Episode 33: Mental Health on Campus as 2020 Winds Down


Aired Dec .11, 2020​​​​​​​​

With an epic year winding down and colleges transitioning to a much-needed holiday break, hosts Jon Fansmith, Mushtaq Gunja, and Sarah Spreitzer discuss the last minute flurry of activity in Washington, DC, as the transition to the Biden administration begins. Later, Mushtaq and Sarah talk with cognitive scientist and Barnard College President Sian Beilock about how she is using her own research as a psychologist to talk about the need for new ways to improve mental health and well-being on campus.​

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

TED Talk: Why We Choke Under Pressure—and How to Avoid It with Sian Beilock
Oct. 9, 2018

Students Need Tools to Safeguard Their Mental Health in Uncertain Times
The Hechinger Report | Nov. 18, 2020

Jed Foundation

“Feel Well, Do Well” @ Barnard

Barnard College Virtual Tutoring Corps

Access Barnard

College Student Mental Health and Well-Being: A Survey of Presidents
Higher Education Today

Pulse Point Surveys—Leaders Respond: COVID-19 on Campus


 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith: Hello, and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education policy podcast from the American Council on Education. I am your host, Jon Fansmith. And I'm joined as always, by my co-hosts, Mushtaq Gunja and Sarah Spreitzer. Hey, guys.

Sarah Spreitzer: Hey, Jon.

Mushtaq Gunja: Hey, Jon. Hey, Sarah.

Jon Fansmith: How are you both doing today?

Mushtaq Gunja: Jon, given the Washington football team's win yesterday and the Giants' win on Sunday, do I need to stop making fun of the NFC East? Can I still make fun of your Eagles team that did not win this week or the week before or the before or the week before?

Jon Fansmith: And is unlikely to win for the week coming or the week following or the week following. No, I think certainly ridiculing the Eagles is a legitimate pastime. It's what the entire city of Philadelphia has been doing for the last month or so. The rest of the NFC East is itself, I think, very deserving of scorn and ridicule despite one good weekend for them. So, carry on. I appreciate you being seemingly sensitive to my concerns, whereas you never are privately. That's really just pretense for the audience, obviously.

Mushtaq Gunja: Well, we have a conversation coming up about mental health, a very serious and important conversation with Sian Beilock. In that spirit, I've been concerned about your mental health as well, which is why I thought I would start there. Sarah, how are you?

Sarah Spreitzer: I'm good. I was confused there for a moment. Because obviously, this is a conversation I can fully participate in... not. I thought maybe you guys had discussed changing the topic of the podcast without consulting me. And I was worried about my own mental health, just going crazy, like I hadn't gotten the memo or something that we had switched to football.

Jon Fansmith: Just trying something out. Obviously, some people struggle to roll with things, other people adapt quickly. We're finding that out right now.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yep.

Jon Fansmith: I though Mushtaq, you were asking about my mental health because of what is happening in our nation's capital right now, which has also been very... had a negative impact on my overall mental health and wellbeing.

Mushtaq Gunja: Tell us about it.

Jon Fansmith: Well, I think the way I like to explain it is, Congress has done just about nothing over the last nine months since last doing some supplemental work at the end of March, beginning of April. As a result, like a college student cramming for finals, they're trying to get everything in the night before they leave town. They are trying to wrap up all the funding for all the federal agencies. The fiscal year '21 funding bills, all 12 of them, do it in one fell swoop. Along with that, the long dormant supplemental emergency relief discussions that we've talked about and talked about and talked about, have suddenly restarted and are accelerating. It looks like there is widespread agreement, they'll do a bill before the holiday break. And then finally, there's these persistent rumors that the authorizers, the folks who follow education policy most closely in Congress, are going to do a bill on FAFSA simplification that is not just going to make it easier for people to fill out the form that's used to apply for federal student aid, but will fundamentally change the way they calculate who gets aid and how much aid they get. After a long period of very closely following events that didn't seem to be moving much of anywhere, we're getting a whole lot of action in pretty much every area we care about right before the break. It's not great.

