Students enrolling for the 2020-21 academic year at UNCSA will benefit from new programs designed to support their mental health and emotional well-being as they tackle the challenges of learning during a global pandemic, thanks in part to a $19,500 grant from the University of North Carolina System Office.
In awarding grants to nine campuses across the state, the UNC System noted its support for programming that will increase retention rates and improve academic performance. The office cited a 2018 survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors in which 65.8%of students affirmed that utilizing counseling services had a positive impact on their academic performance.
“Study after study shows that supporting student well-being can be the difference between academic success and failure,” said UNC System Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Chief Academic Officer Kimberly van Noort. “Building safe and supportive learning environments for our students is more critical than ever in these unsettling times. The programs that these grants support will play an important role creating brighter futures for students across North Carolina and from all walks of life.”
UNCSA Vice Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Tracey Ford said students are dealing with additional stress, grief and uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. “The health and well-being of our students is always our top priority, and it has been top-of-mind in every decision we have made regarding this school year,” Ford said. “We know that mental health and emotional well-being is critically important to our students as they pursue intensive training in the arts and rigorous academic studies. This grant from the System Office will bolster our ongoing efforts to ensure student success.”
The grant will fund UNCSA’s contract with TalkCampus, a social media platform focused on mental health; creation of a centralized collection of wellness resources for students; and grief and trauma training over the summer for staff, faculty and student leaders. The three-point grant proposal was developed as the result of direct feedback from students as they transitioned to online learning in March.
“The Student Affairs team checked in with each of UNCSA’s 1,300 students by phone, email or Zoom this spring,” said Director of Student Assistance and Support Laurel Donley. “As expected, our students reported an increase in their levels of stress and anxiety and a significant amount of grief. Many of them have built strong support systems here in our community, with peers and mentors who share their passion and commitment, but also understand their challenges. It was very difficult for many to leave that behind so abruptly and unexpectedly.
“Some of them have lost family members to COVID-19. Their parents have lost jobs. They are not sure they can afford to come back to school. They’ve experienced trauma, and we need to help them deal with that,” Donley added.
Active Minds, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to raising mental health awareness among college students, conducted a study of high school and college students on the impact of COVID-19 on student mental health. The survey found that one-fifth of college students say their mental health has significantly worsened under COVID-19. In addition, college students reported that wellness resources are what they need most.
TalkCampus, funded by the grant, is a global social media platform focused on the emotional wellbeing of college students. The app allows students to seek support for mental health issues at any time from their smart phones, for as long as they need it. It is anonymous, but moderated by mental health professionals who can reach out to students in crisis. The app also offers resources like meditations and journaling to help students manage stress and anxiety.
“TalkCampus has the capacity to enhance the mental health services that we provide in our integrated Wellness Center,” Ford said.
“Arts training of this caliber is demanding,” Ford continued. “Our students work incredibly hard, and they face all of the challenges common to teenagers and young adults. With the addition of COVID-related stress and anxiety, the need for mental health support could be overwhelming. TalkCampus offers vitally important peer support with the added benefit of coaching and intervention as necessary from mental health professionals.”
We are laser-focused on creating a safety net for our students, and we are making sure they know about it.Tracey Ford
UNCSA will also use the grant money to establish a well-being hub – a centralized resource for students to engage in activities and practices ̶ both virtually and in small groups as appropriate ̶ that nurture wellness.
“The well-being hub will allow students to participate in nontraditional opportunities including yoga, mindfulness sessions, and an artistic expression of their choosing,” Donley said. “The goal is to support students in a holistic manner while giving them options for promoting their own individual self-care plan.”
UNCSA launched the hub last year by offering a series of wellness workshops that were popular with students but had to be discontinued when students were sent home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. “We plan to resume some of these activities in person as allowed under our Community Health Standards. Others, we will host online,” Donley said.
The third component of grant-funded programming was summertime training for staff, faculty and student leaders in how best to support students who are struggling mentally and emotionally. “Student well-being is a campuswide priority,” Ford said. “It’s not just counselors and case managers who engage with students on emotional issues. Faculty might be the first to notice that a student is having a hard time, and every day students turn to staff members and student leaders to vent their frustrations. We want to equip many members of our community with the tools they need to support a student, not as a counselor, but as a resource, a sounding board, or a coach.”
In addition to programs funded by the grant, Student Affairs staff trained student volunteers to conduct weekly virtual check-ins with small groups of new students and those who are returning for their second year at UNCSA. “The idea is to give every first- and second-year student in high school or college a cohort so they know they are not alone in whatever they are experiencing,” Donley said. “They have a community of support they minute they arrive on campus. They belong here.”
The national Active Minds survey indicated that 55% of students said they did not know where to go for mental health assistance. “We do not want our students to say that,” Ford said. “We are laser-focused on creating a safety net for our students, and we are making sure they know about it.”
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August 05, 2020