The New Student Orientation Program is a time for saying bye to parents, getting lost on the way to the laundry room, awkwardly telling hundreds of people your intended major, and partying it up on campus for the first time. It is both glorious and agonizing, but above all it is a terrible time for much of its intended purpose: learning.
Columbia should require first-years to take a one-credit, pass/fail class that teaches essential skills related to learning, mental health, and nutrition. Overwhelming hungover students with information during orientation is not the answer. But a wellness course, spread throughout students’ first semester with flexible absences, just might be. After all, our community deserves more than newsletter emails telling us to eat more celery and work harder at time management, messages that come off as uncaring and patronizing.
For starters, the School of General Studies already has a similar version of this class: University Studies. The school recognizes that introducing new ways to learn is critical for undergraduates from all backgrounds—first-generation college students, international students, low-income students, and even students who attended top prep schools. The first year of college is the perfect time to reexamine academic habits that are taken for granted, such as note-taking, sustainable and healthy studying, utilizing office hours, and forming meaningful relationships with professors.
To this end, the new class should combine engaging lectures with small, weekly discussion groups led by mature student leaders and alumni. If implemented across the entire university, it would help first-years form more meaningful friendships and connections across the rest of Columbia. These discussion groups would be tailored to students’ unique backgrounds and interests, offering them the choice to join groups led by upperclassmen, professors, or alumni with shared identities.
The need for this curriculum is more urgent than ever. Imagine the benefits of giving first-year students instruction on groundbreaking ways to reduce stress, combat unhealthy habits like substance abuse, support others going through mental health crises, and use social media in a healthy manner. The people who could benefit the most from guidance on these matters are not the ones going to Stressbusters or seeking out online resources to help themselves. They are the students pulling all-nighters in Butler or spending weeks isolated in their rooms before seeking counseling. These students often do not attend optional wellness events hosted by the University or campus groups, because they fill their time with more stress or wallowing.
Columbia should take an active role in providing education on wellness, rather than forcing campus groups, led by overburdened and unpaid students, to shoulder the full responsibility. When a large share of our community is depressed, it affects all of us because emotions are contagious. This perpetuates a cycle wherein people become too stressed out about their own lives to support others.
But our contagious psychology also presents an opportunity. By destigmatizing the services offered by Columbia Counseling and Psychological Services and normalizing effective methods of peer-to-peer counseling, this class would help students prevent mental health crises before they begin. Most of us do not prioritize our wellness until it’s already been compromised, but a more robust education can change that. By legitimizing wellness education, Columbia would also inspire change at schools and organizations across the country. Some other schools, in fact, have already organized similar classes.
Right now our campus’s response to mental health is reactionary, targeting individual students after they have hit rock bottom and already sent a ripple of negativity across their peer groups. This is not the answer, but a proactive approach through this innovative wellness curriculum might be. For example, the first discussion group activity could be a scavenger hunt for Columbia’s psychological and academic resources, requiring students to step into Counseling and Psychological Services with their peers to break the stigma this space holds. Students familiar with these resources will use them early on, rather than stumbling across them during a crisis their sophomore or junior year.
The class should include topics on nutrition, helping us digest a complicated science that affects us three times a day for our entire lives. This will make us happier and healthier students, better equipped to be leaders on campus and beyond. Programming could be designed to give students choices, offering them cooking classes, a seminar on cutting-edge food technology, or group discussions about body positivity.
Some might object that a course like this would take up too much of students’ time, but sacrificing a little time so that our entire college experience improves would be a worthwhile trade-off. Students would be required to attend just four or five lectures and discussion sections throughout the semester, and the education itself would prevent many of the time-consuming crises that have come to define Columbia’s social atmosphere.
As we consider piloting this class, it is impossible to tell the exact form it might take, but the long-term prospects should leave us optimistic. Better notes, better health, and better relationships will translate to better productivity, helping reverse the stress culture that has plagued Columbia for far too long. A social, one-credit, pass/fail class on life skills won’t be a burden. It’d be an enormous blessing.
The Mental Health Action Committee was formed by a dozen students and alumni of Ivy League schools at the Ivy League Mental Health Conference at Princeton in March. At Columbia, the committee has gathered input on creating required wellness programming from across the University—the student body, Columbia deans, distinguished faculty, and student government leaders. If you like the idea, as a student or alum, we welcome your support as we partner with the administration to pilot the program. Please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to join our growing team.
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