Executive summary On behalf of student wellness
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Studying, and shaping, student wellness
by President Philip A. Glotzbach
“A liberal education provides the best possible preparation for a life of … satisfaction in the deepest sense of that term—a life of human flourishing, Aristotle’s eudaimonia. Such a life … entails continuing intellectual and personal growth, the cultivation of mature friendships and loving family relationships, … community involvement, attention to the arts and other sources of spiritual renewal, and a commitment to health and wellness.” —Engaged Liberal Learning: The Plan for Skidmore College 2005–2015
Observers of the human condition have long recognized the relationship between physical and mental health. Nearly 2,000 years ago the Roman poet Juvenal proposed that one should seek to achieve mens sana in corpore sano—a healthy mind in a healthy body. This notion is embedded in Skidmore’s Strategic Plan, and we are working hard to make that ideal a reality for all of our students. Realizing this objective, however, presents a significant challenge. Poor diet, insufficient sleep, mental stress, lack of exercise, and the abuse of alcohol and drugs all contribute to poor performance in the classroom and in life beyond college. Unfortunately, these behaviors are manifested more often than we would like among the college-age population—both here and elsewhere.
Skidmore is investing considerable time and energy both in studying the underlying causes of these unhealthy behaviors and in implementing programs that have the greatest likelihood of changing them. One of the key players in this effort is Jen Burden, the director of health promotion (see the article about her work in this Scope Quarterly). Under her leadership, we have instituted a series of surveys to gain a deeper understanding of just how our students are constructing their lives. Starting with tools such as “My Student Body”—a comprehensive on-line questionnaire that helps our entering students understand and modify their behaviors—and then continuing on with regular e-mail surveys of all our students over the course of the year, we are developing valuable information that will inform future programming. Already our commitment to student health is visible across the campus: from our renovated dining hall, with its wide array of healthy eating options, to our expanded athletic facilities and the growing list of health and wellness classes (from yoga to Pilates to nutrition) open to students and staff alike.
We are working to engage the entire Skidmore community in understanding student health issues. For example, Jen Burden presented her research at a recent faculty meeting, underscoring for everyone present how strongly our students’ academic achievement correlates with their mental and physical health. She then talked about how faculty members can partner with health-services professionals to identify and assist students who might be struggling. Importantly, we enlist parents in these efforts as well, alerting them when a student is cited for a violation of the campus drug or alcohol policies and engaging them as partners in our efforts both to educate students about the risks of unhealthy behaviors and to encourage healthier alternatives.
The complexity of these issues is one reason that I recently chose not to add my signature to those of college presidents supporting the “Amethyst Initiative.” Led by former Middlebury President John McCardell, the Amethyst Initiative is a well-intentioned attempt to address the very real problem of excessive drinking among college students. It calls for a national discussion about lowering the legal drinking age from twenty-one to eighteen. While I remain open to such a conversation, I believe that there are larger and more significant behavioral issues for us to contend with at this time. I also believe that any such national deliberations would need to look beyond what is happening in our colleges and universities to include other populations of young adults. We certainly will continue to monitor this discussion, but for now we are directing our attention to more immediate considerations of how we can best work with our own students here in Saratoga Springs.
In sum, our health and counseling services, the office of residential life, and many other campus offices are making important investments in the health and wellness of Skidmore students. But there is still more we must do. For example, because our fitness facilities are overstretched and insufficient to meet student demand, we are actively exploring ways to create additional fitness space in the planned replacement of the aging Scribner Village student-housing complex. We also intend to continue developing our understanding of how and why students struggle with unhealthy or risky behaviors. Today’s world confronts all of us with a bewildering array of stresses and strains, and no campus is an island. As Juvenal and others knew well, achieving true success requires a balanced, healthy, and sustainable lifestyle. We are committed to doing even more to help our students start now in shaping the habits that will foster a lifetime of health and wellness.