Campus Safety: The Fault in Our Schools

Colleges and universities are not infallible when it comes to managing issues of sexual misconduct and assault. Educational efforts are touted by Student Affairs departments, information gets distributed to students and parents during orientation, and systems are set up to provide support for students struggling through incidents of sexual harassment or assault. Unfortunately, the system does not always work out as intended. There are many students who have felt challenged by policies and procedures that delay or complicate their hope to resolve their situations. Over 55 schools have come under fire for their work to manage and support students through cases of sexual misconduct.

One such case involves the recent issue at James Madison University, involving the expulsion of students after their graduation.

The University of North Caroline, Morgan State University, Frostburg State University, Johns Hopkins University, and Harvard University, to name a few, have all come under fire by the Department of Education for the mishandling of cases.

While the policies and procedures are for the Department of Education and the universities to review and manage, students still have an opportunity to take preventative measures to avoid needing to enact the sexual misconduct processes. While many sexual misconduct cases include alcohol, many of them do not. To be safe, students should take the following precautions:

  1. Be aware of your environment. How well do you know the people around you? Is the area well lit? Do you know where blue light phones are located?
  2. Be aware of your resources. While self-defense classes can be helpful for confidence, it is better to know what resources campus police and departments provide. Are there phone apps or important numbers you should program into your contact list? Are there transportation services provided by public safety or transportation?
  3. Know your friends and acquaintances. While 80-90% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the survivor knows, social pressure is a dangerous tactic used to complete the act. Substances sometimes contribute to the misconduct. Clarity in saying no can help, but any resistance to sexual acts needs to be respected.
  4. Keep records. If someone sends offensive or threatening pictures or texts, save them. If they leave obsessive or aggressive voicemails, save them. They can be used as evidence if safety becomes a serious concern.

It is the responsibility of people to protect themselves and to recognize signs of resistance to prevent and avoid issues of misconduct. If an incident happens, reporting is the best option, but persistence is required to come to a resolution.

If you have suggestions for proactive and reactive measures, please feel free to comment below.

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The Link Between Strengths and Wellbeing

After several months of taking the Wellbeing Finder assessment provided by Gallup, I have learned a few things about my overall wellbeing. The first is that days where I have a great amount of social interaction, I tend to have higher wellbeing scores. This may not be a surprise, but it is important to note. Second, I learned that I tend to have a higher average wellbeing score on days that I am not at work. In turn, those generally are weekend days or times when I am away from the office. The most beneficial finding from the assessment has been that I tend to have higher wellbeing scores when I am able to lead with my Strengths.

It is not an automatic element of the assessment that one can discern based off the assessment questions. There are no direct questions related to use of Strengths or even the activities you engaged in while at work. Instead, it takes a more reflective approach to identifying what occurred throughout that day and how those interactions, accomplishments or experiences contributed to that day’s overall wellbeing.

For example, the week that I spent at the University of Georgia while attending NHTI was the highest overall week of wellbeing since I started the assessment. Since the experience was career-related, I still consider it to compare to the experience of a regular week of work. The days were long and the sessions were packed, but I found that I was actively embracing my Strengths throughout the week. My Developer element came out through the engagement in the sessions and the self-reflection I went through in the evenings. My Relator and Empathy elements was prevalent through the interactions, connections with new colleagues and sharing of experiences. My Responsibility element was gleaming from the experience of feeling like I was back in graduate school and embracing the educational interactions and homework.

While NHTI was a special case, I have found this true during a regular week as well. The week of August 5th was one of two different sides. The first half was filled with preparations for the start of training and few interactions outside of a couple of meetings. Starting with Wednesday afternoon, a handful of our student leaders came back and we started training. My Developer, Empathy and Relator elements all began to shine again because I had an opportunity to connect with and affect the development of this students through their training. This is not to say that there was not a little stress involved and my focus for those days was almost solely on these students, but the reality is that I truly enjoy those types of experiences.

