Initiative builds academic, personal resilience

Paul Mayne // Western NewsThe Smart Healthy Campus initiative aims to help students feel more connected, more accepted and better equipped to deal with academic and personal change, Kinesiology professor Kevin Shoemaker said. The program’s genesis was a conversation between Shoemaker and Mark Daley, Associate Vice-President (Research), several years ago about how to help students cope with overwhelming feelings of stress and loneliness.

A Western-developed mobile app might be the key to helping students assess and manage their responses to stress – all part of a unique web of support in a push to help students work through the challenges of university life.

The Smart Healthy Campus initiative aims to help students feel more connected, more accepted and better equipped to deal with academic and personal change, Kinesiology professor Kevin Shoemaker said.

“It’s about building resilience and helping people reflect upon their day and saying, ‘What did I do right? What did I do wrong in the grand scheme of things? What can I do about it tomorrow?’”

The target demographic is students dealing with the difficult transition from high school to first-year university and then to second year; and from university to the workplace or more education.

Sponsored by the Office of the Vice-Provost (Academic Planning, Policy, and Faculty), the initiative is part of the Interdisciplinary Development Initiatives (IDI) program that provides three years of support to important collaborative projects that might not otherwise find a funding home.

The Smart Healthy Campus genesis was a conversation between Shoemaker and Mark Daley, Associate Vice-President (Research), several years ago about how to help students cope with overwhelming feelings of stress and loneliness.

Launched this spring, the app would help students gauge what they are anxious about, what factors (such as exercise, sleep or physical illness) might be affecting their mood and how they are coping. The concept is distilled from a much more detailed database of questions and research about exercise and mental health that has taken place through the project so far.

But the strategy goes beyond seeking answers from a checklist.

“You don’t build resilience just by asking people to fill out a questionnaire on resilience. It’s connectedness, feeling accepted, having a safe and challenging environment,” Shoemaker said.

Those students most often say their primary concern is not anxiety or panic attacks but loneliness and a need for connection.

“(They are) newly graduated from high school, away from home, no friends amongst thousands of people. They used to be at the top of the class and now they’re in the middle,” Shoemaker said.

That prompted Shoemaker and Daley to ask the questions: Can we train resilience? Put another way, what skills, supports and strategies do students need to help them fail safely and get back to their feet to face the next challenge?

That’s why a key part of the research and intervention has been offering credit courses in which third- and fourth-year Kinesiology students act as mentors to first-year students. The upper-year students work with new students on physical activity and other initiatives, practice listening skills and develop communication and leadership strengths.

It’s a hybrid of academic and experiential learning and research and, “I don’t know of any course quite like it,” he said.

Now in its third year, enrolment in the course continues to increase and it is seeing its first group of student mentors who started as proteges.

Both mentors and proteges are required to write reflection documents about how class activities and connections have affected them. “They’re enough to move you to tears,” Shoemaker said.

The app is working its way through the ethics stage right now and expected soon to be available for beta testing by first-year Kinesiology students.

The project is a collaboration among the Faculty of Health Sciences, the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, Education, Science and Engineering. Bond University is Australia is also a partner.

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