• Best Practices

Student Success and Wellness

Kimberly A. Brown, Ph.D.

As students are quickly finishing up their exams and packing their bags for spring break week it also gives we administrators a chance to catch our breath, reflect on the busy pace of the semester to date, regroup, and plan for the remaining semester ahead. Slowing the pace a little reminds me of the importance to all of us, including to the students’ whose experience we are shaping, of balance and wellness. Overall wellness is a key to student success.

We all need to prioritize this time of year – processing financial aid applications for the coming year, preparing graduation exits and commencement ceremonies, and finalizing new student orientation sessions for the summer. Amid it all we must encourage our students to prioritize as well, remembering to incorporate balance into their lives. Meanwhile, life continues to happen, as it does with all of us. Students get married, other relationships end, some students are expanding their families, others are experiencing the deaths of a grandparent, parent, or other loved one. As an administrator in a graduate health professions school, I see the stress is intensified by the fear of not passing licensing or board exams, which are essential to successful completion of our programs and ultimate employment.

As university administrators, whose daily mission is to influence students’ success, we must remind students at every opportunity of the resources that are available to them. Even the smallest conversation with a student is an opportunity to promote health and wellness. Ask if they take advantage of your campus Wellness Center and fitness classes, the Student Counseling Center, academic advisors, learning specialists and tutoring opportunities. Ask if they are involved in clubs and activities on campus as social engagement with peers can help reduce stress. Remind them of the resources your college or university provides for them, but also remind them of the importance of simply connecting with a friend.

Some of the initiatives around health and wellness do not take a lot of time to develop and implement, but the return on that investment can be high. Many universities are opening meditation rooms on campus to give a dedicated space for meditation, reflection, and prayer. Last spring, Des Moines University converted an infrequently used staff lunch room into a comfortable meditation room open to all faculty, staff, and students. We had hundreds of ID card swipes into the room in the first couple of months and the room continues to be quite popular. We explain to students on our website that the benefits of relaxation, meditation, and prayer-based practices are well-documented, and the list of positive impacts they can create continues to grow. Some of these benefits include:

  • Improved immune system functioning; decreased susceptibility to illness
  • Improved memory, learning, and decision-making
  • Reduced symptoms of insomnia; improved sleep quantity/quality
  • Increased positive mood; decreased anxiety and depressive symptoms
  • Management of symptoms of physical illness and chronic health conditions

I have observed this past year that students are also an excellent resource to help with wellness initiatives. Specifically, the student government leaders in our doctor of osteopathic medicine program have participated in a national mental health initiative over the past academic year. Through the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine’s (AACOM) Council of Student Government Presidents (COSGP), student leaders from osteopathic medical schools conducted a national study in 2016 that included more than 10,000 participants. The results of the survey indicated the stress level of students training to become doctors is very high, to the point it could derail their career goals. The COSGP formed a Mental Health Awareness Task Force to help facilitate discussion with Deans and other campus administrators at schools around the nation to help effect change and implement resources at their individual campuses.

Because of this study, student government leaders at DMU created a proposal to offer wellness groups to promote emotional wellness, increase connection among peers on campus, and ultimately reduce stress through peer support. Student facilitators were trained by faculty in the department of behavioral medicine; additional assistance is offered by the Student Counseling Center when student facilitators or others in the group realize a student needs to be referred for further professional support. The groups also help all students learn listening skills and practice compassion, which are key skills they will need in their future professions.

Student led initiatives are great as they often garner a lot of participation because they directly address the students’ needs and desires. Colleges and universities often provide a lot of health and wellness resources as well but I encourage you to really talk to your students. Understand the specific stressors they face whether financial, academic, or life just getting in the way. Develop relationships with your work study students in financial aid and student affairs. Talk with the student ambassadors and tour guides in the admissions office as they usually have their finger on the pulse of the campus. Ask to meet with your student government leaders to learn more about their needs. The health and well-being of our students is critical to their success as well as ours.

Kimberly A. Brown, Ph.D. is vice president, enrollment management & student affairs at Des Moines University