My personal goal is to continue to find opportunities to focus on my Strengths and continue to improve my overall work experience. For more information, Gallup released an article recently talking specifically about this topic:

Uncovering the Links Between Happiness and Health

Sarah Pressman’s research into wellbeing can help educators help students be healthy and engaged in the classroom

Sarah Pressman, Ph.D., will share her insights on the connections between positive emotions, relationships, and happiness — and the pathways that support health outcomes — at the Strengths in Education Conference. She will also discuss how these connections relate to the wellbeing of students and how educators can support students to have the highest wellbeing possible.

Dr. Pressman’s work as Beatrice Wright Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas seeks to find links between happiness, wellbeing, and health outcomes. It also has important implications for educators who want to promote student health and wellbeing in their classrooms and at the schools or on their campuses.

Strengths Insights: What connections have you found that link physical health and overall wellbeing?

Sarah D. Pressman, Ph.D.: Research in the field of positive psychology has shown that people who are happy are living longer and are less likely to get sick. For example, we’re exploring when and how positive emotions protect you from stress, because stress is associated with about 95% of the illnesses out there. When you’re stressed, you experience hormonal changes and your immune system is suppressed, but if you get over that negative physiological response faster, it’s better for your health.

Strengths Insights: How does your research into stress connect to students in a school system or on a college or university campus? How can teachers help their students learn how to better handle stress?

Dr. Pressman: One thing that students don’t understand is how much they compromise their health when they’re stressed. When our stress hormones go up, our immune system is suppressed. If teachers talk about how stress affects us all, maybe students will avoid the kinds of negative behaviors that will further compromise their health, so they won’t end up sick, missing school, or unable to take their exams. It might help students know and recognize that they’re probably not at their healthiest when they’re stressed, and they probably should be doing things to protect themselves, like getting enough sleep, and washing their hands.

Strengths Insights: Gallup research into wellbeing has shown that people who have at least three or four very close friendships are healthier, have higher wellbeing, and are more engaged in their jobs, while the absence of any close friendships can lead to boredom, loneliness, and depression. How does that align with what you’ve found in researching wellbeing? How does that play out in schools or on campuses?

Dr. Pressman: Social relationships, positive emotion, and wellbeing are extremely closely tied. Work is a very stressful place, and we know that your stress is buffered by having a perception of social support. So believing that you have a few close friends that are at work who can help you and give you emotional support will help you objectively reduce the kinds of physiological responses that you have during stress.

We did an interesting study a few years ago looking at how loneliness in college freshmen was associated with how they respond to the flu vaccination. What we showed is that social isolation predicted having a worse vaccination response to the flu immunization.

We also counted how many objective social contacts students had, and we found that the people who had the fewest contacts (for example, if they talked with only about five people every two weeks) had worse vaccination responses than people who reported speaking regularly with 10 or 20 people. College students might need more than three or four friends because they are usually away from their families and don’t have the support network that they had at home. In your first semester of college, you really might only know a few people, and if you’re feeling lonely, if those aren’t good quality ties, that will have a negative health consequence, and health is critical to having good wellbeing.

Strengths Insights: Do you have any specific suggestions on how educators can model healthy behaviors for their students or how they can help their students have higher health and wellbeing, handle stress more effectively, or become more engaged in their classes?

Dr. Pressman: First, they already are, to some extent, enhancing many of these things because of what they do with strengths. One of the reasons we ask students to take the Clifton StrengthsFinder and teach them about their strengths is because it should make them happier and enhance their positive emotions. If you can help someone have higher positive emotions, then they will have higher physical wellbeing. Just by trying to get students to think about their strengths and savor them, you will probably help them have higher wellbeing and be more engaged in the classroom, especially if you encourage them to keep [their strengths] in mind during times of stress.

But it’s important not to let stress become the entire focus of your message. You have to address stress, but we never tell people they have to be happy 100% of the time. They need to recognize when they’re stressed and experience negative emotions, but they also shouldn’t let negativity overwhelm the positive. That’s a really important message: Accept the negative, but try to focus on the positive.

Creating a Wellbeing Campus to Improve Lives in Communities

Gallup produces a lot of research on wellness and wellbeing. In partnership with a consortium of Texas schools, they worked to provide the Wellbeing Assessment to each school’s students, faculty and staff to track their wellbeing scores and help the schools identify how they support the five essential elements. Take a look at the link below to learn more about this venture.

