How the University of Vermont is creating a wellness environment students want to be in
AS colleges and universities consider how to create healthier environments for students, the University of Vermont has leaped ahead of the trend and developed an entire ecosystem dedicated to wellbeing and the reduction of harmful behaviors. UVM’s Wellness Environment program (WE), which launched in 2015 with 110 students, has grown to 1,165 students in a little over two years.
The WE program combines four pillars of wellness — fitness, mindfulness, nutrition, and relationship health — in a residential community where students are given incentives to pursue positive behaviors. It is the first environmental, college-based wellness program in the country.
But what makes WE truly revolutionary is that its growth is student-driven, moving the concept of campus wellness from an institution-imposed strategy for high-risk behaviors to a sought-after lifestyle choice that appeals to a majority of students.
Let there be no doubt about it: There is nothing acetic or spartan about wellness living at UVM. The first-year WE dorm is a sparkling new residence hall with its own yoga studio, fitness rooms, and specialized dining hall. It is not unusual to see, at any given time of day, students riding peloton bikes, meditating, or conferring with their fitness mentors. Each of these activities earns them “WE Coin” that can be used to buy WE “swag” like hats and fanny packs, or discounts to the gym.
Students sign on to the program quite literally. WE students put their name to a code of conduct outlining what is expected of them in terms of behavior and accountability. The residence halls are substance-free, though in contrast to sober homes, WE students are only expected to refrain from drinking or smoking in the residence — the premise being, the healthier their home environment, the healthier their outside choices.
Students are required to take a three-credit course called “Healthy Brains/Healthy Bodies,” which teaches the reciprocal relationship between brains and young adult behaviors: from diet, exercise, and substance abuse to relationships, sex, and love.
The students in the WE program may only be tangentially aware that they are participating in a neuroscience-inspired, incentive-based behavioral change program. According to feedback, what they do know is that they feel good — some of them for the first time in a long time.
The mastermind behind the WE program is Dr. James Hudziak, a neuroscientist and child psychiatrist, who in addition to being WE’s creator and director is the Chief of Child Psychiatry and Director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth, and Families at UVM’s College of Medicine. The foundation for WE stems from Hudziak’s own Vermont family-based approach — a health-promotion, illness-prevention, family-based intervention program for emotional and behavioral health.
“WE is the Vermont family-based approach goes to college,” he said. “It is the same neuroscience/ genetic/public health argument that says health promotion outperforms prevention, always and prevention outperforms intervention, always.”
It wasn’t until one of Hudziak’s daughters decided to attend UVM that he considered how he might partner with the university to apply his science and expertise to promote health and prevent illness, particularly anxiety, depression and substance abuse, in college students. He was surprised that the school had only one substance-free dorm amidst a well-known party culture on campus. Through his work, he was also acutely aware of the state of mind of many within the college-age population.
“These are young people who want to be well, who want to do well, who are super stressed out, who are fearful of failing, fearful of letting their parents down, and really frightened of the future,” he said. “What if we gave these kids an environment that could help settle all that stuff?”
Hudziak discussed his approach with Annie Stevens, UVM’s Vice Provost for Student Affairs. Stevens had been working on behalf of UVM President Tom Sullivan in addressing substance use on campus, a problem identified by Sullivan early on in his tenure as the primary barrier to student success. Sullivan had commissioned a committee on alcohol, marijuana and misuse of drugs — made up of faculty, staff, students, and parents — and asked Stevens to co-chair it. The committee’s task was to use quantifiable metrics to inform the understanding of the problem and set measurable goals to move the numbers.
The school had some early successes, and started to see its high-risk drinking rates go down with the committee’s recommended interventions. For Stevens, this presented an opportunity to focus on prevention and health promotion.
“With success, you get buy-in and momentum,” she said. “We were stepping into more of a prevention mindset right at the same time Dr. Hudziak’s daughter decided to go to UVM.”
The establishment of the WE program was remarkably fast, given the speed at which most change occurs in higher education. With Sullivan’s support, Stevens connected Hudziak with the appropriate people and departments, secured start-up funding from other budgets (unheard of typically), and directed him to get it done.
“We did what most institutions do not do,” said Stevens. “We said, folks, this is going to be different, so get ready.”
Today, Stevens is thrilled with the progress, and says she will be behind this program as long as the students are.
Hudziak says his primary theory is that if you give young people the chance to make a healthy decision, they will. The challenge is that colleges and universities are not always the best environments in which to do so. WE offers alternatives to the default behaviors that befall many college students, such as excessive drinking, marijuana smoking, poor diet and sleep habits, even unhealthy relationships.
The neuroscience behind the program continues to evolve and has been developed through years of published work here and throughout the world, including Hudziak’s own findings. Hearing him speak of the confluence of components that underlie WE, three things become clear: environment matters; incentives work; and the brain controls everything.
