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How to Create—and Maintain—Healthy Student Life


Julianne Basinger

​As recent tumult puts campuses in the spotlight, leaders focus on engaging students across the spectrum.

The young woman tests the ropes attached to her harness as she eyes the 40-foot climbing wall before her. It’s a Friday night on this commuter campus, but the climbing wall room in Utah Valley University’s Student Life and Wellness Center is busy, while other students head toward volleyball matches in the building or play video games on big-screen monitors downstairs. For Emmalynn Pace, an 18-year-old freshman from Nevada, the building with its climbing wall has become a regular part of her life outside the classroom. “It’s really the only place I spend time on campus outside classes,” she said. “Here and the library.”

But as many U.S. college students like Pace remain focused on their individual studies and pursuits, many others are embroiled in broad societal problems that find their way onto campuses, from sexual violence to racial unrest and free speech issues. As college and university presidents consider how to create inclusive and welcoming communities for all students at their institutions, they are finding that an array of factors contribute to the overall student experience on a campus. Institutional leaders are seeking innovative ways, through facilities as well as program initiatives, to both cultivate healthy student life and deal with problems as they arise.

That ability to deal with crises has been at the forefront for many college and university presidents during the past year. Student protests this past fall at the University of Missouri after ongoing discord over racial issues were followed by the resignations of the university system’s president and the chancellor of the main campus. Those demonstrations, fueled by social media posts, have helped spark protests and debates about racism and free speech on other campuses across the country.

“The issues we’re seeing in colleges and universities are a microcosm of issues we struggle with as a society and have struggled with for decades,” said Alexander C. McCormick, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement and an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University Bloomington. Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA - Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, noted that college and university presidents need to be visible and be clear in communicating what the standards of the campus community are when responding to these crises. “Particularly in today’s climate, students are looking for symbolic leadership,” he said. “They’re looking for ways in which presidents and their staff are representing a values position that is consistent with human dignity and social justice.”

Presidents should also be cultivating relationships with students and talking with students about the experiences they have and how the institution can address them, long before crises arise, Kruger said. “If the first time you’re engaging with a group of student leaders is the night of the protest, it’s probably a little too late.” When protests and conflict do occur, listening is important. “It’s important they feel like their concerns are being heard.”

A Comprehensive Approach

For all students, presidents are seeking ways beyond the crises of the moment to make their campuses inclusive and engaging. “It’s all a package,” said James H. Mullen Jr., president of Allegheny College (PA) and former chair of the American Council on Education’s Board of Directors. “It’s what you do in the residence hall, it’s the kind of community you try to create that’s welcoming and inclusive, it’s service to the campus, it’s service to the community.”

The experience students have outside the classroom ultimately influences whether they persist to graduate, Kruger noted. “We have just a tremendous amount of evidence now that students who are actively engaged on campus persist at higher rates and have higher grade point averages.”

Campus experiences matter, yet as more students have an online experience with institutions, college and university leaders must also look at ways to engage students in meaningful dialogue that may be more virtual, he said, through social media or other online means that students more often than not are accessing through their mobile devices. “We’re going to have to be more innovative about connecting with students in ways they like to connect.”

After students graduate, the experiences they had outside the classroom play a strong role in whether they as alumni think their college degree was worth the cost. The most recent Gallup-Purdue Index surveyed more than 30,000 college graduates and found that if they had any of three experiential learning opportunities—an internship related to their studies, active involvement in extracurricular activities, or a project that took a semester or more to complete—their likelihood to strongly agree that their education was worth the cost increased 1.5 times. “It’s not where you go to college but how you go to college that matters,” Purdue University (IN) President Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. said when the index was released this past September. The annual index was launched in 2014 through a partnership between Gallup, Purdue University, and Lumina Foundation as a way to respond to the call for increased accountability in higher education.

