A Community Effort to Support Well-being

Undergraduate College students and administrators in a Zoom call
Out of a year of varying loss and disruption has risen an invaluable appreciation for our community’s mental health and well-being.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, various pockets within the Undergraduate College (UC) had already begun prioritizing wellness, but it was the pandemic that really served as the catalyst that brought so many together and fortified individual efforts to create one, cohesive community rooted in health and positivity even while navigating a remote and uncertain environment.
 

A Community Effort

In Fall 2019 the UC Well-being Committee was formed by Stern UC leadership as the need for holistic student wellness support rose. The committee was born out of the desire “to move from reactive to proactive,” says Kevin Valliere, current chair of the UC Well-being Committee. To achieve this, well-being needs to be integrated into myriad areas like leadership, academics, training for faculty and staff, events, and programming.

“The primary focus [in year one] was information gathering,” said Valliere. Using the UC Pillars as a framework, the committee’s goal was to identify the various levers across the multitude of student identities that had the most potential to impact wellness and make recommendations that build a community that values holistic well-being.

According to a 2019 National Institute of Health study, the percentage of college students with a “lifetime diagnosis” (i.e., a clinical diagnosis that may ebb or wane but will likely never completely go away) rose from 22% to 36% nationally between 2007 and 2017. Since 75% of those who will have a mental health disorder have the first onset by age 25, many students are exploring mental health for the first time while in college.

Dr. Wern How Yam is a licensed clinical psychologist with the NYU Student Health Center specializing in counseling and wellness services. “I'll work with students pretty much across the spectrum on any difficulties that they're struggling with,” said Dr. Yam. Dr. Yam suggests that many college students may be falsely attached to the idea of not being able to manage themselves effectively. “Students feel like, I shouldn’t have to ask for help...I should know this by now”. Often, he’ll see seniors graduating in a few weeks wanting to work through these thoughts saying they’ve been putting it off for years.

Dr. Yam’s position in NYU Counseling and Wellness Services was put in place to help normalize mental health and integrate well-being and stress management throughout students’ college experience, another recommendation from the Well-being Committee.

In tandem with the UC Well-being Committee’s start came the Student Council (StuCo) Wellness Committee. “For a while now, we’ve had a Health and Wellness Committee, but this year, that was combined with the Student Advocacy Committee to create the Wellness Committee that we see now,” said Steven Lim (BS ‘21), Co-chair of the StuCo Wellness Committee. “We aim to improve the average Stern student’s overall wellness through events focused on mental and physical health.”

There was even more student involvement with the UC Well-being Committee through the use of focus groups to create a comprehensive picture of Stern UC students’ well-being. Three focus groups were conducted the week of March 2, 2020. An additional three focus groups were planned for the spring and things were moving along nicely.

Then came COVID-19. “Mental health and well-being in COVID-19 look totally different,” said Cassandra Bizzaro, former chair of the UC Well-being Committee. And so the effort put into focus groups shifted towards more acute needs and finalizing the well-being report which was completed in July 2020. From the administrator’s perspective, there was a lot of thought put into pivoting to a remote environment with the sudden reality of the pandemic. Across the UC team, there was a resounding sentiment of wanting to do everything possible to help students through the unknowns of an all-new learning environment.

“We're having the right conversations. We're definitely asking students for feedback. Student Council conducted a pretty robust survey about academics and wellbeing and student leaders are having follow-up conversations with Stern leadership,” said Akiko Yamaguchi, Director of the Office of Student Engagement. “But I often think with supporting students, there's always more that I wish we could do. Especially since many of the mental health challenges that students are experiencing right now are because we can't be together. That’s the challenge that has been raised over and over again, and as of now we are tied to health and safety guidelines.”

Sentiments echoed from various administrators.

