Last October, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced a delay in the expected January 2020 opening of its 240,000-square-foot Nicholas Recreation Center. Officials cited multiple reasons for the setback in a transparent news release and announced that the $96 million facility would open later this year. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, pushing back its opening even further.
"It's been kind of hard to sleep since March," says Sadat Khan, associate director of member experience for UW-Madison Recreation & Wellbeing, adding that the new facility tentatively was slated to open Sept. 14 at 25 percent capacity. "As we got closer to students returning to campus on Aug. 24, we began to realize what the impact was going to be."
Turns out the impact was tremendous. Although construction was deemed an essential industry in Wisconsin during that state's lockdown, and work on the Nick (as it's already known) continued, almost every other plan for the long-awaited building had to be rethought.
"We started designing this thing back in the spring of 2016, and now here we are four years later," Khan says. "It feels unfair to students, because we want thousands of students to be inside, enjoying all of the new spaces. Instead, they're going to be doing a lot of things virtually. And when they come in, they're probably not going to be able to use the basketball courts, the fitness studios or the locker rooms. We can't even have a proper grand opening event to recognize our donors. But we're doing the best we can to shift and do what's right."
Among the biggest challenges facing Khan and his team is finding time to train all of the students who work at the Nick. Recreation & Wellbeing eventually plans to employ more than 400 workers and instructors at the new facility, many of whom will be doing a lot more cleaning and disinfecting than they originally anticipated. Pre-pandemic plans called for student employees to undergo large-group training prior to classes beginning. That strategy changed as some students opted not to return to campus as the university opted to move many fall classes online, and all training sessions were downsized from about 100 people to 10.
Conceived in 2014 and under construction since 2017, the long-awaited Nick nevertheless is cause for excitement. When it ultimately is functioning at full strength, the facility will offer a broad range of integrated health and wellness opportunities.
"We've been working with our campus partners — University Health Services, Residence Life and others — to start building relationships, sharing resources and developing ideas with them," Khan says, adding that "wellbeing" has only been part of his department's name for a short time. "That type of collaborative work is still going on, regardless of whether the Nick is open or not. For outreach through actual programming or classes, though, we're going to wait a little bit as things improve and see what we can pull off."
Butler's all-in approach
In times like these, wellbeing has never been more critical. Butler University officials recognize that and are in the early stages of expanding the popular campus-wide BUBeWell program.
Launched in fall 2018, the initiative quickly became the foundation of the university's strategic integrated approach to wellbeing, and it is identified as a "best practice" by both NIRSA and NASPA (an organization of student affairs administrators in higher education). BUBeWell includes eight dimensions of wellbeing: mind and body, diversity and inclusion, intellectual, social, service and community, career and life skills, meaning and purpose, and sustainability.
"The buy-in across campus has been incredible, across 30 offices and departments," says Josh Downing, Butler's director of recreation and wellness, who helps oversee BUBeWell. "We come together on a regular basis to talk about shared missions, shared values and how we can get out of each other's way. If we had two offices or departments doing similar programs, they were competing against each other — maybe without even realizing it."
When the pandemic hit, Butler officials pivoted and created a special BUBeWell webpage with virtual resources that include everything from career support options and activity ideas to cleaning/disinfecting tips.
The page also includes resources for administrators, faculty and staff — staying healthy while working from home and leading a team virtually, among the topics — as part of a new effort to provide integrated wellness opportunities for everyone on campus. In January, the Health & Recreation Complex dropped user fees for Butler employees, and each of the eight BUBeWell dimensions now includes not only resources for students, but also for faculty and staff.
"The community as a whole is taking care of each other," Downing says. "Exercise and movement are so critical to not only our physical wellbeing but also our mental wellbeing. We've got to do everything within our capabilities to help support everyone, because there is a lot of stress and anxiety out there."
Finding the positives
As many campus recreation professionals are doing these days, Downing and Khan have searched for silver linings in the dark clouds of uncertainty that hover daily over them and their teams.
"We're drastically reduced in what we can do because of the situation, and we're trying to create a safe environment and do the right thing. But not being able to do what we used to do creates a sense of uneasiness. It's a lot to navigate," Downing says before concluding on a positive note. "This is great professional-development training for all of us. I tell my staff, 'This will pay off for you in some way, not only professionally, but also personally.'"
Khan remains upbeat, too.
"We are so excited about the Nick, even though things aren't turning out the way we wanted," he says. "When I got here five years ago, we probably had 25 or 30 professionals on our staff, and right now we're sitting at about 55. We've recruited based on [the Nick and another new campus recreation center slated to open in 2023]. But beyond that, students have never had something like this on campus. The potential — and what they eventually will be able to experience — is just incredible."
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Integrated health and wellbeing in uncertain times." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.