How to address student wellness, post-pandemic

First, respond to trauma; then, create (and assess) wellness programs to facilitate ongoing student success—from academic progression and psychosocial stability to workforce readiness and more
Karen Gross, a former president of Southern Vermont College, is an advisor and consultant to nonprofit nonprofit higher ed institutions.
Karen Gross, a former president of Southern Vermont College, is an advisor and consultant to nonprofit higher ed institutions.

Wellness is a broad term. It can refer to physical wellness, and it can be used to address mental wellness, fiscal wellness (of people and institutions) and spiritual wellness. Add in social wellness, too. Indeed, under some definitions, there is intellectual wellness, environmental wellness and occupational wellness.

Some suggest that wellness is not an end, but a goal and a process.

Wellness is a word specifically used with increased frequency in educational contexts. Campuses are offering wellness courses, wellness centers and wellness initiatives. There is also a ranking of colleges that places a priority on wellness programming. And some campuses started using technology to measure student wellness—from monitoring blood pressure and activity levels to failures to enter dining halls or classrooms.

But even in the educational context, I am not confident that there is a shared understanding of wellness.

Read: Updated: 112 free higher ed resources during coronavirus pandemic

Improving (and assessing) wellness

Without a shared definition of wellness, it is almost impossible to know if we are making progress. Assessment is after all king (or queen).

Surely, we can agree that what constitutes quality wellness programs and initiatives can differ from campus to campus. Consider the range of institutional differences: student populations in terms of size and demographics, areas of academic expertise, role of athletics, presence of research in laboratories, on and off campus housing, average credit hours carried, and the nature of faculty.

So given that wellness programs can take myriad forms—some of which, or many of which, may be excellent—how do we talk about and share strategies for wellness programs that will help campus leaders develop or assess their own programs? In other words, what can we do to improve wellness despite a lack of shared programs formats and designs?

Read: Student mental health has ‘significantly worsened’ during pandemic

Read: The implications of closing campus and/or turning to online learning, and 10 concrete suggestions for helping students cope

Read: 5 key ingredients for creating a supportive culture during a crisis

Replicating values

Instead of suggesting the replication of programs, I want to suggest the replication of values. Certain values undergird wellness programming—wherever it is located and to whomever it is provided.

In identifying values, I want to point out one major caveat. I am assuming that the student population is not suffering from acute trauma symptomology. If the students, faculty and staff are struggling with trauma post-pandemic (or during the pandemic), then the first step is the amelioration of trauma. Consider it this way: In Maslow’s hierarchy, it is hard to focus (impossible even) on higher-order items such as problem-solving and ethics if one cannot find food or a safe place to sleep. As important as higher-order items are, basic human needs overtake other initiatives.

Whatever form wellness programs, courses and centers take, students must consider them trustworthy. And to achieve that end, programs need to incorporate the values of transparency, tranquility, tolerance and temperance.

If students are showing trauma symptomology, then wellness programs will look different from those that I will be describing here. While there is some overlap, my focus is on programming geared to helping students (as well as faculty, staff and administrators) when they are not in the midst of trauma.

Here are four values (not in order of importance) that every wellness program should embody, and they can do so in myriad ways. Call them the 4 T’s: transparency, tranquility, tolerance and temperance. All of them foster another T word: trust. Why, readers might ask, is trust not added to the list? Trust is built; the 4 T’s are strategies or pathways for facilitating, creating and providing trust. Trauma is not one of these T words, and that’s by design.

  1. Transparency is a willingness to share both good and bad information and events. Disclosure is key. Wellness programs should not shy away from dealing with difficult issues, such as eating disorders, depression and suicide. Students can ferret out inauthenticity, which will doom programs. Indeed, wellness programs cannot sugar coat issues; wellness programs need to foster openness in every sense, while preserving personal privacy.
  2. Tranquility is not an effort to create a Zen-like state for all students. Instead, the term is used here to address the need for consistency and predictability—both of which will lead to tranquility. In the absence of order and structure, we feel uneasy. Wellness programs need to create environments where there is safety and a sense of comfort.
  3. Tolerance speaks to the reality of student behavior. It is not always consistent and well directed. Students can make bad judgments; they can mishandle situations through actions and inactions; they can punish themselves for things that are not of their own making. Wellness programs need to appreciate that the behaviors seen in students mask the “why” question. Used here, tolerance is a value that fosters recognizing behavior as a complex manifestation of larger issues that need to be decoded. This is not about coddling or abdicating personal responsibility; it is about developing strategies for understanding what is motivating our actions.
  4. Temperance is most assuredly not about stopping alcohol or drug consumption on and off campus. That’s a difference issue. Temperance has to do with decision-making and choice architecture, and how to foster thoughtful as opposed to knee-jerk responses to situations. And with temperance comes the opportunity to explore new options—ones that may not have been considered in the past.

Bottom line, whatever form wellness programs, courses and centers take, students must consider them trustworthy. And to achieve that end, they need to incorporate the values of transparency, tranquility, tolerance and temperance.

Read: Student self-care practices on the course syllabus

Read: Why is student wellness blooming at med schools?

Moving forward

When students return to brick-and-mortar colleges and universities or continue with some form of online learning, higher education institutions will need to focus on their wellness. If they are struggling with acute symptomology of trauma, we need to address that first and foremost. Then, once things are more settled and consistency and stability have returned (or at least tamed), we can create wellness programs that facilitate ongoing student success, which includes but is not limited to: academic progression; psychosocial stability; workforce readiness; and the capacity to engage with others both interpersonally and in terms of developing lasting relationships with friends, mentors and partners (in love and work).

Wellness programs, initiatives and centers have their work cut out for them. But they can offer students across the educational landscapes strategies and approaches that will facilitate their maturation. Perhaps, we can call wellness efforts (whatever form they take) wellness cartography: mapping the many ways students can find their way, literally and figuratively.

Karen Gross, a former president of Southern Vermont College, is an advisor and consultant to nonprofit higher ed institutions. She is also the author of Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door (Teachers College Press, June 2020) and Breakaway Learners (Teachers College Press, 2017) 

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Karen Gross
Karen Gross
An author and educator, Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College, and was a senior advisor to the Department of Education during the Obama Administration.

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