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Wellness Summit Report

Student Wellness Project WELLNESS SUMMIT REPORT Revised April 29, 2013 To: Office of the Dean Contents
I. II.


V. VI.

Introduction New Student Orientation Program (NSOP) Reform o Lack of community o Confusion regarding resources and scheduling o Stress culture First semester pass/fail policy Columbia Psychological Services Restructuring/Expansion o Chronic under-staffing of mental health professionals on CPS o Complicated Procedures to Secure Appointments o Rigid requirements regarding the policy of forced-leave Conclusion Acknowledgements

I. Introduction On February 23rd, 2013, the Student Wellness Project gathered students, wellness-related student groups, and administrators together at a Wellness Summit to discuss the state of student health and wellness at Columbia and propose improvements. In attendance were representatives from Active Minds, the Columbia Neuroscience Society, Nightline, Stressbusters, Alice!, the Office of Residential Programs, the Undergraduate Recruitment Committee, the Columbia College Student Council, the Engineering Student Council, and the Student Government Association. After icebreakers and introductions, we conducted a room barometer and post-it exercise that allowed us to determine commonly perceived wellness-related strengths and weaknesses at Columbia. These sessions were followed by a listing and prioritization of significant problems impeding on student wellness, accompanied by backwards mapping sessions that enabled groups to start at the problem and work towards finding a variety of potential solutions. The culminating three recommendations from the summit are as follows: reform of the New Student Orientation Program, an expansion of services offered by Columbia Psychological Services, and the institution of a Pass/D/Fail grading system during students’ first semester. This report is not meant to be a set of conclusive solutions, but rather an opening for conversation among administrators and the student body that will inspire tangible improvements. This report primarily aims to reflect the conversations and discussions that took place at the February 23rd Wellness Summit, although it is also informed by ongoing discussions about student well-being in the greater campus community. This


Wellness Summit Report

report does not necessarily reflect the views of all the organizations present at the summit, but rather is a summary of discussions that took place among representatives of organizations present. II. New Student Orientation Program (NSOP) Reform Orientation sets the tone for how a student's life at Columbia is to unfold. Attendees agreed that orientation presents a great opportunity to address key student life problems identified by current students, including the lack of community, stress culture, and confusion about campus resources. Lack of community Students agree that most relationships formed during this week of adjustment feel weak and in-cohesive. Though small orientation groups exist, they consist of random groups of people that only get together for a few hours sporadically spaced throughout the week. While some students report making lasting friendships in orientation groups, many students agree that the superficiality and temporality of orientation group interaction, more often than not, fails at creating lasting bonds. By contrast, students who spend their first week at Columbia in one of its pre-orientation programs such as CUE report feeling a strong support system consisting of peers and upperclassmen because such programs increase the amount of quality time spent together and cut past cliched questions (i.e. “What do you want to major in?”) and instead discuss topics that require trust and create deep relationships. Another concern lies in the short-term relationships between orientation leaders and their orientation groups. According to students, many orientation leaders stop seeing their orientation group after the second day of NSOP and most do not form long-term relationships with anyone in their group despite the potential benefits that could result from upperclassmen support for new students throughout the year. We recommend a reevaluation of NSOP that looks for ways to create consistent and intimate bonding time for orientation groups. We suggest the possibility of group configurations formed on either the basis of shared housing floors or similar academic/extracurricular interests. We also recommend training for orientation leaders that ensures follow-up with first-years and incentivizes the development of longer-term relationships. Confusion regarding campus resources and scheduling In addition to difficulty forming initial relationships, students report feelings of alienation due to the lack of guidance in navigating the week. Though students are given a schedule book, they are left on their own to find and attend the sporadically-occurring

