WE Strong: UVM’s Wellness Environment Then and Now

Dana Humphrey / July 14, 2020

The students on the Zoom platform take a deep breath in and then exhale with ear-piercing screams. They are doing the “WE Breath,” a unique way to let go of stress and anxiety practiced at the Wellness Environment from which they are graduating – remotely.  They are the fifth first year class at UVM to celebrate such an accomplishment and the first to graduate in the COVID-19 era.

Now in its sixth year, the Wellness Environment at the University of Vermont is a neuroscience-inspired, incentive-based behavior change program focused on health and wellbeing.  The fact that it was designed for first year college students who tend not to prioritize healthy behavior is exactly the point.  Its creator is Dr. Jim Hudziak, Chief of Child Psychiatry and Director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth, and Families at UVM Larner College of Medicine and UVM Medical Center.

“There is no such thing as a bad college student,” said Hudziak.  “There’s only an underdeveloped ventral, medial, prefrontal cortex,” referring to the developmental period between ages 18 and 26, in which the area of the brain that controls decision-making is still developing.

Dr. Hudziak is an evidence-citing evangelist for the behavior change approach. The idea for the Wellness Environment grew out of 25 years of experience with the Vermont family-based model to promote health and prevent illness for children with mental health issues. The method treats parents alongside their children, on the basis that environment drives mood and behavior, and can have a huge impact on wellbeing.

When one of his four children decided to attend the University of Vermont, Hudziak envisioned an environment that could provide an enticing counter to the often-unhealthy cultures of residential colleges where sleep, exercise, and nutrition take a back seat to illicit substances, risky sex, and late-night snacks.

WE provides students with a living environment where they are not only encouraged to make healthy choices, they are supported in doing so.  In their dedicated dorm, WE students have access to Peloton bikes, meditation rooms, daily yoga classes, nutrition and fitness coaches, mindfulness classes, and free ukulele and violin classes (along with their instrument of choice for the year). When WE students make healthy choices along any of the four pillars of wellness (fitness, nutrition, mindfulness, and relationships), they earn WE Coins, which can be used for program swag like sweatshirts and hats.

WE combines incentives with health literacy and education. Every student in WE takes a three credit course, Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies, where they explore how behavior and environment play a role in brain health and development. Hudziak says the class gives students the knowledge and skills to know how what they do is impacting the structure and function of their brain. Students learn from leading experts about the most current research in brain health.

“Everything that we teach comes from high science literature synthesized by scientists to make sure it's consumable by someone who isn't a geneticist or a Ph.D.,” said Dr. Hudziak. “We don't teach this sort of soft science. We teach hard science in a consumable way and provide an evidence-base for every claim we have.” Students learn the neuroscience behind mindfulness and the effects of regular physical activity on brain health and wellbeing.

Patricia Prelock, Ph.D., Provost and Senior Vice President of the University of Vermont, helped Hudziak design the program’s curriculum. The two play to each other’s strengths.  “We got together, and Jim wasn’t familiar with curriculum development, but he knew everything about the brain and behavior change,” Prelock said. She offered, "How can we collaborate to help you build a course and curricular plan that would make sense and achieve your goal for students to learn about brain-behavior connections?"

In partnership with Prelock, Hudziak created an entire minor dedicated to Behavioral Change Health Studies. The minor includes classes like the Science of Happiness; Sex, Love, and The Neuroscience of Relationships; and Family Wellness Coaching.  They have become popular courses at UVM.Prelock says the WE program has transformed UVM from a party school to a health-promoting institution, which she says is more aligned with its nature-loving culture. Since implementing WE at UVM, there has been a dramatic reduction in conduct violations and detoxes related to alcohol. Students that participate in WE have higher retention rates than the campus as a whole, a metric that yields significant savings for the university.

Virtual WE

When we sat down to talk with Dr. Hudziak over Zoom, it came as no surprise that his custom background featured a floating rubber brain/football that has become a sort of mascot for the Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies class. (Hudziak throws the brain to students to keep them alert and engaged in the discussion.)

Hudziak started with COVID-19 and its substantial impact on the WE program, which is an integral part of its students’ everyday lives and necessitates in-person interaction. The program’s leaders have devoted much of their energy towards maintaining remote contact with the students and continuing some of the activities that they can usually access in the dorm.

“We created remote yoga, remote mindfulness, and remote contact with our team members so that even away from here, you can still see the same yogini and do yoga with Rebekah,” said Hudziak. “We created an online guitar lesson set, and online violin training.”

