The national mental health crisis among college students has been well-documented. For example, the University of Michigan’s Healthy Minds Network annual survey of student mental health for 2018-19 showed over a third of college students suffer from depression. Westminster Honors College students are no different.
Over the years, Westminster Honors College faculty and staff had been noticing a series of related honors student challenges: problems with perfectionism, tying self-worth to grades, decreasing resilience, and inability to ask for help or seek out resources. In 2018, they decided it was time to act.
At its annual August faculty teaching/learning retreat that year, the honors college faculty dug into the challenges around student wellness, drawing on the expertise of a neuroscience professor who discussed the complexity of the developing adolescent brain and hearing from students themselves about their struggles in a 90-minute “student fishbowl” exercise where student conversation is unmediated.
Around this same time, administrators collected data in an honors college climate survey, a robust instrument which had a return rate of 70%: almost triple the typical rate of such surveys. Clearly students had things on their minds. For example, honors college students were obviously struggling with anxiety and mental health issues, with 35% of respondents indicating they had been diagnosed with some psychological disorder (depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc.), a figure that aligned with national data.
A result of that retreat conversation was a charge to the Assistant Dean of the Honors College who oversees much of the student-facing co-curricular programming, to design a wellness thread across the first-year experience that would help mitigate some of these pressures on students, to respond institutionally to the crisis.
After much planning and conversation, an intentional wellness program was instituted in fall 2019 in the honors college first-year seminar (FYS) experience that equipped students with mindfulness practices they could draw on during times of stress. The hope was that in adding resources to their toolbox, students would be able to face challenges better equipped and empowered to overcome them. The new programming-now in its fourth year-has three primary strands: training with mindfulness practitioners; conversations with peers about personal challenges; and in-class discussions of texts that took up issues related to health and wellness.
The first and most extensive part of the programming involves hiring three mindfulness practitioners to train students during weekly 45-minute sessions over the entire fall semester in the “Tuesday Conversation” evening meeting. This 90-minute weekly “lab” attached to the FYS taken by all honors students brings together the entire entering honors cohort for evening conversation with key faculty and staff members from across campus.
The sessions are broken in half so that students work regularly with a yoga teacher, a meditation instructor, or a graduate student with expertise in mindfulness through reflective writing. Students identify their preferred practice so there is buy-in and they “swap” practices at midterm. Importantly, these are not one-off sessions that introduce students to a new skill; instead, they are repeated weekly sessions where they train in a specific practice.
The second piece of the new program consists of “mentoring moments,” brief accounts that follow the 45-minute practitioner sessions where experienced, more senior honors student peer mentors talk about one of their experiences as a student, often a moment of struggle, failure, asking for help, and so on. The goal here is to normalize struggle, demonstrate what discussing problems looks like, and humanize the student leaders in the eyes of the first-year students so they are more likely to reach out to their peer mentors for help.
A favorite slogan repeated by Honors College Dean Richard Badenhausen is “don’t be a duck” – in other words, don’t walk around with a placid exterior while you are furiously padding underneath the (hidden) water trying to keep up. The “mentor moment” uses displays of student vulnerability to help first-year students better understand the power of sharing your struggles.
At the end of the session, students write down a “wellness reflection” or takeaway from the evening, in effect solidifying the lesson but in a way that gives students ownership over the insight. For example, one student’s takeaway in an end-of-session reflection during COVID was, “we may not be able to go outside, but we can go inside” through reflection. Importantly, while the world seemed overrun with chaos and people felt powerless, this student still felt a sense of agency in their ability to turn inward to reflective practices.
The third piece of the program was developed after Dean Badenhausen attended an AAC&U diversity conference in 2019 where representatives from Georgetown University discussed their Engelhardt program, a donor-inspired initiative in which FYSs explicitly took up issues of health and wellness. The honors college adapted the approach for the FYS by asking faculty to include one reading on their syllabi that fit with the course theme – there is a common theme annually for all sections – while also investigating an issue of health and wellness.
For example, one class took up Plath’s Bell Jar, which contains characters beset by suicidal ideation, while another explored an essay by Rebecca Solnit that examines sexual assault. In conjunction with those discussions led by the honors college faculty, visitors with expertise on the topics join the conversation, for example a member of the college’s counseling office or a member of the Title IX office.
Finally, students perform an anonymous written reflection at the end of these sessions, thus developing their reflective capacities around mental health issues. According to Badenhausen, “the explicit goals of this third piece are to normalize conversations about mental health struggles; to bridge the curriculum and co-curriculum by signaling to students that the classroom is an acceptable place to have such conversations that are typically sloughed off on Student Affairs; to put students in touch with different offices on campus who can help them; and finally, to position faculty members as allies in students’ journey to health and wellness.”
Importantly, this has been a program-wide effort that first started with faculty and staff wanting to help students, but which has expanded to bring in other members of our community. For example, to underwrite ongoing costs for the new program, the honors college identified it as the focal point of its annual Giving Day effort in winter 2021, which allowed students to see how much value was placed on this work. That campaign also raised awareness of mental wellness across campus and folded in alums and other donors into the effort. Fundraising efforts were very successful, resulting in $50,000 specifically for the new wellness initiatives, which has underwritten the cost of mindfulness trainers.
Student wellness is a complicated matter and there is no magic bullet to solving some of these intractable problems. Students bring many histories, experiences, and health challenges into their university communities. Likewise, there is no single measure that captures the effect of broad, multi-pronged programming like this. Having said that, the data are encouraging, as first-year retention improved significantly the year after the program was instituted.
Qualitative data are also encouraging, as captured in the following representative anonymous student comment written at the end of the Tuesday Conversation program: “The meditations helped me feel more present and in-tune with myself and my emotions.” Another student noted, “Feeling at peace can allow other things to fall into place.”
The impacts mentioned above are no small matter, given that the honors college first-year student population has made up 20-25% of Westminster’s incoming class during the past few years. And it is important to note that Westminster’s honors college is made up of many students from underserved populations, which is unusual nationally in honors education. For example, during the 2020-21 academic year, 26.6% of honors college students were students of color compared to 22.4% of the overall Westminster student population. During the 2021-22 year, those figures were separated by less than one percentage point.
According to Provost Debbie Tahmassebi, who nominated the program for the Beacon Award, the honors college’s innovative approach to wellness “is distinctive, has led to measurable success, and is an important part of our approach to supporting student health and wellness at Westminster College.”
Also important is the fact that this programming has demonstrated that Westminster can make a difference in student wellness and this work has also helped give energy to other efforts across campus. The honors college’s success was often mentioned in planning discussions of recent larger wellness efforts at Westminster, which will culminate in a new campus wellness center supported by gifts of $7 million, almost all of which has been raised.
To reiterate the key takeaways from this story: the mental health challenges of college students are real, but they are not insurmountable. Westminster’s honors college adopted a distinctive approach that aligned the curriculum and co-curriculum in ways that resulted in measurable success. Mental health challenges are addressed across the full spectrum of the first-year student experience. The programming described above is targeted, manageable, and replicable in many different settings and could be used with a variety of different cohorts.
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