Sarah Spreitzer: You left one thing off that list, Jon, the National Defense Authorization Act.

Jon Fansmith: I did, yes.

Sarah Spreitzer: Which is another must-pass bill. That's like the extra credit one that's easily passed before this. And just like college students, I'm sure it will all work out fine.

Jon Fansmith: Right. Nothing like leaving your work til the last minute to make sure large incredibly complicated pieces of legislation move smoothly. But I mean, it's sort of funny about it will all work out fine. A lot of this is happening really, behind closed doors. It's compared to how we've generally seen these processes go forward. Certainly on the pandemic relief, these were very public. There was a lot of feedback from the public, and members were communicating very clearly. A lot of this is, there's a small negotiating group that's putting these proposals together. Certainly people are weighing in with them, but it's not as we record this, abundantly clear what decisions they're making. We have some indications, obviously. We think sadly, overall, the amount of funding that will go out to colleges and universities will be far short of what we know is needed... still helpful. Obviously, you don't want to dismiss what looks to be tens of billions of dollars in support. But we've talked about it. We think there's at least $120 billion in need out there, and this will be a small piece of that.

Sarah Spreitzer: Didn't we predict that $120 billion several months ago?

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. It's actually a composite of a couple different estimates we put together. One in the spring, one in the summer. We actually just sent a letter last week actually, up to Congress where we went through those estimates we made. Based on data we're getting from schools, based on information we surveyed schools from, just walked through those estimates and saw what they're if anything... far, far, far too low. The impact, particularly in areas like testing where the cost for institutions based on just the data we got, was three times what schools had estimated it would be... along with other things that are now becoming clear to us like cuts in state support, which we didn't know about in the spring. We expected they were coming, but now we're actually seeing the numbers coming in, are just having a devastating impact on schools, bottom line. We're sharing that information. We certainly had hoped for more. It's obviously positive to get something, but this is hopefully and it's talked about often, a down payment on the bigger bill that will come in March, early in the Biden administration. That's certainly what has this bill has been portrayed as not the end of relief, but a step in the way. And we'll keep working towards that.

Mushtaq Gunja: Was there a movement this week on DACA and on H-1B?

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, there was great news yesterday. USCIS, because of a recent court decision actually, announced that they were going to finally start accepting new applications for DACA. And obviously, that would be based on the DACA program as it was before the Trump administration tried to end it in 2017. Obviously, it's not going to capture everyone. But for the last four years, they've not been accepting new applications. So, we were really pleased with that information. We also saw some court cases on the H-1B final rules. It appears, at least as of today, DHS withdrew their final rule. And so, we don't believe that the government will be appealing those cases. This is all part of the Trump administration's actions, I think, to try and get things in place before they leave office. There's just a ton of action, flurry of activity on the regulatory side.

Mushtaq Gunja: Have we heard anything new from the incoming Biden administration about what they might do with some of these actions, both executive and more formal as it relates to international students and immigration?

Sarah Spreitzer: I was reading an article last night that the Trump administration actually took over 400 actions to change immigration policy during the last four years I don't know, I would think that's some kind of record. It's going to take the Biden administration some time to unravel everything that's been done, even before they can kind of take some proactive steps to do things with their own immigration policies. We've heard that President-elect Biden is going to restore DACA on day one, and that he is likely going to be sending some sort of immigration package up to the hill. There's been a lot of hope for the past decade that Congress would do something on comprehensive immigration reform. They haven't been able to do it. And given the fact that we're likely facing a divided Congress next year, I'm not going to hold my breath on that. But they'll be active in this area, it'll just be in a different way from the Trump administration.

Jon Fansmith: I think that, Mushtaq, one of the other things just happened recently, speaking about actions the Biden administration will have to take early on is... we have been asking for an extension of the student loan repayments freeze that exists. There have been some developments in that area as recently as last week, right?

