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Student Flourishing Initiative: Tools for School and Life

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Student Flourishing Initiative: Tools for School and Life

April 5, 2018 by John Kelly
 
The greatest challenges faced by today's college students will likely have little to do with tests, papers or presentations. According to many experts, the combination of external and internal stressors affecting these students is without precedent—and growing pressure to succeed is often stoked by factors such as family financial pressures and social stresses magnified by social media. As existing campus support services find themselves overwhelmed by the increasing prevalence of anxiety issues and depression among college students, colleges and universities around the country are looking for solutions that help students navigate their four years on campuses and beyond.
 
The Student Flourishing Initiative (SFI) is a groundbreaking, cross-institutional initiative that brings together a collection of some of the leading minds and institutions in the fields of neuroscience, higher education and humanistic research. The group of researchers seek to provide students with a 21st-century toolbox of theories, experiences and contemplative practices. The goal, the initiative's founders say, is to help students look within themselves and to each other to build foundations of resilience, insight and compassion for their college years and for their lives afterward.
 

Students participating in one of the contemplative practices explored in the Art and Science of Human Flourishing course.
 
The SFI is a partnership between the University of Virginia's Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC), the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Pennsylvania State University. It brings together a dream team of experts determined to create a curricular solution to this need—one designed to provide not just a safety net, but also a springboard for young people as they make the most important transition of their lives—and to study the impacts of that curriculum on undergraduate students. This course, The Art and Science of Human Flourishing, was offered to first years at all three universities in the fall of 2017 and will be offered again in the fall of 2018.
 
The initiative is headed by David Germano, executive director of CSC, along with Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas, a prominent professor of higher education at UVA's Curry School of Education; Richard Davidson, the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and founding director of the Center for Healthy Minds at UW–Madison; John Dunne, a leading scholar of the interface of humanities and sciences in exploring contemplation at UW–Madison; Mark Greenberg, professor of human development and psychology and founding director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at Penn State, where he holds the Edna Peterson Bennett Endowed Chair in Prevention Research; and Robert Roeser, the Bennett Pierce Professor of Caring and Compassion and professor of human development and family studies at Penn State. 
 
"The subject matter for the SFI was in part a response to the challenges we were seeing at the University of Virginia with regard to student crises," Germano said, "including exponential increases in anxiety, panic attacks, depression, substance abuse and sexual violence that have been overwhelming the existing support systems. We wanted to look at it from an academic angle and try to be proactive about offering a vision for how students can get in front of these issues, using the best science and the best humanistic reflection on things like resiliency, diversity, focus and compassion. For example, how can you begin to understand your own life in terms of these intellectual ideas, and more importantly, how can you put them into practice? How can you connect them to the fabric of your life?"
 
When Germano and CSC Advisory Board Chair Jeff Walker began thinking about possible partners for the initiative, they looked first to UW–Madison and Penn State, where they had mutual friends. Davidson and Greenberg were more than willing to join forces. "It was a natural thing for us all to say, 'Let's work on this together,'" Walker noted. "It will allow us to collaborate on raising money and in implementing and planning research that brings together some of the senior leadership in the field."
 
The group immediately went to work designing the SFI as a semester-long course that would be offered to first-year students at all three institutions. "We wanted to offer a model that was available to students from the day they arrived on campus, so they could explore a different pathway through the next four years of their lives," said Germano. "The goal is to then take advantage of the leading research minds and resources in the partnership to follow these students longitudinally across their careers to see the impact of having such exposure conceptually, as well as practically and socially. So as they are learning these ideas, exploring them experientially with practices and connecting up to their peers in dialogue, we can look at what impact this has on them—on their academic performance, behavioral problems, mental issues, wellbeing and so forth."
 
Employing a flipped-classroom approach, the course relies heavily on written and audiovisual content developed by each of the partners. In this highly interactive classroom experience, traditional lecture hall classes of 200–400 students are broken down into manageable working groups that deliver the benefits of more intimate seminar settings. Students listen to prerecorded talks with an interactive platform and participate in specially designed exercises in advance, allowing them to spend their classroom time interacting with other students.
 