Creating a Wellbeing Campus to Improve Lives in Communities

Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements

Wellbeing is a concept that goes much beyond eating right and exercising. It is actually more than just being happy. Wellbeing is actually a combination of experiences and patterns that represent a holistic support for one’s overall experience and outlook on life. There are tons of texts out there that discuss the secrets to happiness and elements of wellbeing, but this text is one of the few that actually manages some easy to follow elements that capture the overall concept with a set of statistics to support with empirical evidence.

Here are the FIVE element to wellbeing:

  • Career: Where do you spend the largest part of your day? Career is actually a bit of a loose term, in that students attending a school are seen in the same light as a regular full-time or part-time employee to their place of employment. When asked the question about what you do, this is the first place that most people would go. Do you feel high engagement in your career? Do you get to do the best work everyday? Do you feel supported in your professional development? These are just some of the questions that relate to high career wellbeing.
  • Social: Do you feel like you have friendship and love in your life? Social relationships are vital and the amount of time you can spend with the people you care about can increase your overall life satisfaction. This can actually include a broad range of activities: from going out to dinner to talking on the phone. These relationships can sometimes help people achieve in ways they may not have on their own. How do you balance your day between work and play?
  • Financial: Who thinks about money in terms of their health? The reality is that money buys happiness in a different way than most might think. It is not how much money you have but how you spend it. It is about the experience. One may define that experience as traveling the world, or maybe it is purchasing a large-screen television to host viewing parties for major sporting events. Do you feel like you are getting value out of your spending? Do you worry about your finances? These are important questions that define one’s financial wellbeing.
  • Physical: What choices do you make regarding your diet, exercise and rest? Short-term choices have long-term effects. Exercising on a regular basis, particularly in the morning, can help to maintain energy. Getting the appropriate amount of sleep can help you be more effective throughout the day. Eating the right foods keeps you active. All of this can help you feel and look better. How do you take care of yourself?
  • Community: Do you feel connected to the environment around you? At a basic level, everyone needs to feel a sense of security in the area they live. Beyond this, a sense of pride comes from engaging in the offerings in the community, such as farmer’s markets, community performance events and service activities. Community can also be defined more broadly to encompass the groups to which we belong. Do you have a sense of belonging in your communities?

If you want to be successful in your career, it is important to be balanced in the other areas as well. This is a lesson that I have taken from this text and hope to better incorporate into my life. The book comes with a code that allow you to activate a 6-month subscription. Once logged in, there is an overall wellbeing assessment that highlights your strength in each of the five areas, with the opportunity to take daily checkups to track your progress. I have only just begun to utilize the tools and have already seen a small improvement in my overall wellbeing.

Approaching the Problem with Alcohol: Reflecting on the UVA Tragedy

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Hoover discussed the recent decision in the trial of a former UVA lacrosse player convicted of killing his girlfriend. While the defendant was found guilty of 2nd degree murder, his attorney was able to justify his behavior and action based on one key element: alcohol. Contributing to the defense’s testimonies were former teammates, coaches and his father, all of whom explained that they knew George Huguely had an alcohol problem and had gotten worse in the time closer to the heinous act. What is wrong with our colleges and society that we are too afraid to help someone who clearly has been identified to have a problem? When did being a “stupid drunk” (as his defense attorney claimed) become an excuse of irresponsible and illegal acts?

Alcohol has been labeled as a part of the college experience, but everyone can recognize that there is a controversy about what part it is supposed to play and what changes (if any) need to be made to fix the situation. From the student perspective, more students are actually engaging with alcohol at earlier ages and are coming into the college experience looking forward to less oversight from the parents, but not necessarily having their first taste of the drink. They believe that little to no accountability is necessary from police or university officials and that no harm comes from consumption. Administrators and professors are mixed on the subject but tend toward the side of regulating the access to and follow up for alcohol issues. Student affairs educators are probably the most significant group of university members who want to increase education and decrease dependance on the substance.

