Why Engaging More Students Should Be Top Priority for College Rec

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Last spring, students in Oklahoma State University's health education and promotion program met with campus wellness leaders about ways to engage more students. They came up with a colorful solution.

This is the third in a series of articles about integrated health and wellbeing programs on college and university campuses.

"As recreation and wellness professionals, we expend a lot of resources preaching to the choir, promoting our programs and services to people who are going to participate anyway," says Todd Misener, OSU's chief wellness officer. "We're missing an underlying population of students β€” the ones staying in their rooms."

Those at-risk students, he adds, are more likely than others to experience mental health issues, possess fewer social skills, turn to drugs and alcohol, and drop out of school.

Enter OSU's new "Painting with Pete" program, held in a classroom at the Seretean Wellness Center. The small group event, based on the increasingly popular trend of mixing painting with socializing, encourages students to experience a different type of wellness. The name is a reference to OSU's Pistol Pete mascot (who sometimes makes an appearance).


of responding schools have fitness/wellness programs



of responding schools offer fitness assessments



of responding schools have faculty/staff wellness programs



of responding schools offer nutrition services


*Data is from the 2015-2016 NIRSA Institutional Data Set.

The first such invite-only event was held during OSU's Spring 2018 semester and attracted about 20 students. Some of them had never participated in more traditional recreation, fitness and wellness programs on campus.

A volunteer instructor invited participants to paint a tree on a hillside, while simultaneously introducing the idea of creative expression serving a therapeutic purpose. By encouraging students to partake in an evening of painting, snacks, socialization and education as a way of dealing with stress and anxiety, the event succeeded in promoting health and wellbeing across multiple cultural, social and fitness demographics.

"We don't pretend to offer full-on art therapy," says Kari Pratt, OSU's assistant director of health education, who helped students create the program. "What we're doing is introducing students to an alternative for stress management. As the evening wore on, the students really loosened up."

Following that initial success, OSU in September introduced a similar program to faculty and staff who generally do not use campus fitness and recreation facilities. The 30 available spots filled up almost immediately, according to Kim Beard, assistant director of employee wellness.

"I had never seen any of those people before, and many of them have been on campus for years," Beard says about participants at the event, which was led by an OSU art instructor. "They were thrilled to be involved with something different."

Finally, in December, a third iteration of the program was held for about 35 participants. This time, students were encouraged to invite a favorite faculty or staff member to join them, as a way of showing appreciation. The event also was used to gather valuable feedback from participants.

In the wake of those successful trial runs, Pratt now would like to spread the word about "Painting with Pete" to the university's general population and begin hosting several art-based events during the Spring 2019 semester.

She also will share OSU's experience with the "Painting with Pete" program at the 2019 NIRSA Annual Conference in Boston, Feb. 16-19.

The program's emphasis on emotional and mental health over physical activity might raise a few eyebrows among recreation purists, but Misener says that kind of reaction is no longer acceptable.

"We're acknowledging the reality that we have to think beyond the traditional to connect with students," he says, drawing a parallel with the recent proliferation of esports programs on some campuses. "It's imperative that wellness programs be nimble enough to make connections with new populations of students. We need to help people engage in some capacity. Period."

While Oklahoma State incorporates art therapy concepts into its wellness offerings, the University of Florida has developed a program that officials hope will set a new standard for integrated health and wellbeing on college campuses nationwide.

The CHANGES program β€” the acronym stands for "Create Habits, Adopt New Growth and Enhance Self" β€” is a collaboration between Florida's Department of Recreational Sports, as well as its Student Health Care Center, Counseling and Wellness Center, Disability Resource Center, Dean of Students Office and GatorWell Health Promotion Services. It delivers a free, 12-week program consisting of small group fitness training, group wellness coaching and nutrition counseling to 10 to 12 students referred by the collaborating departments.

Since its beginning in 2014, the CHANGES program has served more than 400 participants. The goal now is to expand it beyond the current reach of about 80 students per year.

"We intentionally don't advertise the program externally," says Leah Shelley, assistant director of fitness programs for RecSports, "because promotional efforts are focused on the referring healthcare providers."

Shelley says the cost of the program, which operates at full capacity, is offset by sponsorships, grants and other auxiliary programs, such as 5K runs. She adds that the department has applied for internal funding to help evolve and sustain CHANGES, as well as study the program's overall effectiveness among participants. "We're hoping to share our results and establish best practices in this area," Shelley says.

CHANGES began after a physician on campus began noticing several students with symptoms that could easily be treated or alleviated with physical activity. "We know physical activity and better lifestyle choices will help these students," Shelley says. "In fact, we think the CHANGES program can assist with four-year graduation rates for some of these individuals."

But don't take her word for it.

"My depression was at an all-time high after leaving home, and suicide was likely in my near future," one UF student wrote in a testimonial for the program. "I decided to take the advice from my doctor and apply to CHANGES. This program has improved my ability to cope with my depression. It has given me a social support system and the tools I needed to change my life. I, for once in my time at UF, am hopeful for the future."

This article originally appeared in the January | February 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Why engaging more students should be a top priority." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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