Wellness Summit Report

“mandatory” events (many of which are still not attended) and to choose which of the remaining optional ones are worthwhile. As a result, many students end up missing events or simply skipping them. It would make more sense if the programming was tighter so that students had a daily schedule that he or she would follow, ideally with his or her floor or orientation group. A full schedule, including both fun and informative activities, would give students a much greater sense of purpose, guidance, and connection with classmates during the week. In creating this schedule, existing programs must also be examined for effectiveness. While many programs are in place to familiarize students with campus resources, the continued confusion (even well into students’ second, third, and fourth years) about major requirements, where to go to deal with campus problems, the surprise with adjustment to the first week of classes, how clubs are structured, and even meal plans show that orientation is not adequately providing students with the resources to successfully take advantage of Columbia. Students instead are often left to figure out these answers on their own from upperclassmen or websites over the following months. Worse, many students graduate without fully being aware of the resources on anything from health care to student group funding, leaving them feeling lost in a “sea of acronyms” that take multiple years for most to uncover. If uncovering the “bureaucracy” of Columbia – which consists of both student groups and administrative offices – and answering these frequently asked questions was targeted and broken down in just one pamphlet and hour of formal programming, many students would feel much less confused for years to come. When attendees of the summit surveyed friends and acquaintances about the purpose of the New Student Orientation Program, the most popular response was that it was a time for students to do as they pleased, in a state of disorientation. Additionally, nearly everyone said that most of the programming was ignored or not effective, which raises questions regarding why the programming continues to exist unchanged year-after-year. According to students, members of the NSOP committee are not tasked with designing an orientation program from scratch or even given agency to make any significant changes, but instead are told to do the “grunt work” in rolling out a consistently ineffective “administrative blueprint” each year. Thus, we recommend that a critical look should be taken at existing programming. Student program coordinators should be much more empowered to make some significant modifications to the program each year so that it could improve. Stress Culture According to a June 2011 Health Services report, “Stress at Columbia is a unifying experience and the only commonality (norm) across all schools with which students can


Wellness Summit Report

identify.” Since 2011, there has been campus dialogue about the way that stress culture is a structural condition at Columbia that perpetuates unhealthy student health outcomes, and leads to feelings of hopelessness of helplessness. One possible reason for the culture of stress that exists at Columbia is that the messages sent to students during orientation do not help students approach the issue of stress critically or constructively. Convocation speeches frequently emphasize how exceptional the students and accomplished incoming students are, leading to excessively high standards and perfectionist attitudes. Students report that campus advising often does not give a sense of the workload a student is to expect. Furthermore, as the June 2011 Health Services study put it, upperclassmen view stress as “rite of passage” for younger students, and are not motivated to help. Because student life is not about the single-minded pursuit of grades or achievements, attention must be given to encouraging habits of self-care and moderation of activity. Students who are given the guidance and tools to lead more healthy and balanced lives will not only be happier, but will be healthier and more productive. There needs to be clear messaging that communicates to new students that excessive competition and excessive schoolwork can be detrimental for personal well-being. Students ought to feel empowered to make healthy choices for themselves. Unfortunately, these themes are never explicitly mentioned by administrators, and seldom mentioned by orientation leaders. NSOP does not feature any forum to critically discuss these issues. Furthermore, vital information concerning health and academic resources on campus are frequently lost or unheard amidst the numerous distractions and activities NSOP has to offer, which may be highly detrimental to students’ long-term wellness at Columbia. We recommend that NSOP reconsider the focus of the message it sends to incoming students to include an emphasis on personal wellness and development, and to begin advertising campus and academic resources over the summer, as to assist students in fully absorbing information that will become undoubtedly critical during their time at Columbia. III. First Semester Pass/Fail Policy As a means of adjusting and discovering the philosophy of a college education, we strongly support Columbia College Student Council’s resolution to create a first semester pass/fail grading system for Columbia College students, which has also been endorsed by the Columbia Spectator Editorial Board. Many students report feeling so thoroughly focused on competition, dealing with pressure to achieve, and striving for the best grades that they do not get a chance to appreciate