“[Wellness has] been a huge priority for the school,” said James Kingham, Executive Director of Professional Development and Career Education, who has the vantage point of both behind the scenes and seeing it put into practice–from communication strategies to events like Town Halls and faculty training sessions. “Our intentions have been really, really strong and I think our actions have been strong, but I know there's probably still a lot of community members who feel disconnected or feel detached or still feel anonymous or unseen. And that's exacerbated by the pandemic,” Kingham shared.

“One of the things that we know was a challenge for students was just talking to their friends and hanging out. There's no substitute for that,” Gary Fraser, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, said. “It was a hard reality to recognize that we can deliver what we can, but we can’t deliver everything that a student may need because we're not all of what they need.”

You couldn’t have asked for a more perfect time for the UC Well-being Committee to shift focus onto the elevation and dissemination of resources–an emphatic concern raised across the School. Even in pre-pandemic circumstances, this would be tricky but was especially so in a remote environment.

Resources may have a harder time making their way to some students.  If the student never experienced a history of people around them seeking out that help, particularly in a family environment, the consistency of accessing or relying on resources tends to not be there.

“I think that's the bigger challenge,” Fraser said. “Do [students] have the family support and awareness of some of these resources, and the encouragement to pursue accessing them?”

Even when a student is familiar and comfortable with mental health resources, there could be a disconnect with students actually using them. This is one of the many reasons why Dr. Yam advocates for a culture talking about and normalizing mental health. “At the end of the day, people can tell you to think about mental health, but if they don't take that step, it's hard. There's only so much awareness you can spread, so to speak, before the final step has to be taken—by the student—to reach out.”

The challenges presented in the realm of mental health and well-being, especially in the remote environment of a pandemic are extensive, layered, and intertwined. “It's a student success issue, it's a diversity, inclusion, and belonging issue, it's the foundation,” said Bizzaro. “Everything we do is wrapped up in well-being and the act of taking care of ourselves and our community.”

Extensive, layered, intertwined challenges, meet innovation and collaboration.

While there is a lot to be determined, the community at large seems to understand the gravitas of mental health, the UC Well-being Committee’s cause, and how vital well-being is. “Everyone's really supportive from the top-down. Everyone is ready to listen and understand how we can implement solutions and what we need to solve them,” Bizzaro shared.

Among them is Robert F. Whitelaw, Dean of the UC and professor of entrepreneurial finance, who has been instrumental in shining a light on the importance of addressing well-being. Most effectively, he has worked to educate faculty about student wellness and advocate academic flexibility to mitigate learning disruptions from the pandemic.

Perhaps the most inspiring developments are the new events and collaborations spearheaded by our student body.
 

Student Organization Collaboration

Inter-Club Council (ICC) is the governing body for NYU Stern's 29 pre-professional organizations. During the spring semester, they debuted Wellness Week, a signature week created to help students relax and destress right before finals, and to further the conversation across all wellness topics such as nutrition, mindfulness, and mental health.

“We have found over the years that wellness has become an essential part of student consideration and that more and more clubs are offering their own wellness-related programs,” said Kathleen Zhang (BS ‘22), ICC Co-President. “We sought to concentrate all these programs into Wellness Week and offer organizational and monetary support.” Their ultimate goal was to encourage clubs to continue supporting the wellness initiative and remind the broader club community to take care of themselves.

Outside of engaging in Wellness Week, ICC leadership’s main suggestion for students? Step away from the screen, go outside, smell the roses.

“Find a hobby that doesn’t involve looking at a screen,” said Kathleen Zhang. “I’ve picked up painting and knitting over the past year, and it has allowed me to take a break from all of the Zoom calls and assignments.”

“Go outside, get some fresh air and vitamin D! I’ve picked up running over the past few months to get me moving after a long day on Zoom,” said Sydney Cheng (BS ‘22), ICC Vice-President.

Similarly, Eric Zhang (BS ‘22), ICC Co-President, suggests embracing the great outdoors. “Go take some Instagram-worthy pictures with some friends!”

StuCo in collaboration with ICC hosted the first town hall of the spring semester featuring the Office of Professional Development and Career Education (PDCE), which examined the relationship between wellness and recruiting, learning about Stern-provided resources, and how the club system can support students in their professional pathways.

