This Is Your Brain at College
Debuting this fall: A first-year res hall like no other
- By Jeffrey R. Wakefield
A residence hall with lots of amenities isn’t exactly big news in higher ed.
But how about one with personal fitness and nutrition coaches for every student, daily yoga and tai chi instruction and round-the-clock meditation sessions, a mentorship program matching every student with a Burlington youth and a neuroscience course all students take taught by faculty in UVM’s highly ranked College of Medicine?
It might sound far fetched or expensive, but it’s neither. It’s the concept behind the Wellness Environment, or WE, a substance-free living community for first-year students opening next fall unlike any other in American higher education.
WE, to be housed in Patterson Hall on Redstone Campus, is the brainchild of Dr. Jim Hudziak, a pediatric neuropsychiatrist in UVM’s College of Medicine. Hudziak has built an international reputation -- and a prodigious catalog of published research papers -- by using music, fitness, nutrition, mindfulness and powerful support communities to help struggling kids feel and do better, and by producing compelling neuroimaging showing the healthy new behaviors physically change his patients’ brains.
College of Medicine guy
If the checklist driving Hudziak’s clinical practice resembles the amenities offered by WE, that’s no accident. Hudziak was happily ensconced at the College of Medicine, content to teach, treat patients and publish, when something momentous happened: his daughter enrolled at UVM.
“Prior to that, I was a College of Medicine guy, but I fell in love with the undergraduate campus,” he says. “I’ve spent my whole career engaged in research about how to promote health, and we’ve shown remarkable things,” he says. “But here was a whole new environment I began learning about through my daughter. I decided it was time to give back to UVM” by applying to college students the principles underlying his clinical practice and research.
WE has a leave-it-at-the-door policy regarding alcohol and other drugs. The idea isn’t to prohibit use, but to create a culture where students find alternatives with the help of a large supportive community.
At the root is the idea that, if curious college students understand how behavior, good and bad, affects their brains -- via “gorgeous neuroscience,” in Hudziak’s words -- they’ll opt for healthier choices.
“We have a rule,” Hudziak says. “We don't judge. We just show you the science.”
If changing party culture with science sounds like a stretch, drop in on this semester’s prequel to WE -- the pilot version of the neuroscience course the community will offer, Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies, which attracted 100 students with nothing but word of mouth.
On a recent Wednesday, the world’s foremost expert on the neuroscience of exercise -- Art Kramer, director of the Urbana/Champaign-based Beckman Institute -- loomed even larger than usual, amiably answering student questions from an enormous interactive screen at the front of Carpenter Auditorium at UVM’s College of Medicine.
Every Wednesday, supersize versions of world neuroscience authorities -- many of them friends of Hudziak -- appear on that large screen to discuss their research on the effects meditation or sleep or proper nutrition or drugs have on the brain. Students have prepped by reading the guest-of-the-week’s latest peer–reviewed papers and discussing the key findings with Hudziak and other College of Medicine faculty during class on Monday.
Classes begin and end with a guided group meditation, and the “textbook” is a fitbit. Students aren’t graded on how many steps they’ve taken, just on whether they’ve uploaded -- and presumably internalized -- the data.
“This is a really different class,” says Noah Markowitz, a fourth-year student neuroscience major. “The faculty are amazing, and the guest lectures are unbelievable.”
The WE community’s emergence and rapid implementation represents the height of serendipity, given another key initiative the campus had underway: a comprehensive program to address alcohol and other drug issues at UVM that President Tom Sullivan initiated in early 2014.
Center for Health and Wellbeing director Jon Porter, who co-led that effort, said it had independently taken a very similar approach: emphasizing a motivating push toward student wellness, rather than a punitive one focused on prohibition.
“It’s a stroke of good luck that we had Jim on our faculty and that he was willing to turn his attention from his international practice to our undergraduate population,” says Porter. “There's great symbiosis between what we want to do and what he's been working on throughout his career.”
In their fondest dreams, Porter and other administrators hope the University of Vermont -- with a range of initiatives capped by WE and located in a state known for outdoor recreation and health -- can be a national model for how colleges campuses can change their ingrained party cultures to ones that are more positive, productive and wellness-oriented.
Sophomore psychology major Nicole Orme, who’s taking Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies, thinks that’s a distinct possibility.
“I think WE could be a catalyst,” she says. “We really are affected by what everyone else is doing because you're like -- that's what I should be doing. Having a community where we say, 'We are going to be healthy; going out is fun sometimes, but let's meditate once in a while to feel good, and get some sleep' is a good thing. It's peer pressure, but in a positive way.”
Hudziak is characteristically upbeat. He expects the size of the WE community to increase every year from its target of 150 students next fall, as word about it spreads, with the growing number of graduates serving both as mentors for the incoming WE class and as influencers in the larger student community. Once a critical mass is reached -- Hudziak cites the number 600, which could take as little as three years to achieve -- "we'll impact the entire campus."