The Importance of Student Wellness

Since I became dean in 2011, I have been hosting “Dine with Deantini” lunches — opportunities for groups of students to join me for lunchtime conversations about their lives, their intellectual pursuits and what they like best (and least) about Columbia College. At many of those gatherings, students have talked about the stresses of college life and what kinds of institutional support they need for their well-being.

Photo of Dean James J. Valentini speaking at Low Rotunda in November

Dean James J. Valentini speaking at Low Rotunda in November.

Scott Rudd

This is not just a Columbia issue — and it is not new. As this issue’s cover story explains, nearly a quarter of college students nationwide experience anxiety, and institutions of higher education have been grappling with how to better prioritize student health and wellness.

Columbia has been focusing attention on our wellness efforts for a long time and we have a strong system in place, including professional Residential Life staff and student RAs in all of our residence halls; academic, study abroad, fellowship, financial aid and student organization advisers; and access to University resources such as Columbia Health, and Counseling and Psychological Services. Even so, we continually strive to enhance and expand our support.

In fall 2016, the College created a director of student wellness position, which focuses on the one job that the title clearly conveys. Last spring, we augmented gatekeeper training to help all College staff — including me — recognize and respond effectively when students are in distress. And each year we update our New Student Orientation Program to create more ways for students to find community as soon as they arrive on campus and to prepare them for satisfying and rewarding lives at Columbia.

In recent years, we have also expanded support — including creating a Deans’ Student Assistance Fund for unanticipated personal expenses — for students who might face additional challenges. Columbia Dining is now open 24 hours and during all school breaks to ensure students have a friendly and comfortable place to go when they want to be with others. We provide subsidized travel to attend scholarship interviews and awards ceremonies, as well as funding for unpaid and low-paid internships and research opportunities. Since academic year 2016–17, we have been waiving our fees for students on financial aid who take laboratory, language, film, writing and visual arts courses to allow students to choose the courses that interest them most without regard to cost. We also offer graduation caps and gowns at no cost to students with the highest financial need, and provide funding to make Senior Week more accessible to all students.

And during the past few months, we have been working intensely with The Jed Foundation, the nonprofit founded by Phillip Satow ’63 and his wife, Donna Satow GS’65, and directed by John A. MacPhee ’89, PH’12, to review, assess and enhance our campus wellness efforts. This past fall, members of our Mental Health Steering Group, which includes students, faculty and staff, spent a half-day with JED representatives and heard their evaluation of our self-assessment materials. JED found that we have many effective programs and policies, but identified several areas where they could help us to develop, expand or strengthen our efforts. We are working with JED to develop a strategic plan to accomplish that. I will keep you posted on our efforts.

signature of James J Valentini

James J. Valentini