Imagining a new normal: exploring wellbeing initiatives in higher education

As the term has become more popular and as usage has become more widespread, most people now know that sustainability is about supporting the well-being of the planet and the wildlife that inhabits Earth. What immediately comes to mind are images of polar bears on melting icebergs, burning rainforests, or sea turtles caught in plastic trash. Although these devastating wildlife issues are important aspects of sustainability, it is important to consider the ways sustainability relates to human well-being. This summer, I had the pleasure of working with a team that views sustainability as a field that is not only focused on wildlife and the planet, but also on the people who live on it.

Today we are witnessing a global climate crisis and devastation within Earth’s ecosystems. It’s easy to view human beings as enemies of the planet and the greatest threat to the existence of life. Many young people are participating in efforts to fight against current practices and policies that are accelerating environmental destruction. You might identify as an environmental-justice activist or an agent for change. Being part of community movements for ecological justice can be hopeful and empowering. But the pressure put on current generations to be change agents while keeping up with all of society’s other expectations can be exhausting. In recent years, studies have revealed significant increases in depression, anxiety, and related health issues especially among young people.

Persian poet and Sufi mystic, Rumi said, “Never give from the depths of your well but from your overflow.” This concept of caring for ourselves before we can extend meaningful care to others has become widely accepted and quoted among people when considering human-to-human relationships. But what about when we consider our relationships with the rest of the world and its ecosystems?

The Student Life Sustainability team aims to celebrate personal and community resilience as integral to sustainability work, to expand wellness resources for people who work every day to heal our planet and ecosystems, and create well-being tools that are accessible to everyone at U-M. One of the major projects we will be working on this upcoming semester is creating resources to help students cope with the emotional stress, grief, and anxiety that stem from the current climate crisis. The University of Michigan Planet Blue Campus website states that through sustainability efforts on campus, “We strive to protect our planet’s life-support systems so that future generations can thrive.” After all, through prioritizing “life support systems” we can simultaneously support human well-being. Now we hope to expand the ways we work to heal the planet to also work on healing ourselves.

Through my research, I learned that some universities are developing initiatives that could drastically reform the way students experience college life through expanding and prioritizing well-being within sustainability. Dawson College, the University of British Columbia, and Bemidji State University are some examples of schools that are combining sustainability initiatives with well-being initiatives to make holistic changes that will benefit humans as well as the environment. Below are some of the exciting ways each of these institutions are broadening perspectives of sustainability and improving community and environmental resilience through well-being.

The University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia (UBC) has been a key contributor in laying the foundations of the Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting University and Colleges, which calls upon post-secondary schools to embed health into all aspects of campus culture and to lead health promotion action and collaboration locally and globally. The charter is intended to utilize institutions of higher education as spaces where people gather to learn. By implementing health, well-being, and sustainability into institutions of higher education, colleges may act as little pools of wisdom that will eventually flood their knowledge, practices, and feelings throughout communities. 

In response to the Charter’s call to action, UBC has been developing ways to expand well-being throughout every aspect of its campus. In 2018, UBC launched the Wellbeing Strategic Framework, a breakdown of well-being related goals. In the image of the wheel below in the outermost ring, you can see the six areas where UBC is focused on prioritizing well-being: Collaborative Leadership, Mental Health & Resilience, Food & Nutrition, Social Connection, Built & Natural Environments, and Physical Activity. Moving towards the center, the next two rings depict ways that people can facilitate well-being. The next ring inward lists the people who make change and well-being possible. On its website, UBC showcases a broad range of tools and resources that can be used by students, faculty, staff, and members of the community to foster environments centered around well-being. 

UBC Wellbeing Strategic Framework

Bemidji State University

“An economy is not just humans exchanging goods and services, but the entire web of relationship and reciprocity upon which all life depends. Trees share nutrients with other trees. Wolves feast on beavers and thus manage the wetlands. In a similar manner, the societal aspect of the traditional Venn diagram is not just referring to humans. It refers to interactions between all beings. A turtle rests on a rock. A lightning bug does a special dance to attract a mate. Society is complex and beautiful, and we are a part of it all.” 