Mushtaq Gunja: I think that's right. I think that the Trump administration, or Secretary DeVos, has extended the student loan repayment moratorium through January. So he's given all us federal borrowers an extra month of not having to repay our loans right away. I mean, this is sort of the definition, I think, of kicking the can down the road. I mean literally, just kicking it down a month. Things aren't going to be materially different on February 1st, I think, than they were on January 1st. I think it will absolutely be one of the first things that the Biden administration needs to be thinking about. In my conversations with the folks over at FSA, it doesn't quite seem like it will be easy to just turn on the repayment of tens of millions of borrowers' loans. You probably know that better than I, Jon. It will be a process, and I wish the Biden administration well.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, it's 44 million borrowers. I think I saw today actually, that looking at the data, only 11% of those borrowers are currently making payments. You think 89% are not, the fact that you've pushed it out a month, doesn't give a whole lot of long-term confidence or stability of the process. You think it's not just the Department of Education making the decision, they employ a lot of servicers who work on their behalf. There has to be coordination between the department, those people and the borrowers. I think there's already been reports about the widespread chaos that could result if repayment is all of a sudden flipped back on. The relief bill actually has, at least as initially proposed, an extension now through the end of March. Hopefully, that might be included as well or maybe even pushed past from the end of January through since they have to pay a little money for that, buy the administration some time. Also, of course, if you listen, some people in the administration will forgive all student loan debts on day one. So this may be a moot point entirely then if nobody has to repay.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, I guess we-

Sarah Spreitzer: It's going to be a very busy first day.

Jon Fansmith: Restoring DACA, eliminating student loan debt. I imagine outside of higher ed, there are some priorities too, not that I pay attention to them.

Mushtaq Gunja: The other thing that I've been working on and it's I think a nice segue to our next conversation is, I've been looking at our most recent Pulse Point survey and its results, it will be coming out this week. As with previous Pulse Point surveys, ACE surveys, mental health continues to be at the top of the list of concerns for college presidents. Student mental health, staff, faculty mental health. I'm really eager to have this conversation with President Beilock of Barnard. I'd love to ask her about how she's thinking about that on campus. I know she has many a program designed to target this problem, and her research is on this topic as well. I'm really, really excited about having that conversation.

Jon Fansmith: It's a very timely conversation and one the Mushtaq and Sarah will be having with Sian Beilock, the president of Barnard College, right after this break.

Mushtaq Gunja: And welcome back. We are honored this week to be joined by Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College. President Beilock became the eight president of Barnard in July of 2017. Prior to joining Barnard, President Beilock spent 12 years at the University of Chicago as a professor of psychology, and in the provost office lastly as executive vice provost. A cognitive scientist by training, Beilock has spent her career studying performance anxiety and how it can be alleviated and exacerbated, with a special focus on math and science success for women and girls. Her TED Talk on this topic has been viewed more than two million times. It's great. I assign it to my students right before exams, and they tell me that it helps them as they sit for those very difficult exams. Professor Beilock, welcome to the podcast.

Sian Beilock: Thank you for having me.

Mushtaq Gunja: Part of the reason we were so eager to have you is, we saw your piece last month in The Hechinger Report about a meeting you had with a dozen first-year students on Zoom because of the pandemic. I'd love to ask you a little bit about that meeting. But first, would you tell us a little bit about where Barnard is in relation to this pandemic? Do you have students on campus? How are they doing? How are things going?

Sian Beilock: They're going okay. I mean, we're all experiencing lots of challenges, but I also see opportunities. Barnard is a really uniquely situated institution. We are a college focused on empowering women at Columbia University. We're our own institution, but we have this great relationship with Columbia. Meaning, classes are cross-listed, our faculty are tenured at both institutions, our students actually get diplomas from Barnard and Columbia, and we're in the middle of New York City. What it means to be your own institution at this point is that you can really nimble. We made some decisions pretty close to the beginning of the semester to have our classes remote in the fall. We really just decided that we didn't feel like we had the data or the knowledge to ensure the health and safety of our students.

It was an individual decision for individual colleges and universities. But what happened was about 40% of our students moved close to campus. And we put up a huge testing program, we're testing them all weekly. We gradually started opening up campus for students working in labs, dance studios and others. We're excited to use everything we've learned in the fall to bring a portion of our students back in residence in the spring. And really, we've taken an iterative to opening.