The program ran “kindness and gratitude challenges” non-stop after leaving campus. “The number of connections a student has correlates most highly with their happiness scores, so we started immediately bombarding them with kindness and gratitude challenges,” said Hudziak, who encouraged students to “reach out to 10 friends, reach out to 10 people that you know kind of well, reach out to 10 people that you don’t know at all from the community.”

“Amazingly, higher engagement in kindness and gratitude led to higher mood, higher social connections. Not surprising, right? If you're trying to be kind and gracious to people you're having connections.”

They organized a virtual 4/20 5K on April 20th, an event usually held on campus as counter-programming to the marijuana-themed holiday. Over 150 students sent videos of themselves running. And of course, they celebrated their WE graduation, completed with a WE breath.

When UVM closed the campus, Dr. Hudziak quickly added a COVID-19 impact survey to his WE study, which usually tracks health behaviors like sleep, drinking, smoking, and students’ emotions. Now they are collecting data on percentages of students with family members with the virus, family members that have died, and the effects that being removed from campus and social networks has had on mood, mental health, and behavior.

Fortunately, WE had some practice in converting to virtual pre-pandemic. Dr. Hudziak and his team created an app for the Wellness Environment research study that is offered to every UVM student (over half of the people on the app are not involved in WE). On the app, students can take daily surveys and report their wellness behaviors, track activities like exercise, mindfulness, nutrition, hydration and sleep, access over 125 meditations, and practice yoga or do a workout with instructor videos.

By offering modules to the entire student body, WE expands its reach to those who aren’t able to fit the required three credit class into their already-packed schedules. While Prelock says she would love for every student to be able to participate in WE, “Taking modules of some of the elements that are key can help other students who need credits for other disciplines but want to be part of the Wellness Environment in some way.” Hudziak has already created the WE M.D. app for medical students at UVM’s Larner College of Medicine, launching in the fall.

Hudziak is currently designing modules to help prepare incoming UVM students for the dramatic transition from what he calls “highly-curated and overseen existences with environments that are predicted by your parents or your schools” to college life, an environment that can be corrosive to students’ wellbeing. “Our university, like every university, is deeply-invested in making the summer experience for our incoming class as engaging as possible without overwhelming our students,” he said. “And so I'm going to contribute four wellness models, three for students and one for parents, to that experience for all incoming first year students – and not just for the ones coming to the Wellness Environment.”

Scaling WE

The silver lining of pushing WE 100% virtual for the spring is that it offered a proof point for some of Hudziak and Prelocks’ plans going forward. They want to start disseminating the WE program, or parts of the program, to other colleges, universities, and anyone else who wants it. One way this may take shape is in creating online modules that embody the health promotion and illness-prevention strategies for the developing brain, offered to people outside of the UVM community.

Or, Hudziak imagines, there is the possibility to expand on the distance learning that has become a necessity in 2020, and allow other universities to offer the Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies course or other courses in the behavior change minor. He sees this as a chance to “foment the idea that all health comes from brain health and that we can, through lifestyle changes, improve brain health."

Prelock envisions UVM as a training site for other schools who want to take up this mission of behavior change. She sees an opportunity to train key people from other colleges and universities on the WE program’s structure and how best to support and coach the community, and then send them back to implement their own programs.

If UVM does become a training center, Hudziak and Prelock have plenty of wisdom to share. First and foremost, they say, leadership buy-in is not just important – its critical. In conjunction with backing from university presidents and chief academic affairs officers, Prelock noted that working with student affairs is vitally important. She says the program isn’t meant to replace the meaningful work that student affairs does, but rather support it, and enhance the student experience, while adding an academic component.

Hudziak’s advice includes bracing for pushback, given the cultural shift a program like this forces on campus.  Hudziak says that there is a certain belief system regarding how things are done on college campuses, and in residential programs in particular, and programs like WE  disrupt that. Hudziak is also well-accustomed to students poking fun at him on the internet, getting angry emails from parents and taking criticism from his colleagues.

“If you want to go down this road, if you're going to engage in behavioral change or engage in disruptive education, you better be willing to take some shots,” he said at a higher education convening in the spring.

Hudziak says that while digital spaces are effective tools, nothing can replace the “analog.”

“I would hate to see whatever extensions of this that we develop, that anyone thinks it could exist just in a digital framework,” he said. He believes that one of the real messages of WE’s success is that there can be digital and remote components (like the app, or online educational modules), but if it is not delivered in person or connected to a coach, the ability to disseminate it will be deteriorated.

Lastly, Hudziak advises others looking to do similar programs to evaluate and evaluate again. Ongoing assessments can help continuously improve the program, and make the case for its continued existence, something that appears to be a lock at UVM.