The hallmarks of fall at the University of Florida have arrived: The humidity lifts, Starbucks has ushered pumpkin drinks back onto the menu and mid-semester deadlines are on the horizon. It’s the halfway mark of the first fully in-person fall semester since 2019.
Time for a gut check. How are our students really doing?
In August, concerns across the nation swirled about how the resumption of full schedules would impact anxiety, depression and stress, identified as the primary reasons college students seek counseling.
Now, and in the heights of the pandemic, my team has been in overdrive, providing virtual and in-person programs and services. Our approach to helping students maintain their well-being at a competitive university is shaped by lessons learned on a campus that, for a time, fell oddly silent with their absence.
The pandemic illuminated many truths about our students, top among them that they are deeply social. Strong social connections support their sense of belonging, resulting in high retention rates and, most important, resilient mental health. It’s why we shifted our frame last year from “social distancing” to “physical distancing.”
Our ways of connecting with students became more innovative, inclusive and dynamic than ever. Through a multi-level approach, we found ways to safely provide in-person experiences and complement them with virtual engagement options to meet students whether they were in Gainesville or joining us from afar.
We launched UF’s Virtual Student Union to provide a hub for the programs, services and events that shape the student experience. The department of Recreational Sports filmed hundreds of virtual fitness classes in addition to offering in-person classes. Student Government hosted celebrity speakers, game nights and a concert for physically distanced “quaranteams.”
We also leaned into the benefits of Florida weather, embracing the sunshine and providing activities for students to play, connect and create outdoors. More than 3,000 students attended events across campus on the university’s first-ever Recharge Day, where students played lawn games, embraced arts and crafts, and dined at food trucks.
In addition to helping students build community, we also reshaped how they access mental health services. For the first time, we offered both virtual and in-person counseling services, including outreach programs. The Counseling & Wellness Center launched the Gator-2-Gators program, a peer consultation initiative led by AWARE Mental Health Ambassadors, giving students the ability to reach out to ambassadors virtually. The Counseling & Wellness Center also partnered with SilverCloud, a self-guided program students can download to help manage anxiety, depression and stress.
Since the start of the fall 2021 semester, the Counseling & Wellness Center has seen an uptick of 12% in the number of appointments students have attended and an increase of roughly 9% in the number of students served in comparison to fall 2019. By diversifying and expanding services, we can help students make meaningful strides in consistently maintaining their mental health to boost their long-term well-being.
This semester, our focus is also on amplifying and elevating interactions, programs and events, especially for first- and second-year students who may have missed important rites of passage as they transitioned from high school without the typical fanfare.
Research shows that the first six weeks of a student’s college experience are critical, impacting retention, persistence and degree completion. Those firsts moments shape students’ overall physical, emotional and social well-being.
We surveyed our incoming students’ needs to ensure our support framework and strategies were on track. As reported this summer, 92% of respondents felt they belonged at UF. When asked about support for their wellness, 89% of students felt UF prioritized their well-being and 90% felt the campus climate encourages discussion about student health. Finally, 86% of respondents felt we are a campus where we look out for each other. All these indicators were above the national average.
The survey also showed us areas of student concern that are consistent with national trends. At UF and nationally, the top two impediments to academic success reported by students are procrastination and stress. Twenty-one percent of UF respondents reported concerns and requested information regarding procrastination, 26% regarding stress.
Supporting our students’ well-being is an ongoing effort and universities must provide multiple avenues to meet students’ needs through proactive outreach.
If the last 20 months have taught us anything, it is that students thrive in community. And, after challenges that only redoubled our commitment to them, we are prepared to continue ensuring our students thrive.
D’Andra Mull is the vice president for Student Life and the chief student affairs officer at the University of Florida.