In an article called Why Higher Education Should Lead the Well-being Revolution, co-authors Frank Shushok, vice president for Student Affairs, and Tom Matson, senior executive director at Gallup, state that poor mental health and loneliness are on the rise, that higher education institutions can and should be a catalyst for change, and that a foundation of personal well-being can advance societal well-being.

“It's time for higher education to lead a cultural transformation with well-being as the foundation for advancing the outcomes we desire — not only for our students but also our world,” wrote Shushok and Matson. 

“One of the things I love about Virginia Tech is that we’re brave enough to challenge the structures and practices that were built for previous generations," Shushok said. "It requires a spirit of innovation, flexibility, and courage to constantly redesign our university for now and tomorrow. In Student Affairs, we are committed to do whatever it takes to support the individual success, learning, and well-being of every student. The well-being of our students is going to take center-stage.” 

The potential impact of campus residential environments on students is enormous. Almost every undergraduate student at Virginia Tech begins their experience in a residence hall. The habits, patterns, and relationships formed during the first year can significantly influence the trajectory of a student’s success.

Using mostly existing staffing and resources to redesign and implement an innovative structure, the new model will integrate Residential Life with Hokie Wellness and create strong partnerships with Cook Counseling Center and Living-Learning Programs. The goal is inclusive residential environments where all Hokies thrive. Five live-in professional counselors will be integrated into the program.  

Amy Epperley, director of Hokie Wellness, will become the executive director of Hokie Wellness.  

Sean Grube, director for Housing and Residence Life, will lead residential well-being, a critical subunit of Hokie Wellness. This will be a multidisciplinary team of managing directors for well-being and inclusion, coordinators, embedded counselors, student leaders, and Student Affairs coaches who collaborate with communities, smaller peer groups, and departments within Student Affairs and throughout campus.

Housing Services will shift reporting lines to Ken Belcher, director of Facilities Operations for Student Affairs.

“The time has never been more important,” Epperley said. “Year after year, we see students experiencing decreasing mental health and increasing loneliness. We know nationally that college students are struggling and they are struggling at Virginia Tech, too. The global pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges. The data support our understanding that the current model is broken.”

The 2017-2018 Healthy Minds survey indicated that:

  • 21 percent of Virginia Tech students have elevated levels of depression. That’s about 7,200 student or more than one-in-five.
  • 23 percent of Virginia Tech students have elevated levels of generalized anxiety disorder. That’s about 8,000 students or almost one in four.
  • Just 45 percent of Virginia Tech students reported that they were flourishing (“flourishing” is a term used by the Healthy Minds survey to determine positive mental health and is a summary measure of a student’s self-perceived success in such areas as relationships, self-esteem, purpose, and optimism).

National data show that Black, Hispanic, and Asian students have higher levels of depression than white students. LGBTQ+ students are at greater risk for mental health problems. Students with financial concerns are at increased risk for mental health problems. Many students reported that lack of social support networks posed an additional challenge. Students also indicated that emotional and mental difficulties are affecting their academic performance.

Currently, about 10,000 students reside in on-campus housing. About 6,700 are first-year students. Campus residences include 15 living-learning communities and four residential colleges, which are already having an enormously positive impact on student outcomes. Virginia Tech continues to strive for close to 70 percent of residential students involved in a living-learning program by 2024.

Under the new structure, the 10,000 on-campus students will become five communities of 2,000, each with a dedicated leadership team and student leaders with expertise in diversity and inclusion, well-being, and student success. Within each community of 2,000 students, there will have peer groups of 150 students.

“This means viewing students as partners in the educational enterprise,” Shushok said. “It requires a willingness to listen to students and invite them to contribute meaningfully to all that we do. It also means being courageous enough to talk honestly and openly about tough realities that confront our world — like racism, political polarization, a culture that prioritizes individualism over community, and an eroding sense of overall mental health and well-being.”

“This model allows us to take what we do best directly to the students, rather than hoping they will find their way to us. It creates a safety network for every student and allows the meaningful human relationships essential for successful undergraduate education,” Epperley said.

A key part of the new model will be ExperienceVT, a co-curricular initiative that helps students discover their strengths, map their college experience, set goals, create pathways, and chart their progress.

Opportunities for mentorship, proven vital to undergraduate success, will be emphasized and enhanced by the new structure.

“Students experience the power of friendship and community in the residence halls. Where students live is their home base for experiencing VT and building a life of well-being,” said Grube. “Well-being will become so ingrained in the culture of Virginia Tech that our students can’t help but understand and know their own well-being. This will create a generation of Hokies who understand how to care for themselves so that they can care for the world, in the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).”

The new model was introduced to Student Affairs faculty and staff in July  2021. In August, the implementation team and working groups will be formed. By January 2022, managing directors for well-being and inclusion and coordinators will be named. Student leaders will be identified in February. Training, programming, and support systems will be in place by May. Embedded counselors will be in place by June. The first cohort of students will move in under the new model in August 2022.

“We have one of the largest Student Affairs units in the country,” said James Bridgeforth, assistant vice president for Student Affairs and ExperienceVT. “These are decisions that shape students’ lives, the future of our university, and the future of the college student experience nationwide.”

Written by Sandy Broughton

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