In the fall of 2011, fellow students and I started a group called the Student Wellness Project with the goal of creating a campus culture of wellbeing. Since then, I've had a lot of great conversations about this topic. But—as evidenced by the March 31 Spectator editorial, "Trying to talk away stress"—concerns remain about how Columbia has been approaching the problem.
I've noticed three main questions. First, how do we define whether or not a student is "well"? Second, who is responsible for improving student wellbeing: the student or the school? Third, as students who care about wellness, can we create campus change?
To address the first question, wellness is different than health. Health, in a medical sense, can be measured. It refers to an absence of injury, disease, or disability. Wellness, on the other hand, is a mindset. It's about having personal awareness of the things that make a healthy life possible, and then empowering oneself to pursue self-care. It is holistic, patient, and ongoing. In this sense, wellness is not an end but rather a mentality.
Experts suggest that there are multiple dimensions of wellness: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, social, financial, and so on. Wellness, then, is about developing an understanding of how to fulfill and balance these categories in response to life's varying challenges.
For example, I've learned that I feel my best when I ride my bike often. I feel my best when I am surrounded by supportive friends. I feel my best when I journal and meditate. And so on. The point is, wellness is a philosophy that puts the responsibility and power for wellbeing into your hands.
But here's the challenge: None of us exist in isolation, and wellness is not a solitary experience. Though we make our own choices, our lives are also determined by the people around us, and strongly shaped by the structures that we inhabit. And that brings me to the second point—that wellness cannot just be an individual responsibility, but also must be one in which the school plays a part.
Take Health Services. If Counseling and Psychological Services is understaffed, and students can't get help, then that would be a structural wellness problem. Or if there aren't counselors who understand the needs of certain identity groups (from personal experience, there are no counselors at CPS who have the ability to help me with my Asian-American-specific neuroses), that's a structural wellness problem.
Or consider academics. If we have, say, credit requirements that encourage undue mental stress at the expense of other aspects of healthy living, then that could be a structural wellness problem. If we have an unresponsive advising system that fails to check in on students and assess their holistic wellbeing, that's another structural wellness problem. And if we have a student culture that celebrates stress as a badge of honor, you guessed it—that's a significant structural wellness problem.
Here's the good news, and the answer to the third question: These systems can be changed. And that's a big part of what the Student Wellness Project is trying to do.
Last month, Student Wellness Project members successfully pushed for a new statement to appear on Barnard syllabi, encouraging students to prioritize their personal health along with academics. While the statement is focused on students' individual wellness, the fact that it reflects a schoolwide initiative means that it is a step toward systemic change.
Last week, our policy chair, Steven Castellano, who also serves on the Columbia College Student Council, introduced a proposal that would create a first-semester pass/D/fail policy for CC first-years, giving new students a chance to adjust and explore. The resolution passed overwhelmingly, and was endorsed by the Spectator Editorial Board last Friday. Surveys show that a majority of students back the proposal, which now awaits approval by the Committee on Instruction.
This week, we're hosting our second annual Random Acts of Kindness Week, with the hope that we can help find ways for students to care for each other and have fun. Last year, more than 1,000 students participated, and this year we're hoping for even more.
Even so, I want to re-emphasize a point I've made many times in the past: Students should not bear all the responsibility for change. As the Editorial Board writes, "Wellness is a two-way street." The relationship between individual wellness and structural wellness means we all have a part to play in creating change—from students all the way to those at the highest levels of the administration.
We have a lot of work left to do. But wellness is a patient process. I am hopeful.
Wilfred Chan is a senior majoring in political science. He is the founder of the Student Wellness Project. Channeling Discourse runs alternate Tuesdays.
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