St. Lawrence is reimagining the ways in which the University becomes a part of wellness solutions for students.
When I’ve asked around campus what people think when they hear ‘wellness,’ they usually say things like yoga or spa days,” says Laura Lavoie, director of Wellness Education and Student Engagement at St. Lawrence. “Some of the misconceptions that people tend to have around wellness is because it has been commodified in a certain way in the United States. The reality for our students, however, is that in this fast-paced world, intentionally taking care of oneself has become increasingly important.”
“I’m working on ways to show students that everyone, no matter who they are, has to learn how to manage their own stressors and find coping mechanisms,” says Lavoie, “because they can be very different from person to person.” Finding ways that the University can be a part of helping students is the reason why Lavoie’s position combines wellness and student engagement. “The goal is to get students to try out and adopt some personal strategies to inform their success and have them develop some skills to carry on once they leave St. Lawrence.” Lavoie admits, however, that contributing to health and wellness solutions for students is an increasingly complex challenge on college campuses today.
“I would definitely say that stress and emotional mental health needs are at an all-time high for our student population,” says Tara Tent, one of four licensed mental health counselors and director of Counseling Services at St. Lawrence. Tent explains that this generation has been exposed to school shootings, hyper-divisive politics, racial trauma, climate change, and social media’s “always on” culture, and now, she notes, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an additional layer of stress for them socially and academically.
Tent has been working with students at St. Lawrence for 13 years and is excited about new efforts to re-examine student success support systems and a more holistic approach to students. Lavoie, a nine-year veteran of St. Lawrence’s Student Activities office, transitioned in August 2021 to coordinate this effort and has begun the work of assessing and redesigning a more integrated approach to wellness and student engagement.
“I like to think about wellness from a psychology perspective—specifically Maslow’s hierarchy,” says Lavoie. “We have baseline needs that have to be met before we can achieve higher-level intellectual and creative clarity.” For this reason, Lavoie is partnering with offices across campus to coordinate access to all the programs and resources St. Lawrence already offers—everything from physical to emotional health services, spiritual support, academic support, and social support systems.
“First, I want to make everything easier to find so it doesn’t feel like an Easter egg hunt trying to look for what you need,” she says. However, Lavoie, Tent, and their colleagues across campus also recognize that students these days need a new model of support that meets them where they are.
“We all have different needs,” says Morolake Odetoyinbo, one of St. Lawrence’s mental health counselors partnering with Lavoie, Tent, and others to reimagine wellness initiatives on campus. “Students have different support systems—some are close to home, some from far away—but every student on campus is trying to find the balance between managing academic and social stress. It’s finding that right balance and feeling like all the different facets of your life as a student are cohesive.”
Meeting students where they are has become an imperative. Even before the pandemic, the situation for teens and young adults was becoming increasingly dire. According to a 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), one in four young people ages 18-25 lives with a mental-health condition. A 20-year study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in 2018, also reported that suicide is now the second leading cause of death in the U.S. for ages 15-24, after accidents. For Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ populations, the numbers are even higher.
“We know that students are more stressed,” says Hagi Bradley, vice president and dean of Student Life. “We can see it, we can feel it, and our counselors are seeing it every day.” Bradley also knows that the last two years of navigating the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. From discussions he has had with peers at other institutions, every campus across the country has had a hard time keeping up with the demands for mental health and wellness resources.
“College is stressful enough,” says Bradley, “and now we have very rigorous health protocols and restrictions on top of the academic rigor. I’ve seen a rise in feelings of frustration and students struggling.”
“I definitely saw the tidal wave coming for sure,” says Tent of the overwhelming demand that has hit the Diana B. Torrey ’82 Health and Counseling Center over the course of the pandemic. “Knowing our student population, how stressed and overscheduled they are, watching them experience lockdowns and lose the social connection that their identity development and general well-being relies on was really tough.”
“In addition to losing family members,” says Tent, “students lost an opportunity for their identity to develop in the way that it typically would at college. I think there’s a lot of catching up to do.”
