, then, is our goal? At Wellesley our goal is to educate young women who are going to make a difference in the world. That’s been our mission since our founding. What does that mean in today’s world as we prepare very well-educated women for lives that require resiliency and perseverance? Resilience is key, given that our students are facing an interconnected and fraught world that is changing perhaps faster than at any other time in recent memory. This reality lays the foundation for a critically important mental health agenda.

MCQ: What do universities and colleges need to do to address that? Is it a new awareness of students’ mental and emotional development? Does that translate into changes in programming? Do you deal with it at the health center level? What are some of the things you’re thinking about?
PJ: All of the above! It’s everything from having a clear picture of our students, as they are, when they walk in the door; to then understanding what our community, as an ecosystem, does or doesn’t do to promote their health; to evaluating (and tracking) how we address all of that. I think the right approach is to really think about this as a public health initiative, one that is intimately connected with the day-to-day work that we do here.

As we look at our students as the primary focus, we have to understand what they will be experiencing in their four years in college at a time of rapid change in their lives. What does that look like today in a world that is driven in large part by technology, in a world in which we are increasingly focused on what divides us rather than what connects us, and in a world where screen culture has created a very different sense of aloneness?

MCQ: Do you think that might be part of a lot of the escalating rates of anxiety we’re seeing, this worry?
PJ: I think that the increased competitiveness to get into college leads to a lot of anxiety. There are enormous expectations placed on high school students. I like to call it the “check the box” culture. How many boxes did they have to check in order to gain acceptance into a school like Wellesley or other competitive colleges or universities?

That is the psychology they come to college with, so our job is to lessen the deleterious impacts of that culture, that mentality, and to begin to work with our students and let them know “you’ve made it.”

Students need to allow themselves to take advantage of all that we have to offer, in a way that allows them to reflect deeply on their experiences. In this way, they can then integrate these experiences into the next phase of their lives.

What does that take? It takes time to reflect. Students today have not been given permission to take that time. Part of the role of college is to both educate in and outside of the classroom and to integrate these new experiences as you’re beginning to shape your sense of self. This is the work that must be done over the four years of college.

Students are coming to us today with tremendous worry about what their lives will be like. Work and careers are very different today and are highly evolving. The good news is we know that a liberal arts education prepares students in the most robust way for handling those changes. But when you’re 18 to 22, that’s hard to understand, because you’re looking at a world that’s shifting. You don’t necessarily understand that you are being prepared or even what exactly you’re being prepared for.

MCQ: What are some of the ways you are helping students with their development?
PJ: We have a new, very robust career education program that connects every student who enters Wellesley with an assigned career counselor the moment they step on campus. The purpose of this is not to start thinking about what you’re going to do on day one but rather to have a guide by your side who is helping you think about your experience throughout these four years—and beyond.

This is not something that students have to actively seek out. It’s something that we offer them, and it is provided to every single student. This is critically important because Wellesley is need-blind. We have a very significant population of first generation students, in addition to all the other forms of diversity, so students come with different levels of preparedness for taking advantage of resources and meeting challenges.

This is a resource that we strongly believe will better enable our students to take full advantage of a liberal arts education. We’ve seen a national discourse about the practical value of the humanities, for example, and what that brings to a career. We believe strongly that the humanities provide a foundation and context for who we are as humans, critical to how we understand and integrate into our lives the sciences and social sciences.

Wellesley’s innovative approach to career education helps our students to be far more open to considering all kinds of options, areas, and pursuits that they might not otherwise have.

MCQ: What is counseling like at Wellesley?
PJ: We have a long history with an organization called The Stone Center which was founded in the 1970s with a vision for providing mental health services as well as conducting research to prevent mental health issues. Over time, the Stone Center’s clinical practice was separate from the research work, and today it is our primary center for counseling.

Right now, we are looking to better integrate that model with our health services, but we are also taking a step back to evaluate and ask how we can improve.

There is a range of services that we need today—including helping students who arrive on campus with documented disorders for which they need medication as well as students with short-term issues that are prevalent in the larger population.

We realized we needed a better connection between the campus and our students who are getting services in the community; we needed to ensure the alignment of these services, and not just when there is an emergency. We needed an ongoing connection between campus and students receiving external care.

To meet this need, we created a new position and hired a community liaison. Of course, we need an expert on campus who can address our students’ medical issues, so we have a psychiatrist. But we then need to address a broader range of services. Not everyone needs a one-on-one appointment.

For example, there are problems that we might consider “life issues” that are much better addressed with a different kind of support. Right now, we’re examining closely how to move forward with all of this in mind.

MCQ: What about affirmative wellness and general wellbeing? It sounds like this is such a core part of your mission. What are you doing in this area?
PJ: A lot of this work is about defining community in the 21st century. Community looks different than it did 25 years ago. It’s very normal for students in this phase of their lives to be exploring identity, and frequently our students are thinking deeply about community and self.

We have to support the development of their identity within those groups, but we also have to support a strong sense of overall community in residential living, for example.

We have a new Dean of Students, Sheilah Shaw Horton, who also has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology. She is spearheading work to more fully integrate residential life and student affairs with the academic program. Our faculty are deeply committed to our students, which is one of the joys of being at a liberal arts school.

We’re all very proud of the fact that our student body is diverse, but what does that mean for pedagogy? What is inclusive pedagogy? That may not be, on its surface, related to mental health, but it surely is related to belonging.

Together, we are asking how we can engage students more in their overall wellbeing beyond just being “eyes and ears”? Some brilliant work is happening here led by faculty in our math department and in the sciences.

We are asking, “What does it mean to embrace the true diversity of our students? How do we teach differently, but also how do we reach students in the various spaces they inhabit across campus?”

As we think about the actual physical space, we are thinking about how we encourage and facilitate this sense of interconnectedness, health and wellness, all of which has been shown to enhance one’s wellbeing.

We’re building a new science center, and a teaching and learning space will be built very specifically with the idea of intersections integrated into its design—intersections amongst disciplines, intersections between students and faculty, and amongst students themselves.

We’re going to be using light and color and bringing our beautiful landscape into the building, so we are really thinking about this in a very holistic way.

MCQ: That’s the public health approach, right?
PJ: Public health is about an integrated approach to prevention, and it’s about the built environment as well. It’s about how our environment can enhance health. For example, we have a gorgeous landscape. How can that landscape help to promote health and wellness as well as peaceful reflection and meditation?

We are going to begin some really interesting work with the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health that revives that original Stone Center vision of prevention research I spoke of.

We are looking at evidence-based public health approaches through which we can engage our students. It is a community (and participatory) activity that will give us a better understanding of some of the different ways of integrating health and wellness into our campus.

MCQ: We have seen an abundance of political tension on college campuses since the 2016 election. What are you seeing at Wellesley?

PJ: There are so many issues occurring in the United States today that have been further heightened by our current political environment. We cannot ignore major issues around immigration. There’s the travel ban; there’s DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] and issues around TPS [temporary protected status]. Imagine being a student who personally is threatened by these developments, or being a student whose family or loved ones are threatened. Meanwhile, they’re attempting to study and take part in residential living just as any other student might.

It’s our job to provide them with understanding and support. We’re working on a host of initiatives in this regard.

To take a second example, issues around healthcare are devastating for so many, especially women. Contraception and women’s health is significantly threatened. All of this impacts our students’ sense of stability and well-being.

These are not just political questions. The consequences are real, impact our students’ lives in complicated, myriad ways, and we must be committed to principled leadership and sustainable solutions.