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Is the Pursuit of Campus Wellness Like Landscaping?

By: Robert Chapman, PhD

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Who has not noticed the difference between a well landscaped and maintained property and one that has been “let go”? The neatly trimmed lawn/greens/fairways, edged along the sidewalk and driveway, free of weeds, especially dandelions. The other - scraggly grass, overgrown gardens, and lawn awash in a sea of yellow blossoms.

Ever try to address a “dandelion problem” by simply removing all the yellow blossoms? This is hard work and takes time, but seems to yield results…that is until the next morning when the lawn is once again awash in yellow blossoms, the landscaping version of the carnival game, “whack a mole.” Until and unless the persistent weed’s taproot is removed, it continues to flourish.

The pursuit of campus wellness is like maintaining a well-manicured lawn and garden. It not only requires work, but it necessitates planning, forethought, and the realization that different issues/problems require innovative—and persistent—consideration using proven strategies for treatment and care.

To address only those aspects of student wellness that overtly relate to academic success and an institution’s mission statements is a perfunctory approach, that, in a way is like addressing the challenges of landscaping by simply eliminating dandelion blossoms; there is the appearance of success in the short run, but campus culture remains frustratingly intractable with high rates of attrition, issues related to high-risk and dangerous student behaviors like drinking, sexual assaults, vandalism and incivility, and, yes, impaired academic performance.

Just as a diligent grounds keeper recognizes that landscaping necessitate a consistent investment of time and resources, so must institutions of higher education (IHE) acknowledge that true student wellness involves more than treating strep throats, mandating study halls for student athletes, and requiring academic advising for all students.

Comprehensive student wellness is summarized by David Anderson in the introduction to his new “Snapshot” in the Routledge Think About It series, “5 Key Tips for Student Wellness: Strategies for Student Success[i],” like this:

 

Student success in college is valued by faculty, by staff, by parents, and by students themselves. While no single strategy will guarantee a student’s success, it is clear that students benefit from having healthy attitudes and wellness skills, both during their college years and throughout their lives. Similarly, wellness-related barriers and obstacles can directly or indirectly result in academic non-success, behavioral problems, and attrition…Proactive efforts help shape the campus environment to promote healthy decision-making by students, and to acquaint students with and nurture them to access a range of services and stimuli to maximize their own potential. Reactive efforts can help identify problems before they emerge, and refer students to appropriate specialists as needed (2016, introduction).

 

As Anderson suggests in his publication, there are five aspects of student wellness, and addressing each is a prerequisite for a comprehensive wellness initiative on a college or university campus: 1) acknowledging that students have pressing needs, 2) the institution where a student is matriculated has a “unique role to play” in address those needs, 3) the success of a student represents a communal responsibility, 4) true wellness is holistic or all-inclusive as regards student lives and welfare, and 5) recognizing that addressing comprehensive wellness is an undertaking “easily applied.”

21st Century collegians are unlike their parents, and certainly not like their grandparents when they attended college. Gone are the concerns of the 70s when roommate issues, career choices, and relationship problems were the stuff of most student visits to the counseling center. Today’s students list “stress,” “anxiety,” and “sleep difficulties” as the top three sources of concern that interfere with a collegiate experience[ii]. Attempts to self-medicate these and other concerns, often with alcohol, marijuana, and/or “off-label” use of prescription medications only add to the challenges faced by IHEs.

Students present with a complex network of needs. The exception today is the student who does not require some type of support, encouragement, resources, or treatment in order to address his or her personal issues. The irony is that IHEs are uniquely positioned to assist students in addressing their needs by employing an ecological approach to ensuring wellness. By employing a social-ecological model[iii] to address student wellness, an IHE has multiple points of access by which to approach students. From obvious and more direct access points like student health, counseling services and dedicated portals such as residence life, judicial affairs, and academic advising, to more indirect but nonetheless influential means such as public policy decisions, campus-community relations, and various other institutional factors, IHEs have multiple points of access by which they can affect the overall wellness of contemporary collegians by employing an ecological approach to addressing wellness. 

The point is that true wellness results from exposure to a comprehensive network of resources and services that address a student’s physical, mental, and spiritual needs. Such efforts can “nudge”[iv] student choices and behaviors so as to increase the likelihood of fostering wellness in a truly comprehensive manner. Historically, physical needs were perceived as necessitating a health center if not infirmary to treat physical ailments and illness. Mental wellness needs were perceived, essentially, as those associated with academics, and thus were addressed through various efforts designed to ensure scholastic success. If addressed at all, spiritual needs were met through a campus chaplain or ensuring students of various religious faiths could practice their religion on campus and assumed that “religion” and “spirituality” were synonymous. Although one might argue that such efforts are necessary as in regards to providing attention to the comprehensive wellness of 21 Century students, they are far from sufficient to ensure such.

True student wellness is more than a subset of a successful collegiate experience; it is the foundation on which that experience is based. Its assurance cannot be delegated to the medical director of student health or the coordinator of the campus alcohol & other drug program. It represents the quintessential determinant of a student’s identity and as such, is a key component in the determination of a student’s success while matriculated in a contemporary IHE. This being the case, it is the responsibility of the entire community of a given college or university and cannot be relegated to one department or individual. In short, ensuring wellness is not the responsibility of a “department” or individual; it is the charge of the institution. It is for this reason that the social-ecological model is of such importance when considering student wellness. This model ensures that institutions work, simultaneously, at the individual, peer, group, campus, and community levels to ensure that student wellness is the solid foundation on which a successful collegiate experience is based. 

A look at the mission statement of any contemporary college or university will clearly reveal that the institution acknowledges its responsibility to educate and ensure the academic success of students who choose to study at that institution. Historically this meant that the best and the brightest would be challenged and prepared to take their place as successful professionals in a contemporary America. But we know that 85% of a student’s collegiate life is spent outside the classroom. If an IHE truly intends to prepare successful, productive individuals who contribute to the future development of humankind, then it is imperative that our IHEs recognize that wellness is holistic and its pursuit a responsibility of the entire institution.

There is a reason why a PGA golf course looks the way it does. Its “wellness” is the result of a comprehensive effort put forth by a coordinated team of professionals and supported—financially, programmatically, and administratively—by those with the vision to appreciate that the “wellness of the whole” results from ensuring the wellness of its “individual parts” or, to borrow a line from the 1989 Universal/Tri Star Picture’s Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.”



[i] Anderson, D.S. (2016). 5 Key tips for student wellness: Strategies for student success. Taylor & Francis Group, Abington, U.K.

[ii] American College Health Association (2014). National College Health Assessment. Spring 2014 Reference Group Executive Summary. Hanover, MD. http://www.acha-ncha.org/reports_ACHA-NCHAII.html

[iii] Healthy Campus 2020, American College Health Association - see http://bit.ly/2bbcTmd

[iv] Thaler, R. & Sunstein, C. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Yale University Press; New Haven.