Fortunately, in 2019, St. Lawrence had already begun conversations with The Jed Foundation (JED), an organization which partners with college campuses to assess and develop comprehensive systems prioritizing student mental health and wellness. With the recent success of a dollar-for-dollar matching challenge by anonymous Laurentian parents, $50,000 was raised and combined with existing funds from the Merrill Lynch Foundation to secure a JED Campus designation.
“It’s a huge deal, and it’s going to really be a game-changer for St. Lawrence,” says Bradley, “because wellness isn’t something that only happens within the walls of counseling. It has to be campus-wide.”
Over the next four years, St. Lawrence will establish an interdisciplinary, campus-wide team to assess, support, and implement program, policy, and system improvements, as well as complete a confidential, self-assessment survey on its mental health promotion, substance abuse, and suicide prevention efforts. Upon completion of the assessment, JED Campus clinicians will provide comprehensive feedback that will identify successes and opportunities for enhancements at St. Lawrence. To date, JED Campus has worked with nearly 370 institutions representing over 4.5 million students.
Building on existing strengths is one of the JED Campus trademarks, and the investments made through St. Lawrence’s recent Campaign for Every Laurentian has provided an exceptional springboard for the next phase of supporting student success. Completed in 2021, the record-breaking $230 million campaign included support for new scholarships, experiential learning opportunities, improved facilities, and enhancements to the academic support programs now being facilitated through the William L. Fox Center for Academic Opportunity. These investments complement decades of support from Laurentians.
St. Lawrence’s Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) will also play a key role in wellness. For Odetoyinbo, who is also member of the DE&I Committee, it is a question of how the community can be much more intentional.
“What can we do to make this a more integrated campus?” asks Odetoyinbo, “because, like we say, ‘diversity is inviting everybody to the dance. Inclusion is asking them to dance.’” However, Odetoyinbo says it must go beyond the invitation. “I think it’s more than asking a person to dance. It’s asking them what music would you like to listen to? It’s asking them ‘teach me your dance steps and I’ll teach you my mine.’” For Odetoyinbo, feeling included, safe, and welcomed goes beyond being in the same place at the same time. “It is when we all learn each other’s music and dance steps so that we are dancing together as a community.”
Student Life and Athletics have also been fostering those shared spaces as well as helping students focus on individual wellness goals throughout the pandemic.
Last year, Residential Coordinator Sharon Rodriguez helped build a partnership between St. Lawrence and Clarkson University which brought to campus the Radical Self-Care Series, a wellness programming open to all students, but tailored to the needs of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students. Student organizations such as Carefree Black Girls (see page 19) have hosted numerous stress-less events over the past two years to encourage healthy habits and support students who are struggling and need community. Tsewang Lama ’10, M’15, coordinator of International Student Services, has worked tirelessly to support international students through the pandemic, most recently with the help of the Alumni Executive Board, has continued to find creative ways to ease the stress that has come with pandemic restrictions on travel or being isolated on campus during breaks.
Stafford Fitness Center has always been an important part of how many students manage stress and stay fit and focused, especially in this last year of ups and downs.
“I can’t remember exactly when we opened back up, but that was a process,” says Robin Durocher, director of the Stafford Fitness Center, who spent the last two years coordinating with her team of student workers, facilities staff, school administrators and St. Lawrence County Public Health Department o reopen, and keep open, the fitness center for students, faculty, and staff. Special filters had to be installed, an online registration system was implemented, a rigorous cleaning protocol was applied, and everything needed to be approved by the public health before Durocher could allow access. It wasn’t easy, but she feels it has been worth it.
“One hundred percent, students need the physical fitness for their overall health,” says Durocher. “It’s a lifelong activity and it’s something that students have an opportunity here to learn how to do. A fitness center is a fitness center,” she says, “so wherever you go, it’s going to be about the same. You can get the knowledge here, feel comfortable. And then when you leave here, you can take it with you and use it anywhere.”