“The insights we gain from town halls and other student-led conversations are so important because the UC Leadership uses the information to shape the programming and resources we provide the student body,” says Erin Potter, Senior Assistant Dean for Student Experience and Dean's Special Projects. “That’s why we make it a priority to connect with students regularly. These discussions are crucial to creating a space of belonging for all students.”
 

Digital Well-being Ambassadors

Grades. Meeting people. Recruitment. A pandemic. Because, especially now, being a student can be stressful, the Stern UC Communications team created a new opportunity for students interested in being digital advocates for health, well-being, and self-care to the NYU Stern community.

Digital Well-being Ambassadors volunteer to participate and star in digital campaigns to promote stress management, self-care, health, and well-being on the @sternuc social media. They are also called upon to provide feedback and input to school-wide well-being efforts as needed.

Instagram post of an NYU Stern Undergraduate College Well-being Ambassador
Example of a Digital Well-being Ambassador post on Instagram

The hope is that, with student voices, we can celebrate an environment where everyone can grow and excel while also taking care of themselves and each other.
 

Looking Ahead

As the sun stays up a little longer each day and vaccination efforts progress, naturally the UC is looking ahead to how to best support students as everyone transitions to life post-pandemic.

True to its form as supportive, research-based, and audience-focused, the UC Well-being Committee is continuing to engage with students. “We've had a number of conversations this semester with ICC and StuCo leaders to determine what students want and what role we have to play,” said Valliere. “It’s important to us to make sure that we're heading in a direction that is in line with what our students are expecting and need.”

We don’t know what will happen next, and surely there will be difficult days to come as we transition into life post-pandemic.

“Bumps are to be expected...but it’s important to exercise curiosity to figure out what works for you,” said Yam. “I cannot stress this enough.”

Something we should remember along the way is to continue to be kind to each other.

When asked about his well-being philosophy, Kingham responded with three schools of thought, “Stay in your lane–don't always obsess about what other people are doing; bring humanity to everything you do–remember that everyone is a person and the small things are just as important as the underlying or overarching goal; and express gratitude wherever you go and where it's not necessarily expected.”

“I think the best thing that we can do for each other is to have patience for boundary-setting,” Valliere shared. “The desire or ability to go back to whatever normal looked like before the pandemic is going to vary wildly and in everyone. A willingness to be patient and flexible for other people's tolerance is the healthiest thing that we can do for each other.”

And be kind to ourselves.

Or as Yamaguchi puts it, “be forgiving when things don’t go perfectly. Some days, 100% is just not possible. Don't beat yourself up if you aren't able to give 100%. If 50% is all you can muster, that's okay. And If it dips below the point where you think you can manage, please make sure to ask for help. The toughest thing is feeling like you're on your own and, certainly, that is not the case.”

Something he learned in meditation, Fraser stresses to “treat yourself like you're your best friend...think about that physically, mentally, spiritually. What advice would you give someone you really care about? And you have to actualize that advice [for yourself].”

As far as the UC Well-being Committee goes, “success looks like taking the recommendations that were made in June of 2020, that are still relevant today, and working to meet them. To really foster a Stern-wide community that supports and understands well-being,” said Bizzaro. “And advocating for a broad range of needs before people have to ask for them,” Valliere added.

As much as they have been nimble, innovative, and collaborative, our efforts are also, undoubtedly, a work in progress–nevertheless progress has been made. “We have gone through a formative experience that has impacted students in different ways, and while COVID is not over, we are moving into a new phase ––the return to in-person campus life,” Zoe Ragouzeos, Ph.D., LCSW, Assistant Vice President, Student Mental Health, said. “Right now everyone has an opportunity to decide how they will carry themselves into this new phase. There is no 'back to normal', there is no need for 'back to' anything,” Ragouzeos reassures. “There is only what students want 'looking forward' to mean for them –– and we are at your side to help you achieve all that you imagine you can be."

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