Mushtaq Gunja: That's great, I'm glad that it's going well. The middle of this COVID spike can't be an easy time for you, as we're thinking and approaching spring. But you're still thinking about bringing some students back?

Sian Beilock: Yeah. I mean really, the difficulty of being a leader in this time is that there's no playbook, right? I mean, we're used to in higher ed knowing what our peers are doing, understanding particular situations. We've been really taking a data driven approach. We know that testing is key and testing of asymptomatic individuals. Even though our students were living off campus, we feel that we are of the community and we tested all of them weekly. That's the data we have. We have done about 11,000 tests this fall, and we've only had eight positives. We know our students are living in small pods off campus together in apartments, it's New York City. So we're going to mimic that on campus for about 30% of our students. All of our students will have their own room, but live in a suite-style configuration with a shared common area for eating and shared bathrooms. This does two things. One, it mimics the data that we know is working off campus. But it also combats something that we've seen a lot of our peer institutions, the Ivy-Pluses struggling with, is loneliness. We know that this pandemic has huge effects on physical health, but also mental health. Maybe not talked about as much, but just as important. We're using lessons learned to ensure that all of our students have sort of a pod-like structure to help support them.

Sarah Spreitzer: President Beilock, your research talks a lot about how context can help address anxiety. The testing and rearranging the living situations and things, do you see that as part of responding to the anxiety that students may be feeling?

Sian Beilock: Yeah. I mean, I think we really... we're trying to take a holistic approach and a holistic approach to wellbeing. We learned a lot from peer institutions where students came to campus, some of them maybe left because they were feeling really lonely. And so, our goal is to create really, a holistic environment of safety and wellbeing. That involves testing. It involves how students are living. It involves outreach. But it also involves what's happening in the classroom. Again, being a small nimble institution within this larger university, we were able to really work with our faculty, and they took the lead here. They were amazing, to shift a lot of their classes to focus on the current time. About a third of our classes in the fall semester, and my understanding is that will continue, actually changed. The faculty changed their courses to focus on the current pandemic, current issues around racial and social justice, really meeting students where they were.

Mushtaq Gunja: How have your students responded? Have you gotten feedback from them about this shift to courses focused on the pandemic and racial and social justice?

Sian Beilock: Yeah. I mean, I think certainly when we went online in the spring, like many, it was very quick. The faculty weren't as prepared obviously, because it was really quick. A lot of our students have really enjoyed these courses. We have a microbiology course all about COVID, a computer science course that's focused on privacy. Several of our humanities courses focused on social justice, activism. I think our students have enjoyed really sort of meeting the issues where they are. I think these are actually very difficult courses oftentimes. I'm a firm believer that learning in the classroom doesn't always have to be comfortable. Students are having to grapple with issues that maybe they don't have the language for or they have a language for that the faculty doesn't have a language for. But I think in general, the idea that teaching changes in this moment, I take it from my research that it provides a context from which students to make meaning, and I think that's important.

Sarah Spreitzer: Do you think it's too early to talk about lessons learned of what you've been doing during the pandemic, and things that Barnard may carry forward to help address mental health? Because obviously, mental health for students was a big issue that I think our institutions were grappling with even before the pandemic. Are there lessons learned that you think will be carried forward?

Sian Beilock: Yeah. I mean, I may be a little biased, because I'm a psychologist and I bring mental health as sort of central to the table. Barnard is about academic excellence, there's no question about that. We're one of the most selective of any college or university in the country. Our students are young women, they push hard. When I got here, I understood. I saw some of the data that our students were also pretty anxious, and that's not unsurprising. We know that young people have become even more anxious in the pandemic. And so, I think what the pandemic has done is laid bare some of the issues that already were there. I certainly hope college and university professors... and I know some of the surveys that you've done have really shown that mental health is at the top of many people's lists. For us at Barnard, we have partnered with the JED Foundation, which is a foundation focused on mental health on campuses. And we've partnered with them to understand what was happening at Barnard and how we could advance mental health. What has been most important to us, it's something that we started last year, with a whole campaign called Feel Well, Do Well is that, mental health is not just a responsibility of the counseling center, that mental health for students' wellbeing on campus is everyone's responsibility. If we're not training and equipping faculty, dining hall workers, deans, everyone who's going to deal with students to know how to support those students and push forward other students, then we're really missing something on campus.