Wellness Summit Report

learning, try classes and activities they enjoy, and give themselves the rare opportunity for exploration and personal growth. Hence, a first semester pass/fail policy allows for a transition and exploration period that ultimately gives students the freedom and power to choose a more balanced college experience. While we understand that academics and grades are important for all semesters, the first semester is especially challenging for students’ personal, social, and emotional development. As such, a first semester pass/fail grading system somewhat mitigates academic pressure during this time to offer students more freedom and empowerment to pursue self-care, exploration, and quality of life during a highly stressful and crucial period of personal transition. Additionally, a pass/fail grading system would help to build community at Columbia because it would provide students with an opportunity to form closer friendships and form support networks – shown by Health Services surveys to be number one way students deal with both stress. On another level, a first semester pass/fail system is a step forward towards creating a more equitable college environment. Students enter Columbia with different levels of academic preparedness, and some students will need more time to adjust than others. Many students report coming from traditions of over-achivement in high school, and would benefit from a recalibration period. To briefly address a few points of concern: some have argued that a first-semester pass/fail policy delays students’ adjustment. However, this ignores the fact that students are not just adjusting academically, but also socially and emotionally. Early social adapting, in particular, helps students build support foundations that will support their academic careers later on. Additionally, studies have shown that first semester pass/fail does not lead students to neglect their classes, but simply reduces the amount of pressure. Some have addressed concerns about a first semester pass/fail policy’s effect on applications to internships, jobs, or graduate schools. The answer is that under this proposal, unofficial grades could still potentially be used, and transcripts would come with an annotated explanation. Additionally, top schools, such as MIT, have first semester pass/fail policies, and this policy has not affected their students’ admittance into employment or graduate schools. Furthermore, medical schools and graduate schools themselves are often pass/fail, with studies showing that these policies promote learning and reduce unnecessary stress. Ultimately, reduced academic pressure during the first semester through a pass/fail system can greatly alleviate burdens felt by nearly all students, particularly vulnerable students who might otherwise experience a sense of hopelessness and alienation during their first semester. Setting the right tone for the first semester will lead to more fulfilling

Wellness Summit Report

lives for the subsequent seven. Because of its benefits in easing students’ social, emotional, and personal transitions to college, its ability to assist students with different levels in academic preparation, and its encouragement of exploration and personal growth for all students, we strongly support first semester pass/fail as a responsible policy adjustment that will create a more productive, healthy, and empowered student body. IV. Columbia Psychological Services Restructuring/Expansion Throughout SWP general body meetings and the Wellness Summit, one particular complaint in regards to campus health policies has arisen consistently, coming to our attention again and again: the widely perceived inadequacy of Columbia’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS). A glance at the spontaneous conversations that erupt in the comment sections beneath announcements of student deaths from campus media like Bwog or Spectator reveals that this is not only a major concern to representatives of wellness-oriented organizations, but to countless members of the Columbia community. We have observed that a negative experience with Columbia Psychological Services (CPS) is not only commonplace at this school, but has become ingrained into campus culture and the overall Columbia experience like some sort of twisted rite of passage. Widespread disillusionment with the core structure of CPS also plays broadly into students’ perceptions that Columbia and its administrators “do not care” about mental health. We believe that an investigation into sources of dissatisfaction with CPS should be a foremost priority to any administration genuinely willing and determined to improve the welfare of the student body. Based on personal experiences and conversations with students, we have attempted to dissect some of these problems during our summit. The complaints are numerous and diverse, but we identified three common concerns: long waiting periods possibly in correlation with a chronically under-staffed CPS, confusing procedures to secure appointments with CPS; and an overly rigid forced-leave policy. Chronic under-staffing of mental health professionals on CPS Anecdotal evidence from conversations with CPS staffers suggest that they see upwards of 25-50 percent of the student body in a given year. We have observed that students with “horror stories” regarding CPS usually expressed bitter frustration with the long waiting periods leading up to both initial appointments and follow-ups, leading to a trickle-off of students who grow disillusioned with the inability of CPS to respond to their needs within an adequate time frame. Many students have said that their disappointment at having to wait so long led them to seek services elsewhere or that it inhibited them from scheduling further appointments because their concerns are less salient by the time CPS is able to see them. Some even promote the rumor that you can get an appointment quickly if you