Despite that data on the value of engagement outside the classroom, many college students still don’t have access to meaningful extracurricular experiences, or don’t take advantage of them. The National Survey of Student Engagement’s Founding Director George D. Kuh has recommended since 2007 that institutions should aspire for all students to participate in at least two of what he calls “high-impact practices” as undergraduates—one during their freshman year and one in the context of their major. The high-impact practices he identified include participating in a learning community and in service learning, as well as internships and study abroad. Yet the 2015 survey results, released last November, found that 39 percent of seniors reported they hadn’t engaged in the recommended two practices.

McCormick, the survey’s current director, noted that a student’s major plays a role in extracurricular engagement, as do the individual students’ choices and the degree of institutional and faculty support and commitment. “It’s important to get faculty members on board with these ideas,” he said. “Higher education being what it is, it’s not something a president can legislate, so it’s important to have leadership and endorsement within the faculty.” He recommended that college and university presidents publicly acknowledge faculty members who are already working extensively to foster student engagement outside the classroom. Faculty members also need to know they won’t be penalized later in a review process for participating in extracurricular student engagement activities at the expense of other work, he noted.

High-Impact Practices

College leaders can utilize student voices to build campus support for focusing on student life, as well, McCormick said. “High-impact practices are often described as life-changing experiences, so if you can get students to offer testimony, that’s often pretty compelling and powerful.”

Many higher education institutions in recent years have created living-learning residential communities around special interest areas as a way to engage students, with faculty playing a role in that residential life. “This is a huge area of growth on campuses,” said NASPA’s Kruger. Colleges and universities have long housed honors program students together to help expand their intellectual activity beyond the classroom, but the newer residential programs are driven by student interests, whether thematic, global, or centering on social justice. Oregon State University, for example, offers nine living-learning communities. They include a Global Village, an entrepreneurship program, an arts and social justice community, and even an Adventure Leadership Institute program that provides residents the opportunity to establish friendships and develop leadership skills while hiking, rafting, and skiing together.

At Allegheny, Mullen said the Pennsylvania liberal arts college’s living-learning communities have expanded in the last couple of years to make the campus community more inclusive for transgendered students. The campus offers all-gendered living in its residence halls for students who want it, and the college has added all-gendered restrooms to its academic and administrative buildings, as well. “Everything we do grows from our statement of community,” Mullen said. “Where we make progress or where we fall short, it’s all about human dignity. Hopefully through that respect for human dignity, we are making everyone feel welcome and included on the campus.”

Healthy Habits and Religious Pluralism

At a time when binge drinking and sexual assault issues continue to plague campuses, college and university presidents are also looking for ways to cultivate healthy habits among students. Many colleges and universities across the nation have built student life centers like the one at Utah Valley University in the past dozen years, in addition to their traditional student union buildings, as a way to foster healthy habits and help engage students in a vibrant campus life.

While some higher education leaders view the elaborate facilities as part of the academic arms race to attract and recruit students, most student affairs professionals and college and university presidents also recognize that the centers play an important role in creating campus experiences that will become fond collegiate memories for students. The buildings attract not only young undergraduates  but older, nontraditional students, as well.

“These recreational facilities are used heavily at all hours of the day and are becoming an important part of the college experience,” Kruger said. “The number of students who participate in recreation activities is staggering and is a huge part of how students manage stress and pay attention to their own wellness. These are tools for us in increasing retention and persistence for our students. They’re not frivolous.”

Since the State University of New York College at Cortland’s $56 million Student Life Center opened to students, faculty, and staff last February, an average of 2,500 people a day have run the elevated track, worked out on the fitness equipment, and participated in activities ranging from basketball and ultimate Frisbee to yoga and meditation. “It’s becoming the focal point of the campus,” said Cortland’s president, Erik J. Bitterbaum. Vanderbilt University (TN) revamped its recreation center into a Recreation and Wellness Center that opened in 2014 and houses the institution’s outdoor recreation and wellness programs, with offerings from hiking to nutrition courses.