“All health comes from emotional and behavioral health,” he said. “Whether we study or not; drink or not; smoke weed or not; hurt ourselves or our classmates, those behaviors all come from one protein — the human brain.”
For college students, that can be a liability. The transitional age brain — that of a 17 to 24-year old — is considered to be the most vulnerable among the brain development periods. As Hudziak points out, you take a very vulnerable organism like the transitional brain, and send it to college with no external controls, and you’ve created the perfect neurological storm.
Hudziak teaches Healthy Brains/Healthy Bodies, where he and his colleagues from UVM medical school show students how their brains impact their behavior and how their behavior impacts their brains’ development. It is fact-based and non-judgmental. In the 300-person lecture hall, Hudziak breaks the ice and keeps students alert by tossing around a brain-shaped football, and expects them to throw it back. He hurls the ball back and forth, hoping to catch the least alert student, but no one is too surprised. They get the drill.
Each class begins and ends with meditation which Hudziak calls “work-out sessions” for the brain. Mindfulness, like fitness, diet, and healthy relationships, is one of the wellness pillars and something for which students receive WE coins. Incentivization, along with neuroscience, is key to WE’s effectiveness, and critical, according to Hudziak, to any successful behavioral change program.
Students get “paid” to exercise, take a yoga class, study mindfulness, or have a kale smoothie instead of a coffee on their way to class. If they swipe their fitness card 40 times over the course of the year, it’s free. If they don’t, they have to pay the program back.
Communication and a sense of community are also big here.
“Kids say to me all the time, ‘I have attention issues, I’m anxious. I have asthma, I’m sad. I’m overweight, I’m withdrawn.’ These are the most common emotional and medical problems in the world that people don’t want to talk about. In our environment, we do.”
Now in its third year, WE is attracting a wide range of students, from athletes and fitness enthusiasts to students with emotional and behavioral health issues. It includes those who choose not to drink or use, and those who just want to avoid the usual residential disturbances that come from college partying. The UVM varsity hockey team lives in the WE dorms, as do kids of all social groups.
Feedback shows that students are driving the WE attendance numbers, but their parents are definitely backing them up. “Parents love this program,” says Annie Stevens. “They are telling us by the dozens, Yep, this is what I want for my son or daughter. This is the kind of college experience I want him or her to have.”
Expanding the Circle
As requests for WE membership continue to come in, Stevens and Hudziak are considering how to accommodate more students and expand the program’s value to the entire school.
“I tease Annie that we’re not a residential learning community,” said Hudziak. “We are a university-wide behavior change program with a residential component.”
Many of the WE programs are open to all students, and Hudziak is currently testing an app he developed called “UVM WE,” which incentivizes students within the four pillars of wellness—and also gets people who don’t live in the wellness dorms to engage in health promotion.
Hudziak has a grant from the Conrad Hilton Foundation to develop the app and engage in continued research.
Right now, WE is free in that is comes at no extra cost to the student. It is creatively funded with a mixture of health services money, in-kind investments on the part of Hudziak and others, and grant money. In light of its success, administrators are working on ways to sustain it, grow it, and help replicate it at other universities. As a whole, UVM has had a 30 percent decrease in alcohol and marijuana use in five years, in part attributed to intentional programming like WE.
UVM president Tom Sullivan tells the story of bringing in an external, objective expert to evaluate how well the WE program was doing with respect to engagement with students and their overall success. The evaluator gave the school the good news that judging from the research, the WE program appears to have had a dramatic effect on the physical and mental health of students. What he said next surprised Sullivan.
“He told me that wellness has now become a key part of our brand,” said Sullivan. “‘What does that mean?’ I asked. He said, ‘As I survey students and parents, the University of Vermont now has a reputation for being very serious about wellness.’ I thought to myself, it wasn’t our purpose to help the admissions side of things but when I look at our numbers, I see this is an outcome.”
Hudziak is well aware of the value of outcomes reporting, and points to national statistics indicating that every one percent increase in retention will result in significant savings to the university. The WE program has been collecting data since its inception, and will soon have numbers on retention and academic success as well as other indicators.
“In three years, our provost will have all the data he needs to justify our investment, and all of the other provosts in the country will have all the data they need to say, ‘Wow, this could really save us money.’”
Stevens says she has received so many requests for information about the WE program from other colleges and universities that she can barely keep track of them. Hudziak is asked so often to visit other schools that he and Stevens are “kicking around” the idea of having schools come to UVM for an intensive training program.
The “WE Institute” would require administrators to include the head of student affairs, as well as a neuroscientist or child psychologist, and attend a four-day training seminar. Not surprisingly, Hudziak is thinking big. Not only would administrators learn WE concepts, they could share data and reporting, maybe even form a consortium of wellness universities.
“What we’re doing here can be done anywhere, with the right elements, but be warned this is behavioral change for the entire institution, not just the students in the program,” he said. “That’s why we call it the WEvolution.”