Sarah Spreitzer: What does that mean to equip faculty, dining room workers? What does that look like?

Sian Beilock: All different sorts of way. First is training, right? To notice signs of unease in students or maybe students missing classes. On Zoom, it's harder, but we've worked hard with faculty because they're oftentimes the people who are seeing students, to know. For faculty, dining hall workers, everyone to know where to send students or how to turn for support. And then it happens, that sort of basic training. But it happens in all sorts of ways. We started programs last year to talk a lot with our students about failure looks like. We had a series of dinners called Fail Forward dinners where faculty met with students and talked about all the times they messed up. I think our students often think that success is a linear path. In fact, if you ask anyone who's successful how they got to where they are, nine times out of ten, things were unpredictable and they didn't take a straight shot. I think it's so important for our young people to get comfortable with taking risks, with failing, with looking in the wrong direction. It's about equipping them with the skills to get up and pivot when needed.

Mushtaq Gunja: Are there resources around those trainings that you have found particularly helpful? Did you grow those in-house? Did you partner with outside organizations?

Sian Beilock: We use a lot from the JED Foundation, and some of those are grown in-house with our counseling center. The JED Foundation, I think, has great resources to help college campuses. The idea is that we don't have to reinvent the wheel. I mean, every college campus is different, but it doesn't have to be... you don't have to do it all on your own. I think that's one of the things that's so nice about JED, is that it's designed to bring lessons learned from one college campus to another. Something else that we really realized last year and we're carrying forward this year, and I think this is coming out of the pandemic is that it's not just about the wellbeing of our students, that we have to focus on faculty and staff wellbeing as well. This is something that I don't think we had thought as specifically about. But as we are in the middle of this pandemic when many of our faculty and staff are of the age where they're not only caring for their own children, but their parents, understanding and supporting their wellbeing I would argue is so equally as important as well. I hope as we come back and we come out of this and there is an increased focus on student mental health, that we don't forget about the rest of our community here because they go part and parcel together.

Mushtaq Gunja: I think it's such an important point. You mentioned that ACE has been doing some research in this field with some surveys about what college presidents are worried about right now. In the midst of this pandemic, even in the midst of pretty serious financial problems at many institutions, student mental health and mental health generally has been at the top of that list. Student mental health has been near the top of the list actually, for a series of months. One of the things that we're seeing though, as you just mentioned, is that presidents are increasingly worried about staff mental health as well. I think that that's right and important, given the age of many faculty members around the country. I mean, I would think that the worries about what the pandemic might mean for them coming back to campus, trying to work out Zoom for the first time... The first time I did a Zoom class was March 17th, and I was terrified. There's just a lot. I think you're doing exactly the right thing to focus on both ends, both the student and the staff mental health and faculty mental health.

Sian Beilock: I think I'd say it's really interesting, because we tend to have the inclination to survey students, to connect with students to see what's going on. But I've noticed that all the institutions that I've been at is that's less likely to have that conversation with faculty and staff outside of their job description. Right? We just talked about this idea and Barnard's whole premise around Feel Well, Do Well. Our new initiative is that wellness is a campus-wide thing, it's not just about what happens in the classroom or the counseling center. I don't think we at Barnard totally got it right. At the beginning of the semester, we expanded for example, our employee assistance program where faculty and staff could have extra support for elder care and child care. But we heard from the faculty very early on that they didn't want people in their homes they didn't know. Right? They wanted support for the people who had been babysitting before. It was a good example of how we had this resource that we hadn't really tweaked in the right way. We were paying for it, but people weren't using it. We were able to negotiate with our employee assistance program so that we'd pay a little extra as an institution, and faculty and staff could bring in whoever they wanted into their home and be subsidized. And it really changed uptake. It was not such a huge lift. I mean, it was a little more expensive, but it was certainly a better use of our funds than paying for something that faculty and staff weren't using. But it's a good example of how that two-way dialogue is so important.

