Re-imagining how SFA promotes health and well-being among students
Story by Amy Roquemore '93 & '12
Earning a college degree has always been challenging, even under ideal circumstances. But an increasing number of incoming students are arriving on campus with violence, trauma, mental illness, substance abuse and other adverse childhood experiences that make pursuing higher education exponentially harder.
Nationally, up to 70% of 18-year-olds have had at least one adverse childhood experience, and a significant number have a history of four or more. The cumulative effects of these challenges on college students' health and well-being place them at greater risk of dropping out before achieving a bachelor's degree and all the advantages that come with it.
In response to such trends, SFA's Division of Student Affairs recently underwent a significant reorganization to prioritize students' overall health and well-being while strengthening the university's network of support.
The new Lumberjack Wellness Network is a comprehensive web of services encompassing the seven dimensions of wellness: physical, emotional, intellectual, environmental, socio-cultural, spiritual, and career and financial.
"The very real problems and potential barriers to academic success our students are now facing are certainly not unique to SFA," according to Andrew J. Dies, who joined SFA as assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students in August 2021. "But the holistic, community health approach we are now taking, I believe, is unique in its breadth and depth, and the administration's commitment to and support of these initiatives has also been exceptional."
Engage, lead, thrive and succeed
Dr. Brandon Frye, vice president for student affairs, said he is proud of the work Dies and his team have put into leading SFA's ambitious wellness initiative, which is central to the division's newly adopted mission of "holistically developing Lumberjacks who engage, lead, thrive and succeed."
During an extensive reorganization of the Division of Student Affairs in 2021, Frye assembled all units responsible for student health and well-being under the Dean of Students office. Other responsibilities traditionally held by SFA's Dean of Students, including student activities, student government and other engagement programs, were moved under the new Student Life department.
"Our focus in the Division of Student Affairs is student success, and a key component of that is ensuring we meet their evolving needs in the areas of health and well-being," Frye said. "The Lumberjack Wellness Network and related efforts to better serve our students through the new health and well-being portfolio are already benefiting our students across campus. I am looking forward to seeing this positive impact grow, and I'm confident that our focus on student health and well-being will aid in student retention, persistence and success for years to come."
Under the new student affairs structure, Dies oversees Campus Recreation, Counseling Services, Health Services, the Office of Student Conduct and Outreach, and the Behavioral Assessment Team. A new student outreach and support area organized within the Dean of Students office also helps connect struggling students with appropriate services and programs both on and off campus.
In addition, Counseling Services, Health Services, the Lumberjack Food Pantry, the campus dietitian and an outreach office of the Family Crisis Center of East Texas have been brought under one roof in the newly renovated Tucker Building as the Health and Wellness Hub.
A growing need
SFA Director of Counseling Services Clare Fite said the lingering mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have placed added strain on college mental health professionals across the country. In response to growing wait times for SFA students seeking counseling during the peak of the pandemic, the department reworked its schedule to allow walk-in appointments, virtual sessions and group therapy, which have been well-received by students.
SFA's new community health approach to student well-being is engaging faculty and staff across campus who are specially trained as iCare Ambassadors to take a more active role in ensuring students are cared for and supported. Depending on the situation, clinical therapy may be helpful, but students' needs can often be met through other means.
"For example, loneliness is now a chronic problem among college students, which is a huge shift because, historically, that has been a concern mainly for people 75 and older," Fite said. "And while it's OK for a student to seek counseling for loneliness, a one-hour individualized session with a therapist is probably not going to be nearly as beneficial as connecting that student with group activities and organizations that help them make stronger connections on campus."
Likewise, Dies said, a student feeling anxious about a chemistry grade will likely be better served by visiting with the professor and accessing on-campus tutoring services than by meeting with an SFA counselor. Problems with food insecurity or financial challenges can be best addressed through the Lumberjack Food Pantry and Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships, respectively. And so on.
"A lot of good work was already happening across campus, but we were doing much of it in silos," said Fite, whose professional background is in community health. "Through the Lumberjack Wellness Network, we are better equipping our employees — many of whom are already part of the students' support network just by the nature of their SFA roles — to help prevent students from getting lost in the array of services we offer."
A culture of caring
The first cohort of LWN's iCare Ambassadors completed 10 hours of training over the summer. Embedded in offices and departments across campus, these faculty and staff now serve as resource brokers empowered to directly connect students in need with resources that can help.
"Our faculty members have been very invested in this new approach, and their commitment to overall well-being is going to play a key role in ensuring our students know how and where to access the support they need to be successful at SFA," Dies said.
A Student Wellness Action Team is LWN's peer-education component that provides interactive programs and activities that inform students about drug and alcohol consumption and other high-risk behaviors. Mackenzie Suggs, a senior food and nutrition major who works for Campus Recreation as a fitness manager, said student wellness coaches also are helping connect students to critical SFA resources. "The wellness coaches receive additional training in the seven dimensions of wellness and learn about all the resources SFA has, so they can confidently share that information with students we work with at the Student Recreation Center," Suggs said.
Moving forward, Dies expects LWN will expand to place greater emphasis on protective factors, such as campus involvement, positive personal relationships, self-efficacy and resilience, all of which increase the likelihood of students persisting to graduation.
"Historically, research has shown that if students don't make a strong connection to their institution within the first six weeks of arriving on campus, they are very likely to drop out or transfer to another institution," he said. "We want our students to not only remain at SFA and graduate but also grow and thrive in our community and get the most they possibly can from their college experience."
Visit the Lumberjack Wellness Network website.