With this case coming to its conclusion, is there any way that people can continue to ignore the negative effects of alcohol and the need for regulation and accountability? The UVA case is not the first one to identify alcohol’s negative influence on decision-making and violent actions, but it adds a strong proponent against some previous arguments to lower the drinking age. A handful of university presidents came together to propose that schools are going about alcohol education incorrectly and proposed lowering the age down to 18. Doesn’t this just push the problem on high schools? Would this actually eliminate the problem on college campuses? Students would still come to campuses with less parental influence and the same expectations that alcohol is part of college. Lowering the age does not improve education or decrease excessive use.

To refocus on education, there is not just a need to increase the education about alcohol use, but also look at how to identify signs of trouble and what to do to get someone help. Many schools have adopted the amnesty initiative that allows students to bypass conduct hearings if they actively seek out help when a student is in trouble. This policy may decrease the barriers that scare students about getting help, but they still need to understand at what point their friend needs that help. Health & wellness, residence life and fraternity & sorority life  departments should continue to rethink the methods they use to reach out to students and give them the tools they need to make smarter decisions about consumption and approach individuals students may identify for having a problem.

In summary, the UVA trial reenergizes the conversation about addressing alcohol issues and even which issues are the mostly pressing. It would be a mistake to forget that in the course of identifying these current challenges, a young woman lost her life in a brutal fashion. The trial will not necessary bring true justice but I wish the best for her family and friends through this tough time.

Student Stress & Emotional Health: Concern on the rise

In a recent posting in the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/College-Freshmen-Report/126068/), research has shown a decrease in student emotional health and an increase in students’ drive to succeed. The author points out that the two are related and many factors contribute to the correlation. It is clear that this is a concern we need to think about and see if there are ways to better improve our campus services to match the growing needs of our students.

With each generation comes a new set of problems. Millennial students are challenged by a number of different characteristics, including feeling special, sheltered, confident, pressured and achieving. Each one of these traits has its positives and negatives, but the combination of each of the challenges is taking its toll on many incoming first-year students and extending throughout their college career.

When you think about the combination of the traits special and achieving, there is this added focus that this nation’s youth is responsible for grabbing hold of their future and changing the world. Our current students are supposed to be up and coming politicians, business moguls, media personalities, environmental activists, educators and professionals. They are to take on many of the challenges that exist including a failing education system, international military programs, economic woes and a broken medical network. If those elements were not enough, they need to do this better than the current generation and fight their way going through schooling without the same financial resources that existed in year’s past (including economic stability of their parents).

The concept of being sheltered takes a different turn of pressures. Millennial students seem less prepared today for the more functional aspects of life than previous generations. When they get to college, it may be the first time they have ever lived away from home. This means it may be the first time they have ever cooked for themselves, done laundry, balanced a budget, gone shopping for needs versus wants, managed their own schedule and tried to meet new people in a new environment. Already confronted by the stresses of doing well in the academics and trying to enjoy their college experience, add these functional elements on top and it is no wonder that a number of students still rely on their parents to help manage tasks or even take over responsibilities like paying bills and selecting their classes.

Confidence would be seen as a positive going into a college environment, but what happens when the screen is lifted and students realize that they are in a sea of intelligence and talent? College may be the first time they have ever not been selected for a job, received anything less than an A or B in a class (or on a paper) or not been the most active student in their classes. Connected with issues of being high achieving and special, there is also a belief that they are going to automatically be better off than their parents. College can be a very eye-opening experience as students are both confronted by the talent and intellect around them and the real world issues that may affect their college experience directly or their prospects after graduation.

With these other traits posing their own issues, it is not surprising that students feel pressured. But is any of this really new? For the most part, many of these problems existed in the past. To issue for the current generation of students is that they feel like they are all hitting at once. While intelligence and pressure to succeed keep increasing, availability of resources to help students cope and effectiveness of preparation before entering college do not. Students are ill-prepared for the experience of college and tend to have more moments of failure or stumbling before getting it right. This may be necessary to an extent, but there are some barriers we have control over.