Sarah Spreitzer: How are you helping staff and faculty who may have school-aged children of their own at home, and they're trying to balance work and virtual school?

Sian Beilock: Yeah. I have personal experience in this, and it's difficult. I have a nine-year-old at home who pops in at every moment. That is hard for her to be there. We did again, we really did some self-reflection over the summer, understanding that we might be in this position. We have a wonderful office initiative called Beyond Barnard, which is really our one-stop shop for career advising for students, for student employment, for internships. We asked the dean of Beyond Barnard to think about how we might help faculty and staff in this situation. We did two things that I'm really proud of that I know other institutions are starting to replicate and that will continue. The first is that we started the Barnard Tutoring Corps. We had students, often many of them on work-study who part of their scholarship, part of their financial aid is getting a job which wasn't so easy this fall. We had them join a program to help tutor faculty and staff children. This helped provide jobs for our financial aid students, but it also helped support faculty and staff. We've just gotten rave reviews from both sides. It was really a chance for the students to connect with faculty in a way they wouldn't otherwise, and it's really been helpful to faculty and staff in terms of especially when they don't have coverage for their kids. We're tutoring kids from 5 to 16. It can range from story time to helping with math homework. It's just been really a success, and we're planning to continue that.

Another is that we were able to help support faculty with Zoom by starting another program of Barnard prefectures. These are students who actually help faculty on Zoom with everything from chat rooms to scheduling meetings, to everything that is sort of a faculty having to learn at the last second and may be taking away from their ability to teach at the highest level. We had over 100 preceptors in different classes in the fall, and will continue that in the spring. I think these little things matter. It's certainly not everything, but the ability to not have to worry about a chat while you're teaching a class, to have someone who can help coordinate and follow up with questions... to know that every Thursday when you teach you have a Barnard tutor to work with your eight-year-old, I mean, I think these little things matter. From my research, I know that when you have a little bit more control over a situation when there are some things that are predictable, the anxiety goes down.

Mushtaq Gunja: I've been reading former Surgeon General, maybe future Surgeon General Vivek Murthy's book on loneliness, which I recommend to everybody. I mean, it's totally changed the way that I think about certain mental health and the toll that it takes on physical health. I mean, I know that you've been thinking a lot about loneliness and have put together this Barnard Connect program. Would you tell us a little bit about that?

Sian Beilock: Yeah. Sarah asked about lessons learned. One thing that I think all of us are taking away from this is that there are some real negatives associated with virtual learning, but there's also some real benefits of using virtual connections in the right way. Barnard Connect is a new program that we launched really designed to connect alumnae with students. It could be anything from just getting to know an alum, or maybe an alum has career advice in a particular field, or even a short project they need a student to work on. The whole idea is really that we have this family of 35,000 alums at Barnard, women who are ready to fight for our students to help uplift them, and virtually is a fantastic way to connect them. Students can connect with alums. Alums can go on there and say they're willing to take one call or two calls, they have a short project, they have an internship. The whole idea is to have sort of a marketplace where alums and students can connect. We really think about Barnard as being Barnard for life. The Beyond Barnard career advising is for life. Alums use it, students use it. My favorite was last year, we had a 75-year-old alum. Beyond Barnard helped her set up her LinkedIn profile, all really amazing stuff. I don't think the impetus for being able to do that is that we were distant, and it's a way to connect.

Sarah Spreitzer: That's really important. I mean, being in Washington, D.C., you see all the kids that come out here for internships and all the networking that they do. That is something unfortunately, that's been lost a bit from the pandemic. Barnard Connect sounds like something that you could carry forward, especially for those kids that may not be able to afford to travel to a place or take on an unpaid internship.

Sian Beilock: I was just going to say that we know also that that networking is a place where oftentimes women fail to do it at the same level and have the same access. One of the reasons and the idea behind Barnard Connect is that we're trying to get rid of some of those barriers that are otherwise there.