Even the Libraries are developing new ways to prioritize wellness, recently allocating space in the Owen D. Young Library to function as a non-denominational spiritual wellness and prayer space (see page 13), providing full-spectrum lamps that can be checked out for students suffering from seasonal affective disorder, and securing private but accessible meeting rooms for the new St. Lawrence Peer Health Network advocates.
“I want to make sure we recognize all the individuals and different departments that have shouldered a lot of this and gone above and beyond their jobs to take care of our students,” says Lavoie. “All of their effort does domino out to others and will inform new strategies.”
Lavoie, Tent, Odetoyinbo, and Bradley hope the JED Campus collaboration will expand on this collective effort and diversify further the health and wellness programs and policies moving forward.
More Is More and the Need Is Now
There are, however, immediate needs. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, over the past 10 years, there has been a dramatic shift in counseling center demands, and the pandemic is testing the breaking point of college counseling center staffing and services. Lavoie’s professional peers at the New York Six colleges echo the same challenges: high levels of stress, problems focusing in class, missing assignments, or not showing up at all. Tent has also noticed more roommate conflicts and students having difficulty with social interactions or being affected by the burden of enormous external stress factors.
Complicating issues further, Lavoie adds that there are unique challenges for BIPOC communities and LGBTQ+ students when trying to define and support wellness.
Bradley agrees. “You can’t do wellness work and mental well-being work in a vacuum because you have to consider where people are coming from and you have to consider that everybody’s background is not the same,” he says. “If you don’t consider all of that, then you’re doing an injustice to all of this work.”
The reality is that more professional staffing is needed to be proactive in countering the array of challenges and meeting students where they are. “With or without the pandemic, there is definitely a need for more counseling services for all because we are seeing students with more significant mental health issues who need counseling as part of their support to stay in college,” says Tent. “Mental health counseling and wellness initiatives can play a large role in retaining our students.”
“I’ve definitely seen a change, however, in St. Lawrence’s approach,” says Tent. “We were this model of everything being funneled to the counseling center, which was common among all colleges. Now St. Lawrence is finding ways to make a cultural shift to broaden the whole concept of wellness and mental health and how to bring all of the different components of support on campus together before someone reaches a crisis situation.”
“I believe we have to move away from the medical model of ‘you come in and we’ll fix you,’” says Odetoyinbo, who is adjusting her work schedule to add more outreach to the student wellness strategies and disrupt the 9-to-5 model of support.
“So, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., I’m meeting students wherever they want to be,” says Odetoyinbo. “What I’m doing is looking at the students who are not coming in, whom we might only see when they are in crisis. Often, it’s international students, students of color, students in the LGBTQ+ community. And it may be students who are coming from a very different culture or family dynamic where you don’t speak your business with strangers, and you don’t share your problems with the world.”
“It’s all of our responsibilities to support students,” says Tent, “but at the same time, we also need to talk with students about what they do really own: sleep schedules, substance use, prioritizing study time, all the things that are just another part of wellness. I think that they need some of that support and education around how to go about those things.” This is where she believes wellness education and working with the students before they come into the counseling center is key.
Odetoyinbo agrees. “When you’re thinking of wellness, we are not just looking for what is wrong with you,” she says. “We’re focusing on how we can identify how students can find the right balance.”
For Lavoie, Wellness Education is the big umbrella that captures all of these strategies.
“Of course, Wellness Education connects to the health center and the counseling center to help students,” says Lavoie, “but wellness could also be connected to the chaplain’s office, the fitness center, and the outdoor program.”
Outcomes and strategies from existing efforts and from the JED Campus work will evolve over the next four years. Outreach to Laurentians will be an important part of realizing and implementing those strategies in real time, but Lavoie believes the umbrella of wellness support is already starting to take shape.
For more information on supporting wellness initiatives at St. Lawrence contact Terri Selby at 315-229-5542 or email@example.com.