How do we affect change to support students better? Good habits and preparation need to take place during the high school year, but on college campuses it is the student affairs services that need to pick up the slack. Counseling and Wellness Services need to be prepared for both the quantity and severity of problems with which students bring to college. Residential Life departments need to make sure they have student staff that are ready to challenge the confidence of incoming students and help provide peer advising to help with the transition. Career Services tends to struggle with visibility and access for students, so for them it would be more about exposure around campus. There also could be more consideration for an introductory course for all entering students which helps to guide students through a number of these challenges they may face.

Higher education is not responsible for preventing these issues, but students are entering campuses with a number of challenges. It is up to use to find creative and innovative ways to help support them through these challenges in preparation for the world beyond the college grounds.

Balance & Involvement: Separate but Related Concepts

One of the most interesting things I have noticed about students in the past few years is that classes and some involvement in extracurricular activities is no longer adequate for the college experience. Instead, I tend to find that most students I engage with are trying to overload in their courses, find a job on or around campus and get involved in several campus organization (including holding leadership positions). I look to my Resident Advisors and find that having the job is not enough for their fill of peer leadership. It is certainly admirable but there are two questions that arise: why overload yourself with involvement and are you truly balancing your experience?

On the first question, students are feeling the pressures of being from the millennial generation. With a poor economy and higher numbers of competitors entering the college arena and job market, they are feeling the need to overcommit to have the resume-building statuses to distinguish their place amongst their peers. And as mentioned before, it is not enough to just be involved. Leadership opportunities and substantial positions are what are more meaningful for these students transitioning into new roles. Although they certainly may be getting great experiences and broadening their exposure to a number of new areas of knowledge and skills, most employers are more interested in quality over quantity. This is where I seen experiences like a journalism student editor a campus magazine or a business student working as an office manager as more beneficial individual experiences as compared to being able to describe a laundry list of positions and organizations that may include intramural athletics, a cappella groups and social fraternities. I will acknowledge that each of those groups may still have some significant positives, but they make less of an impact than that focused experience.

So in the end, our students are struggling more and more with balance. One of the craziest concepts to me is that some of the students I work with come onto the college campus in the fall semester already connected to several organizations before even attending their first class. Personally, I thought that there were events to allow students to explore the vast ocean of student organizations each school has to offer. Usually our conversations regarding balance now take place after the students are struggling, or even if we catch them beforehand, they are less likely to grasp the concept until they start to experience the stress. The more students stretch themselves thin across multiple groups outside of work and classes, the less they are going to get out of them. I have seen a select group of students accomplish the “everything under the sun” approach to campus involvement, but these are few and far between.

In the end, we as professionals need to help provide the proactive support to students who are looking to start their college career or exploring ways to enhance their college experience. As the start of the academic year is fast approaching, it is good for me to remind myself of the opportunities I have to help students find their balance and enjoy their total experience in college.

Binge Drinking: Deterrence Through YouTube?

In a couple of recent attempts to deter binge drinking, these two posts were uploaded onto YouTube:

Both of these videos are interesting, but are they successful at reducing the problem? Studies released in 2009 by the NIAAA actually indicated that reported binge drinking had increased from 42% to 45%. The videos were uploaded in 2008, but the female video has had about 64,000 hits while the male one only has 19,000. The comments on the two videos are not very flattering, but the male one has a little more of a positive reaction. Out of the 22 comments, 4 of them actually speak positively about the message. Unfortunately, 6 of them directly support the binge behavior, a couple are focused on the song playing in the background and a few are talking about the guys clothes. The female ad has a lot of supportive comments about how the video addresses a positive perspective, but there is quite a bit of negative and offensive feedback as well. Included within the comments are discussions about the attractiveness of the actress, identifications regarding the music selection and sexual involvement. There are some of those supportive comments here as well, but the one message that sticks out is “why are they advertising binge drinking???”

The challenge with these ads is the ability to truly measure their success. Exposure does not equal positive education. Looking at the range of comments, there are those which are supportive but plenty that have no element of learning involved in them. Many are focused on aspects that have nothing to do with the message. I would be curious to know what thoughts are out there regarding these video (specifically the message and the possibility for education/results).