Sarah Spreitzer: I was going to say, I know that you've also... you have an initiative around first generation students, which is something near and dear to my heart. I think that you said that you actually launched it during the pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about that and how people have responded to that?

Sian Beilock: Yeah. I mean, I think it goes back to this question about what the pandemic is doing, speeding up versus changing how we approach particular situations. My team and I with faculty and students, have been talking for a while about an issue that I think is often overlooked, and it comes back to health and wellbeing. I don't think they're separate at all. But one thing we noticed is that first generation low-income and international students oftentimes didn't have the same experience with navigating higher ed, which meant that everything they did was harder. As a cognitive scientist, I think about this in terms of brain power. We only have so much brain power to go around at once. And when we're doing two things at once, it's harder. It's why driving and talking on a cellphone is not a good idea because you're dividing your attention. What we heard time and time again is that yeah, there was support and pocket of money for students or help in terms of navigating the system, but they had to spend a lot of time and cognitive resources finding it.

And so, we had been talking for a while about really breaking down the silo, centralizing this idea. We had planned to launch next year, a new office initiative called Access Barnard. During the pandemic this summer, when we knew that students were going to be everywhere, that some students needed laptops or support with internet or a desk or help navigating getting into a class, we decided to fast-track and launch Access Barnard. What it is, is really a one-stop shop for first generation low-income and international students that's supposed to take the cognitive load off of having to navigate the system. There are several things we're doing in Access Barnard. The first is a mentoring program. We have juniors and seniors mentoring first years and sophomores, specifically from those particular groups. A first gen junior or senior might mentor a first gen first year. The idea is to get answers to questions, so that you're not always having to reinvent the wheel.We also opened up an academic support fund, which was funded in large part by alumnae donations where students could apply for anything they needed, whether it was internet or a textbook or a laptop or whatever was not covered by financial aid that they needed help with, in one place. In the past, maybe they'd go to the financial aid office or they'd go to a specific department. It's just they had to run around and do a lot of work. The idea is that we are going to do that work for them. They apply to one fund and we do the work on the backend.

And then finally, we're also running programming for the entire institution. Really, what we've talked about is around adulting. How do you look a lease? How do you do a budget? All those questions that people just assume everyone else knows the answer to and no one knows the answer to. I think it's been well received. We're excited to have students back on campus. There's a great physical space. And we're really excited about this idea of taking some of the cognitive load off of students having to navigate the system.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, that transition to adulting really got sped up here, right? Because for so many of your students who would have otherwise been on campus and potentially eating in the dining hall, probably for many of these students, it's the first time they've had to sign a lease. It's probably the first time they've had to do a whole set of cooking and really think about all the food groups and the rest of the things it takes when you go out into the world. Many of them would be doing that at 23 or 24, and instead have to do it at 19.

Sian Beilock:
Yeah, and it's anxiety provoking. It takes cognitive effort that you could otherwise be devoting to other things. Maybe it's going on a run or focusing on your class. I think students, there's a real divide in terms of students who have a network of parents who can help them navigate that versus students who don't. Right?

Mushtaq Gunja: Right.

Sian Beilock: I don't think students always realize what the institution provides. We had a couple calls to Access Barnard this fall. "My landlord's not fixing my toilet. What do I do?" At first, I think the student assumed that we were in charge of that, right? So to have to say that we have no jurisdiction over this, but here are the tools you can use to get what you need to get. Some students are fortunate enough to be able to go to a parent and ask those questions, and some students aren't. The idea is to provide some of those that support and education in a way that allows students to advocate for themselves. And again, it takes... when you have the support structure around you, you use less resources, worrying and feeling isolated and alone. The idea is to help all students not have to use those resources to the extent possible.

Mushtaq Gunja: You mentioned, President Beilock, that there is no playbook for this. I gather that presidents are learning from each other in ways that are sort of more formal and more informal. But we hope that this podcast is a little part of that conversation. In that spirit, do you have advice for presidents in other institutions, deans of students at other institutions who are dealing with mental health? If you do, do you have particular advice for some of our institutions that are a little bit more under-resourced that Barnard is? What can people do on a little bit of a budget?

