What happens when students, not administrators, are asked to make a college campus a healthier place?
The University of Texas is finding out.
Last fall, The University of Texas — already one of the healthiest campuses in the country —issued a challenge: How would you transform wellbeing on campus?
In a grand experiment, students, faculty and staff members alike joined an online community to share experiences, contribute ideas and form teams around the community health concerns — and solutions — that interested them most. Together, the group surfaced needs, generated concepts and presented 22 team project proposals to the Model Healthy Campus Initiative, hosted by Dell Medical School and the campus’ Wellness Network. The proposals, framed around the focus areas of Eat, Move, Sleep, Joy and Care, put forward a range of ideas including free student health screenings, an app to help students manage their time and get more sleep, and an interactive, touch-screen “de-stressor station.”
After three rounds of review, two teams were selected as finalists and awarded $1,000 to build, test and scale their projects. “The teams participating in Model Healthy Campus really exemplify the initiative, creativity and commitment to health that we see at UT Austin and Dell Med,” says Meghana Gadgil, MD, MPH, an academic program officer at Dell Med and a Model Healthy Campus leader. “We’re excited to see how the participants continue their work to transform the health of our campus.”
“Dell Med’s philosophy and mission complement ours.”
“In my personal experience and my courses, food insecurity just kept coming up,” says Sara Young, Texas ’17. “I wouldn’t let it go.”
Young, 28, originally transferred to Texas to pursue a degree in anthropology. Her coursework in physical and medical anthropology taught her about food systems and how diet affects people’s lives, which led to a growing curiosity about nutrition. It wasn’t long before she added a bachelor’s degree in nutrition to her education plan. By combining both degrees, “it completed the picture for me,” she says. “I like culture and learning about human experience, and I’ve been able to bridge that into health.”
Even as her professional goals shifted from the social sciences to a future in medicine, Young continued to develop the anthropologist’s skill set of careful observation, critical reflection and cultural awareness — all capacities that helped her develop 2ndFeast, a Model Healthy Campus project that addresses food insecurity and the food environment at the University of Texas. As president of the university’s Food Studies Project, Young was connected with a vibrant, diverse group of students passionate about the social issues around food. Their conversations, combined with Young’s personal experience with food insecurity, led to the design of 2ndFeast, a campus organization that will work to develop a robust statistical analysis of the food environment at UT Austin. With that foundation of data, 2ndFeast will operate as an informational hub and offer resource referral for students experiencing acute or chronic food insecurity.
“We’d like to be a good source of information that can fuel future innovation and interventions,” Young says. She believes that going directly to community members to source that information is the only way to truly understand the student food experience — a critical first step in designing community health solutions. “Every community has a different set of needs,” she explains. “I’m interested in coalition-building, and in finding out what people want and truly need.” This attention to the individual and their cultural context, developed over years of training as an anthropologist, is even informing Young’s plans for a future as a doctor.
“As a physician, you have a responsibility not just to the person that you’re treating, but to the whole community,” she says. “So much of a person’s health snapshot is the result of lifestyle, environmental and even psychosocial factors that you need to understand. That’s why Dell Medical School’s philosophy spoke to our group and our project purpose. They’re leaders in population health and community solutions for individual health, which is a mission that complements ours.”
“Once we’re established here, I want to extend our program to other UT campuses.”
By the age of 10, Eleanor Shaul, Texas ’19, had already mapped out her future. She’d earn a simultaneous MD/PhD in microbial neuroscience and become a successful physician-scientist. “I’d done all the right things in high school to get there,” says Shaul, 20, now a junior biology major. “I did the research, the studying, the internships — I spent more time in medical internships than any other high-schooler I knew.
“But this makes me just as happy as that does.”
“This” is all the work — counseling fellow students, writing a program handbook, securing trademarks, registering a student organization, handing out stickers — that goes into leading UTerus, a Model Healthy Campus project that, as its mission statement puts it, “aims to encourage and empower all students to make educated, informed and personalized choices about contraception, STI prevention and healthy sexuality with the help of unbiased, nonjudgmental support from peers and staff.”
Due in part, Shaul says, to the punny and provocative name (her mom’s idea), UTerus has already directly served more than 1,500 freshmen through late-night sessions hosted during summer orientation.
Shaul only recently realized her deep commitment to public health. “I had no idea what it [public health] was,” she admits. But the seeds for her Model Healthy Campus project were planted: She joined University Health Services’ Healthyhorns Peer Educator program and learned about the theory and practice of public health outreach. Shaul also experienced the confusing, months-long process of trying to use her insurance to cover a LARC (long-acting reversible contraception) device. Talking with her peers — and even trying to navigate her own reproductive care — led Shaul to realize that students were coming to college with significant gaps in their sexual and reproductive health knowledge. To address these, UTerus is supporting existing campus resources like Healthyhorns by developing a website where students can anonymously ask questions of peers and staff members trained in sexual and reproductive health.
Shaul hopes eventually to share UTerus’ peer education programming and materials with student groups at other universities, and to address what she sees as the root of this health need by implementing near-peer education in high schools: “If this could turn into a larger organization — if I can get other people just as excited about this as I am — I would absolutely love that.”