Wellness Summit Report

claim that you are suicidal or state that you are unsure if you are suicidal when prompted, which should never be a protocol used to get same-day or same-week appointments. Columbia must guarantee that students who seek treatment should be able to see a therapist within a week, and if needed, on a weekly basis. Those who struggle with mental or emotional health cannot simply put their needs on hold; the intensity and frequency of a person’s need for counseling in accordance with his or her mental or emotional state are continually in flux. With more counseling professionals on staff, students would be able to see a therapist in accordance with the frequency and timing of their needs. The bottleneck pressure of demand would ease and more students would be able to receive help, and most importantly, whenever they need it. While we understand that extensive expansion of CPS would demand significant expenses in the face of existing financial constraints, we would like to once again emphasize the unparalleled importance of investing in campus mental health resources, and both the practical and ethical benefits of a happier, healthier student body. We recommend additional staffing to CPS to deal with unmet and unfulfilled student demand. Complicated Procedures to Secure Appointments Currently, students who wish to set up an appointment must first call and leave a message with a stated time of availability for CPS staffers, who then return the phone call with a survey of questions regarding the student’s state of mental health. Furman Counseling Center at Barnard College, on the other hand, allows students to schedule an appointment with a single phone call to the center. While the phone survey itself is comprehensive and helpful in securing a counselor deemed fitting for the student’s specific needs, a two-way phone call is unnecessary and elongates the process of procuring immediate and perhaps time-urgent help for students. Unnecessarily complicated and confusing procedures in place for students who need to secure appointments with CPS result in fewer students getting the help they need, due to feelings of frustration and discouragement. Columbia must work with its counseling services to streamline the process of securing an appointment with a therapist. We recommend that CPS find a solution that eliminates the first step in the appointment scheduling process. This would reduce complexity, and lower the barrier of entry for students seeking first-time help. Rigid requirements regarding the policy of forced-leave Though students can always get an appointment in emergencies, the forced-leave policy makes CPS less accessible to students. If students are told they can only meet with their


Wellness Summit Report

psychologist a limited number of times before being referred elsewhere, many of them will feel uncomfortable investing in a relationship with their psychologists, if they know their sessions are finite. It is our belief that a counter should not be put on mental health issues and that students should not face the additional pressure when already stressed to “make their sessions count.” Confusion about the forced-leave policy also discourages students from seeking help. We recommend, at the minimum, a clarification of the forced-leave policy, and would like a removal of the limit altogether. V. Conclusion This report was developed following discussions with students and administrators at the February 23rd Wellness Summit. This report, while reflecting only some of the possible solutions that can be taken to improve the structural state of student well-being at Columbia University, nevertheless represents our most salient and pressing concerns. Many of these issues are not new; they have been repeatedly discussed in private meetings and public media. These issues are also not solely our own; they have been voiced by many other student groups and individuals on campus, and represent the consensus of multiple discussions from a wide range of stakeholders concerned about student wellness at Columbia. Administrators have repeatedly promised to take an active role in promoting student wellbeing; here are some actionable solutions. We hope that this report serves as a starting point for structural improvements that will create lasting benefits for student well-being at Columbia. ###


Wellness Summit Report

VI. Acknowledgements This report was prepared by: Steven Castellano CC ’13 Andrea Shang BC ’14 Priom Ahmed CC ’14 Matthew Sheridan SEAS ’16 Wilfred Chan CC ’13 Rakhi Agrawal BC ’14 Ari Schuman CC ’15 Zakary Plautz CC ’15 Nazia Jannat BC ’14 Special thanks to: All attendees of the Wellness Summit, including members from Active Minds, the Columbia Neuroscience Society, Nightline, Stressbusters, Alice!, the Office of Residential Programs, the Undergraduate Recruitment Committee, the Columbia College Student Council, the Engineering Student Council, and the Student Government Association. For questions/comments, please email