Symposium focuses on academic well-being and student success

October 7, 2019

Nance Lucas, PhD, kicked off her keynote address at the 15th annual Undergraduate Experiences Symposium by asking 185 CU Denver faculty and staff to write the answer to this question: “What does well-being mean to you?” After a moment of silence, the conference room in the Student Commons filled with impassioned discussion. 

“There’s a national conversation about how universities can better take care of their students,” Lucas, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University in Virginia, said. “We want our students to engage in experiences that are challenging, complex, difficult, even transformative, throughout their learning processes,” and a prerequisite for the ability to do this is well-being.

Organized by CU Denver’s Office of Undergraduate Experiences, the Oct. 4 symposium explored pathways to academic well-being and the importance of students’ sense of purpose, belonging, and resilience. With a historically high number of reported mental health struggles on college and university campuses, a holistic approach to student development is imperative, Lucas explained.

Undergraduate Experiences Symposium
Faculty and staff write their thoughts on the meaning of well-being at the Undergraduate Experiences Symposium on Oct. 4.

The symposium was the last under the lead of Jeff Franklin, associate vice chancellor for Undergraduate Experiences, who has planned the event for the past five years. He’ll be switching roles and returning to his faculty position as a professor in the Department of English, and Margaret Wood, current director of the Center for Faculty Development and new associate vice chancellor of Academic Achievement, will take over.

The symposium, Franklin said, embraces CU Denver’s mission of serving and engaging students. The goal is to start a cultural conversation about student well-being that has the potential to initiate new concepts and programs on campus. From nationwide research on trends and best practices, Franklin determined well-being was the right focus for the 15th annual event. He referenced resources such as the 2019 National College Health Assessment, which shows that CU Denver students are significantly above national averages in reported depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, as well as trauma related to academics and financial issues. 

“Doing something like this will have an impact,” Franklin said of the symposium. “It won’t be instant or linear, but it will be about helping the university. We are all dedicated in our heart and soul to help students succeed.”

Preparing students for real-world challenges 

The symposium began with a welcome from Provost Roderick Nairn, followed by seven mini “tED Talks” from CU Denver’s own faculty and staff on significant aspects of well-being and wellness, including physical health, mental health, stress and coping skills, and sense of belonging at CU Denver. Breakout sessions—in which attendees convened in separate rooms by “tED Talk” topics and brainstormed best practices and next steps—ensued.

Undergraduate experiences symposium
Nance Lucas, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University in Virginia, gives the keynote address at the 15 annual Undergraduate Experiences Symposium.

In her keynote address, Lucas encouraged uplifting student well-being in higher education and presented examples of what appears to be working across the nation. George Mason University, for example, has included student well-being as goal #7 in its 10-year strategic plan. In the initiative, four areas of well-being are embedded into the university’s ecosystem.

  1. Vitality through the development of positive relationships and physical well-being.
  2. Purpose through personal, professional, and community values, and work engagement.
  3. Resilience through self-awareness, psychological flexibility, and stress management.
  4. Engagement through deepening one’s sense of belonging and connections with others.

“When universities commit to increasing students’ well-being, they are preparing them to address real-world challenges with a deeper sense of compassion and connection to others in an integrated and diverse world,” Lucas said. “This commitment includes the holistic education of our students with a connection to learning, engagement, and the development of an integrated self.”

‘It’s about the whole person’

The symposium sparked new conversation around student well-being and academic success on CU Denver’s campus, and also highlighted the tools already available, such as the Counseling Center, the year-old Student Wellness Center, and a new online portal for wellness resources called YOU@CUDenver. The tool is free to students, staff and faculty.

Attendees commended Franklin for choosing such a timely and relevant topic and for bringing together the different perspectives of faculty and staff.

“It’s nice because you get to peer into what’s happening in the classroom and not just in the operations side,” said Rebecca Gianarkis, a recruiter in the School of Public Affairs. “This really recharged our batteries.”

Undergraduate experiences symposium
Faculty and staff engage in thoughtful discussion at the 15th annual Undergraduate Experiences Symposium.

During closing comments, Linda Bowman, PhD, senior vice chancellor for Student Success and Achievement, was candid with the room of faculty and staff. 

“It is OK to spend some time engaging with our students to find out how they are doing,” said Bowman, who also serves as interim vice provost. “When we really think about higher education, it’s about the whole person. It’s this whole ecosystem of support for students—intellectually, socially, and psychologically.”