Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Editor’s note: In order to gather broader input, the University of Iowa removed this project from consideration at the June 2021 Board of Regents meeting. The university plans to resubmit the project for consideration at a future meeting. Updated June 3, 2021.

As times change, so do the needs and well-being of University of Iowa students.

In a partnership between the University of Iowa Division of Student Life, Campus Planning, and undergraduate and graduate student governments, the University of Iowa is moving forward with a proposal to create a new Student Well-Being Center located on the south side of the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. According to the proposal, the center is projected to open in fall 2024. The university is seeking approval from the Board of Regents at its June meeting to move forward with the planning process.

“One of the things we have learned in the past few years is that well-being is much broader than the wellness wheel we might all know. It’s also about finding your purpose, your passion, how you connect to others and to the planet,” says Vice President for Student Life Sarah Hansen. “It’s a more holistic approach and the bigger picture of what our students are going through during this time as they grow and develop. Supporting student basic needs and helping them develop healthy habits are prerequisites to their ability to find people who matter to them, a place where they belong, what their passions are, and what paths they are going to follow to success.”

The conversation about the well-being center began when a decision was made to raze Westlawn, the current home for University Counseling Service, Student Health, and Student Wellness. The 102-year-old building has served its purpose admirably, but the university has outgrown the structure, which created an opportunity.

“The opportunity is to approach this project in a way that sets up a more institutional-level model of well-being for our students that is more engaged and coordinated,” says Hansen. “Student leaders have been involved in the discussion from the very beginning and they have provided excellent ideas.”

Both Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG) were part of the initial planning process. Their combined efforts forged a path toward creating plans for the center and its host of services—both old and new.

“This year, more than any other year, we’ve seen how critical these wellness services are to students,” 2020-2021 USG President Connor Wooff says. “We have to embrace a campus culture of well-being and, by doing that, we need to give these services an accessible location on the east side of campus, a new space, and one that is built for well-being.”

The new center will house all services from Westlawn and others such as the Food Pantry at Iowa, Clothing Closet, and Student Care and Assistance, creating a hub of wellness services to aid students.

“About 70% of graduate and professional students have indicated a need for more mental health services,” incoming GPSG President Moala Bannavti says. “This well-being center would not only support physical health, but mental health, for which a large number of graduate and professional students are seeking more support.”

However, moving the services and constructing and operating a building comes with a price tag, which student leaders have agreed to support.

“This has been in the works for several years, and together USG and GPSG this year approved a resolution for a student fee, which will be about $80 a semester, to help fund the center,” says Wooff. “That will be put in place once the building is open so current students will not have to pay for something they will not have the opportunity to use.”

While many services will be familiar to students, plans call for the consideration of new features to promote more restorative practices.

“Some schools have what they call an oasis, which is a space that is not super structured, but students can go meditate, relax, or decompress while they are on campus,” says Hansen. “There’s space set aside to be creative with music or art, to collaborate with others, and to enjoy massage chairs or self-guided well-being activities. There could be all sorts of activities to support students’ well-being that do not  involve meeting with a professional.”

“This new center opens the possibility for services such as acupuncture, specific trauma therapy, or a mediation center,” Bannavti says.

Opening a student well-being center is a step toward joining the Okanagan Charter, an international charter to promote, provide, and inspire colleges and universities to promote well-being.

“We’ve recently joined the U.S. Health Promoting Campus Network,” Hansen says. “It is a venue for members to collaborate and support each other and on the work in becoming a health promoting campus and a mechanism for institutions in the U.S. to adopt the Okanagan Charter. Creating this culture will embed health and well-being in every aspect of university life so students consistently get messages that well-being matters and it is supported, and that these are important pursuits to engage in.”  

While joining the charter remains a long-term goal, the immediate priority is maintaining the framework to make the project a reality.

“This is a huge shift for the student body,” Wooff says. “Having a facility that is appropriate and accessible right by rec services will dramatically change the way we see well-being, especially for our incoming students. From the time they step onto campus, they will see that it is something the University of Iowa really values.”