A year of intersectional holistic health: the past, present and future of Student Wellness

Design by Jon Hesse/Iowa State Daily, graphics courtesy of Student Wellness

Design by Jon Hesse/Iowa State Daily, graphics courtesy of Student Wellness

Jill O'Brien

Almost exactly one year after being hired, Student Wellness Center director Mark Rowe-Barth, five professional staff, two graduate assistants and 26 student employees will celebrate the one year anniversary of the Student Wellness Center launch on Feb. 23.

Housed in Friley Hall, the Student Wellness Center offers a holistic approach to student health and wellness through a variety of outreach initiatives and projects, as well as a peer to peer approach for students looking to utilize the Wellness Center’s services. The program has its roots in a Wellness Task Force that former Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Tom Hill had started during his tenure to look at holistic student health at the university level, something that Iowa State did not have.

“It started way before last year,” said Rowe-Barth. “It goes quite a number of years…the Division of Student Affairs brought in [consulting group] Keeling and Associates to interview students, faculty, collect data and really look at what it would look like to build a program like this.”

The professional staff at the Wellness Center is comprised of director Mark Rowe-Barth, Brian Vanderheyden, Violence Prevention and Green Dot Coordinator Jazzmine Brooks, ISU Dining dietician Lisa Nolting and secretary Patty Prouty, all of whom have different roots in the program and play different roles in the vision of holistic wellness. The program has flourished under student and professional leadership, focusing on intersectionality and accessibility when it comes to holistic student wellness, as well as partnerships with other health and wellness organizations on campus.

While Peer Wellness Educators and Green Dot are largely visible on campus, the history of the program and their initiatives, past, present and future, might not be as visible.

Today, one year after their launch, they are.

Building from the ground up

Student Wellness Manager Brian Vanderheyden perhaps has deeper roots in the Student Wellness project than many on the time- he served on the Wellness Task Force and worked at the Thielen Student Health Center when consulting group Keeling and Associates collected their data and made their recommendations on what a holistic wellness program would look like.

“The previous senior vice president for Student Affairs Tom Hill convened a group of faculty and staff together to really look at the university level at what we were and weren’t doing related to wellness,” Vanderheyden said. “All of our peer institutions had some type of comprehensive approach or program or strategy and we were really lacking in that.”

From there, the focus was on taking the recommendations from Keeling and finding leadership to buy into the vision. Before Rowe-Barth was hired, Vanderheyden’s position had already been posted. The pair then hired students to assist in building from the ground up, and Jazzmine Brooks transitioned over from her prior position in the Dean of Students office. As for Nolting, the original report did not have a set place for a dietician, but a strong relationship with ISU Dining made it possible.

Brooks’ position in Student Wellness remains relatively similar to her former position in DSO.

“I think it was always the plan,” said Brooks. “My position’s the same, it’s just changed slightly adapting to the program and what the campus needs. I do a lot of coordinating, that’s most of what I do-coordinating trainings, initiatives, thinking long-term.”

Even the student employees at Student Wellness encompass and embrace the many different communities that the program reaches out to.

“One of our GA’s is supported by international tuition revenue,” Rowe-Barth said. “A lot of graduate and professional students are international students, so the focus is really on having a graduate level peer versus an undergraduate level peer working on graduate, professional and international student wellbeing. We’re fortunate to have that position focusing on those populations.”

Authenticity and the peer to peer approach

One of the main facets of Student Wellness that has held true is the peer to peer approach of the program, with initiatives like Peer Wellness Educators and the new Cyclone Health Ambassador Team (CHAT), emphasizing how students have social capital and influence in their respective groups, and can use that influence to help one another.

The peer to peer programs also emphasize intersectionality and understanding that wellbeing of all students involved in their programs. Brooks said on the peer to peer approach that Student Wellness takes, and Brooks, Rowe-Barth and Vanderheyden all talked about the extensive research done on the effectiveness of the approach and how it is seen all across campus.

“It was a recommendation in the Keeling report to get that [peer to peer approach] started right away, to have a strong foundation of peer support,” Vanderheyden said. “There’s a reason there are peer mentors, community advisers…having a core group of students to help us build, talk about resources, help get connected. That has a lot of power.”

The Peer Wellness Educators are not only the eyes and ears of Student Wellness, but the eyes and ears of the campus; they gather feedback and look for opportunities for projects to improve the campus climate for students. They also take a course that not only teaches the ins and outs of their job, but how to be more in tune to what their peers are concerned about when it comes to campus issues.

“The course is meant to be thinking about leadership in general- how are students looking at supporting one another,” Brooks said. “A lot of it can translate to other work environments, so it’s not meant to solely be a class to help our [Peer Wellness educator] program… they’re getting the Green Dot training, learning ways to engage, helping skills, how to help a friend.”

In fact, it isn’t so much the professionals working up the projects as it is the student employees of Student Wellness. Not to say that the professionals don’t aid in project management, but it is the students who see the needs of their peers and develop initiatives to make their lives a little easier, from working with the colleges to increasing access to microwaves on campus- yes, microwaves.

“It can be hard if you’re bringing lunch and you’re here all day and you can’t have anything hot to eat because you don’t have access to a microwave,” Rowe-Barth said.

“If you don’t have access, it can be challenging,” Vanderheyden also said.

Increasing access to microwaves in various locations on campus is only one of the 50-odd projects that the student employees are working towards this semester and beyond.

New projects, new ideas

“I look back and I think just how quickly time has gone by and what has changed, it’s gone by so quickly but sometimes it feels like years that I’ve been here,” Rowe-Barth said. “I think it was hard to know exactly when you’re starting something from scratch how things are going to go- there’s tremendous support which helps that we have that kind of wind pushing us, allowing us to really soar.”

Besides bringing Green Dot to more faculty and staff and bringing speakers like #MeToo founder Tarana Burke to Iowa State, Student Wellness is working on initiatives that not only impact and build relationships with the individual colleges, but also impact student wellness all across campus.

A collaboration with the Thielen Student Health Center, Student Counseling Services and Recreation Services has brought all four groups together as the Student Health and Wellness branch of the Division of Student Affairs, and the Cyclone Health Ambassador Team (CHAT) will be an outreach team that allows the four organizations to work together to advise and provide outreach on a larger scale.

They’re also looking into creating community surrounding more serious issues.

“We’ve been working on a federal campus suicide prevention grant that would be very big for Iowa State to receive that grant,” Rowe-Barth said about more significant projects that Student Wellness is working on. “On the substance use and abuse front, we’re looking at an individual level of how we’re supporting students to looking at interventions we have for students, policy, and how we can incrementally implement a collegiate recovery community at Iowa State and be supportive of students who are in recovery or seeking recovery. College can be a difficult environment for someone who is in recovery, so there’s a lot that’s going into that.”

Building an entire holistic wellness program from the ground up was something that required not only the cooperation of leadership and buying into the project, but the flexibility of Rowe-Barth and Vanderheyden, and the ability to trust that everything that was happening was happening for a reason and would ultimately benefit Student Wellness overall.

“I didn’t know some of the things that were already in the works. There were a lot of things that Brian and I learned were happening, like ‘Wow, this is happening. We didn’t anticipate this but things are moving and we need to jump on board,'” Rowe-Barth said. “There were a lot of unknowns. The simple answer is probably yes, big picture-wise it’s been fairly in mind with what I’d hoped and dreamed would happen, but so much more that I don’t think we could have anticipated.”