Michelle Olsen Taylor, Utah Valley University’s vice president of student affairs, said her campus’s $40 million, 193,000-square-foot Student Life and Wellness Center, funded through student fees, has made a dramatic difference since it opened in 2014. “We immediately saw more students staying on campus, rather than just coming to class and going home, and that was the purpose,” she said. “We have found that the more time a student spends on campus, the more likely they are to be retained and graduate.”

In addition to sports facilities such as the climbing wall, indoor track, fitness equipment, and volleyball courts, the center offers students free yoga classes and discounted massages to help manage stress, and houses a Reflection Center that includes a meditation room. Taylor said the Reflection Center, which also has a room for verbalized prayer and another for meeting space, was intended to create a place for students of all faiths, on a campus where many but not all of the students are Mormons. “We’ve really used this building as a way to include diversity and foster acceptance and a lot of interaction,” she said.

That goal of fostering religious pluralism and campus inclusion also prompted Georgetown University (DC), the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university, to become the first Catholic university in the United States to hire a full-time rabbi as chaplain, back in 1968. And the campus’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding works to help build cultural bridges between Islam and Christianity.

While college and university presidents look for ways to encourage healthy student behavior, their institutions are still grappling with ways to manage problems such as binge drinking. To help find solutions, the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health aided in creating the College Alcohol Intervention matrix. Campus leaders can use the tool offered by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to help weigh the effectiveness of different strategies for tackling campus binge drinking.

Supporting Mental Health

Higher education institutions are also looking for ways to address challenges surrounding students with mental health problems. “More students are coming to campus with serious mental health issues, and more are medicated for psychological issues,” Kruger noted. Colleges and universities need to find ways to help those students manage so they can succeed in their learning and graduate. “These are not just mental health issues, they’re retention issues.” They can also be factors in campus safety.

One model program is the Red Folder Initiative, launched by the University of California system in 2012. Each campus in the system has published a “Red Folder” to serve as a quick reference guide to mental health resources for faculty and staff members as well as graduate teaching and research assistants and help them identify signs of student distress. The folders clarify who the faculty, staff, and assistants should contact in the event of an emergency and provide tips for how to approach a student who may be in distress and connect the student with resources for help. The California State University system last October adapted the Red Folder initiative for its 23 campuses as well.

Other large societal issues such as sexual assault and its prevention remain factors at the forefront of student experience on campuses. Colleges and universities across the country have been rethinking their policies on addressing sexual assault. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued new rules that took effect last July, requiring colleges and universities to train students and employees on preventing sexual assault, dating violence, and domestic assaults, as well as stalking. President Obama in 2014 also launched a national campaign, It’s On Us, urging men and women to make a personal commitment to helping end campus sexual assault. Many colleges and universities have made the issue part of their freshman and transfer student orientation. But Kruger said the educational efforts should be continuous if colleges and universities truly are interested in changing the culture. “You can’t get it down to just one orientation,” he said. “What we know about behavior change on issues like this is it has to be ongoing.”

“A Very Complicated Moment”

That advice can also apply to the problems around race relations and free speech many campuses have been facing. President Mullen at Allegheny said meaningful dialogue matters. “This is a very complicated moment in our nation and in the world,” he said. “Be present for students, listen to students, be honest with students. In places where you’re struggling and maybe the institution isn’t moving as fast as it might, ask for a willingness to work together on issues society is facing and we’re facing.”

The generation of millennials, he added, wants to make a difference in the world, and it’s reflected in their civic engagement. “These are young people who care deeply about the world they live in and trying to make it a better place.”

At Utah Valley University, Emmalynn Pace would probably agree with that assessment, though at 18 she’s just beginning to explore that world and hasn’t even yet decided on a major. For now, she eyes the university’s climbing wall with its color-coded handholds mapping different routes to the top. On this night, while a friend belays the ropes for her, she chooses the red ones. And she begins her way up, finding one handhold and one place to balance a foot after another.


Julianne Basinger is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer and editor and a former longtime journalist with The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Associated Press.

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