University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Making the residential college experience count

President Tom Sullivan
Photograph by Sally McCay


Making the residential college experience count

Recently, on a beautiful weekend in May, I had the honor of conferring degrees on nearly 3,000 University of Vermont seniors and graduate students. Pondering the essential definition of humanity in the digital age and the usefulness of acquired knowledge in an increasingly technological and roboticized world, acclaimed author and journalist Gail Sheehy ’58 urged the graduates to make their mark in the world by daring to care.

In a time when digital and networking technologies make it easy to earn a college degree without ever leaving home, it is critical to recognize and actively foster that which makes the residential learning experience so valuable. Beyond academic discourse and discovery, the campus and classroom environments provide opportunities for students’ self-exploration and personal development, so richly available at this influential time.

The transition from high school to college is a passage of tremendous importance. It is a time of exploration, a time when students engage with new relationships, experiences, and points of view. For most it is the first time they’re in an environment free of parental oversight; the first time for most to be completely self-directed in how they manage their time, how they socialize, and how they respond to the inevitable stresses and challenges of life. 

It is also a time when the structure and function of the young adult brain, still actively developing, is deeply and irrevocably influenced by the behaviors in which we choose to engage and the environments in which we live, work, and play. 

Recognizing the investment in the future that each and every UVM student represents, and given the lasting influence of the residential college experience, we have a responsibility to create a campus environment in which students can truly thrive, both in the classroom and in the community at large. At the University of Vermont we have seized the opportunity to launch a new Wellness Environment (WE) for incoming students. The new WE living and learning environment merges a peer-positive, substance free residence hall—featuring a fitness center, yoga and meditation studios, and a teaching kitchen—with courses in neuroscience and brain development, incentivized programs for pursuing wellness, and a mentorship commitment pairing each Wellness Environment student with a Burlington youth or senior citizen.

As reported by media nationwide, including CBS, NBC, and the Boston Globe, our new Wellness Environment has a non-negotiable, leave-it-at-the-door policy regarding alcohol and other drugs, dispelling the myth that substance use needs to be part of the college experience and creating a culture in which students engage in alternatives with a supportive community of peers. By focusing their curiosity and desire for learning into curricula that explores teenage and young adult brain development, the program seeks to engender healthy behavioral choice-making through a science-based program that will set the stage for lifelong wellness, to foster the enjoyment of exploring life with a cadre of similarly committed friends, and to expand the students’ experiences beyond campus to the Burlington community at large.

Opportunities for extracurricular exploration and substance-free stress release abound, from cooking classes and PX90 fitness workouts to yoga sessions and group violin lessons. Each WE participant is paired with a master’s-level dietetics student as a nutrition coach; fitness trainers are seniors majoring in Exercise and Movement Science. Connecting through shared interests, Wellness Environment students share activities with their community mentees, along with information they are learning on the four pillars foundational to wellness: good nutrition, adequate sleep, daily exercise, and mindfulness. The final project for the program’s flagship course—“Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies: Surviving and Thriving in College”—requires each student to design a program that helps to improve the wellness of the University community, the city, or the state. 

The brainchild of world-renowned child psychiatrist and UVM College of Medicine Professor James Hudziak, the Wellness Environment opened in August 2016 with 120 first-year students, one-third the number who applied. In a signal of the desire for this kind of focused, engaged option for campus living, due to popular demand the program is set to take over another residence hall and enroll 560 students in this coming academic year, nearly quadrupling in size in just one year. Fifty of those 560 students will be dual-enrolled in the Honors College, setting the stage for other cross-over enrollments in the future. The program is set to be housed in the new residential hall currently under construction in the center of campus, opening in August 2017.

A residential learning experience creates vibrant discourse and opportunities for interdisciplinary engagement and learning, and it also teaches skills for managing life. There is no better time to set the stage for healthy choice-making than when our students arrive at college, when they are in the throes of both new explorations and risk-taking, and when the young adult brain is still developing. In this time of critical exploration, this kind of learning—about how to build a baseline for health, how to make responsible choices for our wellness, and the ways in which our vibrant engagement can make a difference in the world—sets students on the path to lifelong success. It makes the residential college experience vitally relevant for the twenty-first century.

—Tom Sullivan


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