— Erika Bailey-Johnson, Sustainability Director at Bemidji State University

In 2008, the newly formed Sustainability Department at Bemidji State University (BSU) made a decision to reform the traditional sustainability model in hopes of improving resilience and well-being throughout the University. They had noticed that students and staff were fatigued and stressed, and they worried that this would affect ecological sustainability efforts. Focusing on recycling and other facilities-related initiatives didn’t seem to be resonating with the overwhelmed community.

Through their work, the BSU Sustainability department developed a Wellness Model for Sustainability that centers aspects of life within a larger circle that is the environment. This model emphasizes how all living things are interconnected within the environment. In the new wellness diagram, the green environment sphere surrounds all other elements. The center of the diagram is also green, suggesting that the environment is the heart as well as the foundation of the well-being model. The BSU Sustainability department hopes that their unique perspective of interconnectedness within sustainability will inspire others to view well-being as a practice that takes all living things into consideration.

BSU Wellness Model for Sustainability

Dawson College

Earlier this summer, I was invited by one of my project supervisors to attend a workshop through AASHE titled: Personal and Campus-Wide Resilience. There, a group of facilitators spoke about their work in expanding personal and community resilience through connections with nature. Chris Adam is the Sustainability Office Coordinator at Dawson College. The passion in his voice had us all listening intently as he shared his favorite projects and initiatives that makes Dawson College stand out as a “Living Campus.” 

In 2014, Dawson College began its Monarch Butterfly Nursery Project as a way to help the declining monarch population. It soon became clear that the work that students and staff were doing for the benefit of the butterflies was also creating a lot of joy within the Dawson College community. Students, faculty, and staff took caterpillars home to care for them which created emotional bonds between humans and their new hungry friends and sparked conversations about sustainability and the environmental changes that are affecting the monarchs’ way of life. Chris Adam went on to speak about Dawson College’s Sustainable Happiness Certification programs. Sustainable Happiness is defined on their website as: “Happiness that contributes to individual, community or global well-being and does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations” — Dr. Catherine O’Brien. The concept of sustainable happiness is greatly embedded into Dawson’s Sustainability department and is continuing to expand throughout the college. The Monarch Butterfly Nursery Project is a perfect example of how well-being and sustainability go hand in hand.

Dawson College Monarch Butterfly Nursery

Having learned about some ways other universities are coordinating well-being and sustainability, I was curious to learn about the programs and initiatives here at the University of Michigan (U-M). At U-M, well-being and sustainability have been siloed as separate initiatives. Wolverine Wellness and MHealthy have led well-being programming for students and staff while sustainability initiatives have been implemented by the partnership of departments known as Planet Blue. Through my work and through the work of others involved in Student Life Sustainability, we hope to bridge these two disciplines. 

The University has compiled a series of tool kits that correlate with the eight dimensions of wellness illustrated within the U-M Well-being model. Some departments have already contributed to the toolkit, and soon, Student Life Sustainability will contribute a set of tools based on the unique perspective of sustainability. The first contribution will contain resources for addressing and starting conversations around eco-grief and eco-anxiety, which have become widespread mental health issues relating to environmental sustainability and the current climate crisis. The next set of well-being/sustainability tools will be developed throughout the school year.

U-M Well-Being Model

In addition, this fall the U-M Sustainable Food Program (UMSFP) will create a new working group that will focus on personal and community resilience as part of the program’s mission to “foster collaborative leadership that empowers students to create a sustainable food system at the University of Michigan while becoming change agents for a vibrant planet.” Students will develop and participate in well-being related activities and will have opportunities to engage in conversations surrounding sustainability and well-being. All U-M students are welcome to participate in UMSFP working groups. For more information about how you can get involved, email resilience.umsfp@umich.edu.

Many colleges have already taken the steps to become leaders in integrating sustainability and community resilience initiatives. Through the expansion and development of well-being resources, the University of Michigan can also be part of the movement towards supporting a vibrant planet with sustainable life-support systems. The student population is the heart of the University. When we make well-being our priority and foster community resilience through practice and conversations, we can begin to heal the wounds within ourselves and create systems that are stronger and more sustainable.

1 thought on “Imagining a new normal: exploring wellbeing initiatives in higher education”

  1. “But the pressure put on current generations to be change agents while keeping up with all of society’s other expectations can be exhausting. In recent years, studies have revealed significant increases in depression, anxiety, and related health issues especially among young people.”

    This is spot on. The younger generation is expected to simultaneously fix big systemic problems while at the same time playing a non-disruptive role within existing structures.

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