"After reading and hearing about resiliency, for example," Germano said, "the students come to class and are able to explore related issues with each other against the backdrop of what resiliency means in their lives, to do small-scale exercises about their own experiences with these issues, to then come back into plenary groups and share the outcomes, and finally to connect it all back up to the broader intellectual issues. They also receive instruction for practices they can cultivate on a daily basis to experiment with ways to develop greater resiliency in their own lives in an ongoing fashion."
 
Offering the course to incoming first-year students allows universities to proactively address the depression and anxiety that are becoming a nationwide campus epidemic. "Student affairs departments want to impact all students and provide what are largely seen as student health and external services," Walker pointed out. "So if you start embedding these tools in the curriculum—where you actually get college credits for it—and then you embed it into students' career plans by including skills they will use both in and outside of the classrooms, you are going to start to see decreases in the number of kids who are depressed. You are going to start seeing decreases in the number of kids who don't know how to manage their anxiety and in the number of kids who would normally be seeing student health. And that ends up helping student affairs as well. Meanwhile, for the students themselves, this course helps them develop a practice to reinforce the changes in their lives that they want to see."
 
Thanks to work currently being done by Davidson and his team at UW–Madison's Center for Healthy Minds, students taking the Art and Science of Human Flourishing course next fall will reap even more benefits from the class through a sophisticated app. "This app will not only deliver content," Germano explained, "but more importantly, it will also allow students to be able to check themselves as to where they are with their own personal development. So they will be able to say, 'Where am I with my focus, or my mindfulness, or my compassion?' These measurements will be delivered to us via the app so that we will have a constant understanding of where our students are in experiential fashion."
 
Another important benefit of the course timing, Greenberg noted, is that it reaches students at a critically important time of transition in their lives. "These students are really starting to think about themselves in new ways. They are reimagining their identities. They are starting to think more seriously about their vocational identity. So as a prevention scientist, I start thinking about this transition period as a period not only of vulnerability, but of opportunity as well, because people in transitions are often more open to learning new things. I think that makes this the perfect time to implement the Student Flourishing Initiative."
 
Part of Germano's inspiration for the course comes from a sense of shared responsibility for how we treat and think of this particular target population. "We objectify students in many ways when they become 17 or 18," he added. "They look, to us, like adults, and they are not. We start to lose the sense of responsibility we felt for them as they were growing up. I was looking at the kind of experiences I was having with my own daughters and also some of the kids I see at UVA, and it was really heartbreaking. The question is not just whether they are ready to learn, but it's also whether we are doing all that we can to create a supportive environment in which they will flourish. If you can wake up and look in the mirror and say, 'I am doing all I can for them,' then I say, 'Godspeed.' But I can't honestly look in the mirror and say that, in the 25 years I have been at UVA, I have done all I can to create an environment for their thriving. And I don't want to spend the next 10 years of my career and life acting in that way."
 
Project organizers emphasize the goal of imparting lessons these students will carry far beyond their college years. 
 
"It is not just the one class itself that is important," stressed Greenberg. "Taking this class can open up a pathway of other opportunities at Penn State, UVA, or Wisconsin that can bring about a cascade of experiences around mindfulness, authenticity and social connection, which imparts a sense of purpose and a sense of identity that can have longer-term effects going into adulthood."
 
"When we presented this to the CSC Advisory Board," Walker noted, "several board members said this was a course they would like to take and that it explores topics we all need to focus on. The course is teaching skills that companies are looking for now: people who can listen and work well in teams, people who can quiet their minds and focus better on the tasks at hand, and people who can be open in ways that allow them to be more creative in their solutions."
 
"There is a well-known saying that, roughly paraphrased, claims 90 percent of what you learn in school is useless in the job market, and 90 percent of what you need in the job market you never learn in school," said Germano. "Regardless of how true that may be, I think we can all agree it should not be that way. We in the academic environment have subject matter we are passionate about, but we should be thinking explicitly, like we do in this class and others, about how these are the skills we want to help students develop and these are the experiences we want to help them foster. For me it is about treating these young adults as full beings with intellectual interests, emotional realities and social experiences in an ever more complex and often unfair world, and as people who will, one day soon, have pressing professional challenges and opportunities. That is how we should be educating them."
 
David Germano is pictured above right teaching the Art and Science of Human Flourishing course.

Related Press: "CSC's Class is Helping First-Year Students Start College Off Right"