Student Wellness: Finding The
Low-Hanging Fruit

illustration of writing a document

The recent controversy over Lincoln University's graduation requirement that all overweight graduates lose weight or take a fitness course illustrates the importance many colleges and universities are placing on wellness programming as a vehicle to promote student health and cut the rising costs of student health insurance. Yet many colleges are opting for health and wellness efforts that are narrowly targeted -- for example, a required fitness course or an effort to improve food options at the dining hall. The University of South Carolina's Healthy Carolina initiative is one of the few programs that takes a truly holistic perspective. We asked the program's director, Michelle Burcin, for her advice on taking a big-picture approach to student wellness and how to identify efforts that represent low-hanging fruit -- especially if you are working with limited resources.

Look at the Big Picture

Taking the example of America's obesity epidemic, Burcin advises focusing not just on fitness or on dining options, but on both, in addition to a hard look at the campus environment. "Look at the whole picture," she advises. "It isn't just the staff who make the hot food who are responsible for presenting healthy options. What are your vending machines selling?"

"Are we creating a campus environment that makes it easy for students to make healthy choices, or are we creating a campus environment that doesn't?"
Michelle Burcin, U of South Carolina

Besides approaching your dining hall staff, Burcin recommends approaching your student health services and medical providers. These professionals are already taking vitals on many students on a daily basis. "Ask them if you can set a standard. If a student's blood pressure is above a certain number or if their BMI is high, will they make a referral to you?" In that way, you can connect those students who are most in need with the wellness programs you offer.

What To Do If You're a One-Person Shop

At many smaller campuses, both day-to-day healthcare and wellness initiatives may be handled by an RN, with the assistance of a rotating doctor who may visit campus just one or two days a week. If you are in this position -- or just generally short on time and staff -- there is still a lot that you can do.

"You don't have to do it all. The first thing is to assemble a task force. Look for likely partners."
Michelle Burcin, U of South Carolina

You might find partners in the recreation department. Campus police may be interested in working with you on alcohol and other drug prevention and awareness. Professionals in student housing may be interested in partnering with you, or faculty who have research interests in student health or student behavior. Reach out to others on campus and assemble a team.

Find the Low-Hanging Fruit

Burcin offers examples of health & wellness projects that can be undertaken with a minimum of personnel and funds. It is a matter of finding the resources that are already there.

If you want to start an awareness campaign (for example, to encourage healthy dining choices), visit your health faculty or your communications faculty to see if an instructor would be interested in the campaign as a class project. At USC, students in one course created all of the educational materials and posters. "We advised them," Burcin notes, "but they did the work." That work included conducting focus groups with students in residence halls and classrooms, researching what messaging would be compelling to them, researching in what locations the messages would be effective. "They did all the legwork of a media-based campaign. It was a win-win. The faculty are excited because students are getting real-world experience, and we're excited because we're able to send the message."

If you have a large or spread-out campus, here is an option that is likely zero cost. Find a student -- a volunteer, an undergraduate with a class project, a graduate student with hours to fulfill for a practicum -- to help set different walking paths around campus. USC identified eight walking paths, from half a mile to 3 miles, and then made downloadable PDFs showing the paths available to interested students. "We showed them how easy it is to get a healthy, one-mile walk around campus."

"It's easy to think, If I can't do everything, I shouldn't do anything. I don't agree with that. Smaller efforts lead over time to a cultural shift and behavioral changes on your campuses. Use your colleagues as resources as much as possible."
Michelle Burcin, U of South Carolina

First Steps

To get started on a student health and wellness initiative:

  • Collect the data available and determine what the true wellness needs are
  • Find out what efforts are underway elsewhere on your campus
  • Create a one or two-year plan with clear objectives

"You don't want to throw a party and have no one come. It's too easy to sit in my office and say "We need a back injury awareness program for our staff." Do I know that? I need to check my workers' compensation data before I invest in a program."
Michelle Burcin, U of South Carolina

Having the right data at your fingertips will empower you to make smart investments of your time and resources -- and to tell an effective story to faculty and other stakeholders about why you are undertaking various health and wellness initiatives, and what difference those initiatives might make in the lives and academic performance of the students.

Look for the data that your campus is already collecting. Your medical center is collecting data on number of visits and type of visits. Your student affairs department might be participating in a national assessment that either has health-related questions or can be customized to include health-related questions. For a cost, you can also participate in the National College Health Assessment (NCHA).

Also, look for faculty or students who can help design surveys and do data mining as a part of their publication work, their classroom learning, or their thesis.

"Taking a step back and pausing to look at the data may not be exciting, but it's critical. Contact your colleagues in student affairs and academic affairs and ask who has data on the health and wellness-related behaviors of faculty, students, and staff."
Michelle Burcin, U of South Carolina

Find out what efforts your colleagues on campus may already be making. Are there resources that you can tap? "Maybe your first year seminar is collecting a ton of data on your students," Burcin suggests. "That could be your first partner in finding opportunities in a classroom setting to make a further impact on wellness."

Finally, once you have identified the real needs based on data, and as you assemble your health and wellness task force, make your first task the creation of a plan or guiding document. Burcin recommends planning on an 18-24 month horizon, and then assessing your efforts. Having a healthy campus plan with specific objectives to meet documented needs will give you a way to keep your efforts focused, and will offer a starting point for inviting new partners to join in those efforts.