Sian Beilock: Yeah. Well, first of all, I will tell you that Barnard punches way above its weight with a pretty small endowment. We are always trying to be nimble in that way. But I would say that a lot of the things that we're doing don't have to require huge resources. Part of it is having campus understanding a conversation about the importance of health and wellness. A lot of that is done by bringing people in at different levels. When we started talking at Barnard about our Feel Well, Do Well campaign, it was talking to students, it was talking to faculty, chairs, talking to staff. It was creating a norm of having conversations around what it meant to think about mental health and wellness.

And then we set goals. How many faculty and staff, frontline workers, would be trained in to deal and to notice signs of distress? We wanted to get 100% of faculty and staff that interacted with students trained. It wasn't arduous. Some of this is just knowing where to call, what to know for signs of distress. We were able to achieve a lot of those goals. I think part of it is about always having it be part of the conversation, and that requires strategy. We had a communications grid and we had a constant drumbeat about what we were doing, until people started talking about it and bringing it out. It requires that sort of effort, both top-down and bottom-up. I don't think you need all the resources in the world to at least start having these conversations. The truth of the matter is, is that when you have the conversations when it's more socially acceptable to talk about being in distress, students and faculty and staff are more likely to ask for the help they need. I think what we worry about most I would say is... I do as a college president and I'm sure a lot of my fellow leaders do, are the students who are missing, who aren't asking for help, who aren't engaging. I think part of that is having it be a norm on campus to have those conversations.

Mushtaq Gunja: Do you have particular about talking to faculty, working with provosts in this regard? I mean, I think I've been really impressed in this conversation with how much you've been able to get buy-in from faculty. How did you do that?

Sian Beilock: Yeah. I'm a true and tried faculty member. I think, I came up through the faculty system and I know how... I mean, frankly and simply put, and I always say this, is that faculty own the values of an institution. So if you don't have faculty buy-in, it's not at the center of the institution. The way that I thought about this is not in juxtaposition to the academic program, this is in support of the academic program. You can't do well in the classroom if you don't feel well outside the classroom. Oftentimes, faculty are really interested in seeing... I mean, they are interested in seeing their students succeed in the classroom. And so, something that helps support this is not at the antithesis of what they do. Oftentimes, it's that faculty don't have the knowledge or resources to help support students in this way. Actually just giving faculty, "Here's who you call when you notice a student is not seeming to be him or herself. Here are some of the questions you can ask. Here are additional resources." It's actually very empowering. When I was at the University of Chicago, I did this on a different level in terms of supporting our graduate students and postdocs to get careers outside of academia. I think there was always this lore that faculty never wanted to talk about a PhD student leaving the academy. But truth be told is that faculty often don't know how to a PhD student about taking a job outside the academy. "I've never had a job outside the academy. I wouldn't know the first thing to say." But when there are resources and support, all of a sudden, it's a totally different conversation. I think that's true with mental health too. When I was at Chicago, we started a whole program called UChicagoGRAD designed to support graduate students and postdocs wherever they went, and I think it's been really successful.

Mushtaq Gunja: Well, thank you, thank you. Thank you so much for joining us today, President Beilock. You've given us a lot to think about and really good tangible advice, I think, which I hope will be very helpful to our colleagues in the field. Good luck in the spring, as you try to bring some of these students on board.

Sian Beilock: Yeah. Well, thank you. It's great to be here and to talk about something, an issue that's so important for all of us right now.

Jon Fansmith: To listen to earlier episodes and subscribe to dotEDU, you can find us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, and wherever you get your podcasts. For show notes and links to resources mentioned in the episode, you can go to our website at acenet.edu/podcast. You can also use our email, podcast@acenet.edu for suggestions for upcoming shows or guests you'd like to see or just thoughts on how we're doing. Before we go, I'd like to thank Carly O'Connell, Laurie Arnston, Audrey Hamilton, and Malcolm Moore, who are the exceptional producers of dotEDU and make us sound as good as we do every episode. And finally, I'd like to thank you for listening.

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​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major public policy issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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