UMass Lowell Prioritizes Student Well-Being with Office of Student Life & Well-being

By: Fahad Alden, College of Fine Arts, Humanities, & Social Sciences Well-being Leader

While many people see students as pajama-wearing party-goers, coders in hoodies, cheerleading squads, and cliques, the reality, in many cases, couldn’t be farther from the truth. College is tough, and students’ mental health is declining. In recent years, college campuses have placed a higher focus on student well-being, recognizing the importance of a holistic approach to support student’s academic, emotional, and mental health needs. 

While getting a gold-standard education is one piece of the jigsaw, supporting student well-being is key to ensuring students get the best out of their college experience and academic endeavors, setting them up as best as possible for their futures. UMass Lowell recently created  the Office of Student Life & Well-being and its mission to “advance the Division of Academic and Student Affairs’ holistic concept for student success by infusing health-promoting actions and collaborations into campus culture.” The University’s Chancellor has prioritized student well-being, demonstrating the institution’s commitment to the cause. Chancellor Julie Chen, as of last year, signed the Okanagan charter, officially making UMass Lowell a Health Promoting Campus. According to the Health Promoting Campuses Network Website , the Charter was designed to call on post-secondary schools to embed health into all aspects of campus culture; and to lead health promotion action and collaboration, locally and globally. 

The Dean of Student Affairs and Wellness, Brenda Evans, when asked regarding the reason behind the department’s new department said “many students are in need of different approaches”…While, in an ideal world, there would be a one-size-fits-all approach, in reality, that’s just not possible.”

UMass’s new Office of Student Life and Well-being is focused on a holistic approach to dealing with students’ struggles. The well-being part of the title sounds similar to a different department at UMass Lowell called the Wellness Center. The Director of Student Life & Well-being, Ruben Sança said the Wellness Center  supports one specific issue. He said, “if a student is dealing with an injury or needs a vaccine or access, the wellness center is the place to go.” But when explaining the differences, Sança said student well-being leaders look at more of the whole picture. He said students often see well-being leaders to help with issues such as finance or their location. He said, “even the events hosted are more focused on holistic approaches, like aromatherapy and meditation.”

Sança said that their department uses a concept called the wellness wheel. The wellness wheel is a wellness visual wheel that displays  eight different premises of wellness such as emotional, physical, financial, intellectual, spiritual, occupational, social, and environmental. He said that the wheel helps the office look at the root cause of students’ issues and see more of the whole picture. He said, “When one aspect of your physical or mental health is suffering, this can have a domino effect on other parts of your life.” The office partially emerged as a response to the growing mental health crisis on college campuses, a problem exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many students feeling isolated and experiencing higher rates of anxiety. Dean of Student Affairs and Wellness, Brenda, also thinks social media could have something to do with increasing mental health difficulties among students. 

Brenda spoke about how increased social media usage has made students compare their lives to others, creating unrealistic expectations. “The perception out there that life is great for everyone else, and might not be great for you, is just false.” It’s about creating a healthy environment, said Ruben Sança, that can allow healthy habits “happen more organically.” The office’s development was informed by research and collaboration with other institutions leading the way in student well-being. 

During the early stages of the office’s creation, new staff leadership was trying to identify the root cause of wellness issues commonly experienced by students. 

Brenda and Ruben visited Wake Forest University to learn more about their program’s design. 

The team even undertook research with NASPA by visiting their strategies conference and meeting with the University of Alabama Birmingham to better understand the issues college students are coming up against. This in-depth research helped structure the office’s strategy to this day.

At the outreach aspect of the Office of Student Life & Well-being, Well-being Leaders are students who serve as leaders for well-being initiatives within their respective colleges  Hannah Monbleauo, the Assistant Director of Student Life & Well-being, explains that students are more likely to open up to their peers than faculty or staff. She said these leaders not only increase people voicing the value of taking care of one’s well-being but also open the opportunity for students to have peer support that does not feel formal, so they can get the tailored support they need. 

As Hannah Monbleau, the Assistant Director of Student Life & Well-being shares, “Engineering students enjoyed a competitive cup stacking event to relieve stress, while fine arts & humanities students came together to make vision boards, which was  more of a creative outlet.” She continues, stating a wide range of events are given from each school’s interests  to cater to each school, from health sciences to humanities.

She shared how different majors contrast in their skills and creativity in their  courseworkso some well-being leaders write articles pertaining to stress and course management, while other wellbeing leaders will do creative pieces on wellness documentaries reviews or music therapy. The blog is designed to cater to a wide demographic of students. 

According to the UML Student Life & Well-being Website, “The Well-being Leaders play a crucial role in connecting with their peers, fostering a sense of community, and promoting mental health resources on campus. Student leaders are vital in initiating conversations about well-being and breaking down mental health stigma.”  They also collaborate with various campus departments to organize events and initiatives that support students’ well-being. The aim is that students won’t have to go to a particular space to seek out well-being activities. Instead, mental health and well-being support will be combined into every college life aspect.

The Office of Student Life & Well-being has faced its share of challenges as a new department. 

One of the most significant obstacles has been raising awareness about its services and encouraging students to seek help. Director Sança confirmed that one of their biggest challenges is “for students to initiate conversations.”  The office has tried to navigate their concern through social media campaigns, event collaborations, and partnerships with other campus departments to raise awareness.As Ruben shares in his interview, in addition to prioritizing raising awareness of their services, senior campus leaders involved in the program have recognized the need for additional funding and resources to achieve their goals. As a result, they’re actively pursuing grants and external support to grow and develop the Office of Student Life & Well-being.

UMass Lowell’s well-being initiatives have generated interest from other institutions, leading to the sharing of best practices and the potential for collaboration to further advance the well-being of college students nationwide. As more institutions recognize the importance of prioritizing well-being, UMass Lowell’s Office of Student Life & Well-being is a powerful model for what can be achieved when a university commits to supporting the well-being of its entire community. 

Sança said he hopes for the program to continue to expand with the support of campus leadership and hopes for well-being expansion. He said he hopes well-being leaders will help students improve academic success and a holistic approach. Sança and Assistant Director Monbleau envision their office being larger and their well-being leaders having their own offices. As well they hope for resources to increase so students can have more hours and work with students more one-one.Sança said his ultimate dream is to have well-being leaders for every concentration and minor. He said that would be a goal mark to ensure the program has reached its goal. 

As more people are recognizing the importance of well-being, UMass Lowell’sOffice Student & Well-being serves as a great blueprint model for what a university can achieve if a commitment is made to support the well-being of its entire community. 

The dedication of the office’s team, along with the support of campus leadership, ensures that well-being remains a top priority for the institution, fostering a campus culture that values the holistic success of its community members.

With continued efforts the office can help improve academic success, better overall student well-being, and create a reputation for taking a holistic approach to education that can help colleges nationwide attract more students.