Mindful Campus Program, designed by students and faculty, aims to help students improve their own wellness and that of the community
An eight-week series in mindfulness launched at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2021 to support the well-being of students was designed, in part, by students themselves. And while the series strives to help students live more fully in the present moment, it also aims to leverage mindfulness in the effort to promote social justice.
The Mindful Campus Program, an initiative by the Renée Crown Wellness Institute, began in 2019, with students’ helping to craft surveys and focus groups to gauge other students’ interest and preferences, asking, for instance, how the campus could minimize barriers to mindfulness programming.
Later that year, students, faculty and mindfulness experts co-designed the eight-week mindfulness series. That first series was the focus of a research study, the results from which Crown Institute experts are still analyzing.
Using data from this study—which drew about 150 student participants—the team is still honing the eight-week series. Another team is working to develop a for-credit class and make it available at CU Boulder and other campuses and communities.
Kourtney Kelley, senior project manager and professional research assistant for the Crown Institute, participated in the design of the eight-week series using Youth Participatory Action Research, a method in which young people learn to conduct systematic research to improve their lives, their communities, and the institutions intended to serve them.
As she noted, “It’s not just research about students and what students are going through. Students are involved.”
This method of research “allows the voices of young people to be central and guiding within the research process,” said Sona Dimidjian, director of the Renée Crown Wellness Institute and a professor of psychology and neuroscience.
“The whole tenet is that I as a researcher don’t know what the community needs, and I need to learn in partnership with students and campus partners from the ground up,” added Caitlin McKimmy, a graduate research assistant in Dimidjian’s laboratory.
Natalie Avalos, an assistant professor of ethnic studies, noted that the eight-week series includes instruction, practice and the sharing of ideas. In one session, for instance, participants learn a compassion practice in which they breathe in the suffering of others and, on the exhale, give compassion and healing to themselves and others.
One goal is to help participants see how they might use mindfulness and compassion practices to support anti-racism and social justice, “explicitly linking them and then going on from there,” Avalos said.
Avalos added that students assume teaching and co-mentorship roles in the Mindful Campus Program: “Hierarchies of power shifted, and I think students really responded to that and really appreciated that.”
McKimmy concurred, emphasizing that “at the heart of this project, and this is really an important part of the Crown Institute, is having undergrads at the table where their voices are central.”
Kathryn Dailey, interim/acting director of health promotion at CU Boulder, was part of the co-design team and, because her office was housed in the Division of Student Affairs, she shared her insight into students’ experiences, particularly what stressors students reported experiencing.
Dailey has also worked as a facilitator with Mindful Campus generally and with its LGBTQ+ facilitation group. “We're looking at true culture change on campus, trying to engage people at all different dimensions and levels of the university to be able to bring mindfulness into different spaces, whether it is student employment or into the classroom into co-curricular experiences,” Dailey said.
Looking to the future, Dimidjian said, “We are so excited in the Crown Institute to offer the eight-week series to students on our campus as part of our enduring commitment to link research and practice. We are exploring ways to bring some of this learning directly into the classroom through what we hope will become a semester-long, for-credit course.”
Cody Moxam, an honors student in psychology and neuroscience, completed the eight-week series and is now part of an interdisciplinary team of students and faculty co-designing the for-credit course. He said students and faculty “set aside our personal agendas to truly work on a course designed for the well-being of its participants.”
“We were able to integrate our experience as students, and as people, with the research literature to thread together an experience that would change students’ lives for the better,” Moxam said, adding that the: “values of community, social justice and mindfulness were imbued in our team interactions from the very start.”
Michele D. Simpson, a Crown Institute faculty affiliate, research associate and CU Boulder associate teaching professor, underscored that point, saying that her motivation in joining the Mindful Campus Program was not to simply boost mindfulness on campus, but also to expand it into different communities on and potentially off campus.
Voicing a guiding vision for the Mindful Campus Program, Simpson said, “Mindfulness belongs to everyone. Wellness is a right of everyone.”
Mindful Campus has gained traction just as many sources of data suggest that such initiatives are sorely needed. Recent research finds that anxiety and depression among students has risen steadily during the last eight years, and students of color have experienced the steepest increase.
Researchers from Boston University analyzed surveys of 350,000 students from more than 300 campuses between 2013 and 2021. Their meta-study, like other smaller studies, found students’ rates of depression and anxiety had more than doubled in eight years, rising by 135% and 110% respectively.
Additionally, research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that mental-health challenges are worse among high school students who perceived racism. The study concluded that understanding “how negative health outcomes are associated with student experiences of racism can guide training for staff and students to promote cultural awareness and anti-racist and inclusivity interventions, which are critical for promoting safe school environments for all students.”
Meanwhile, students’ demand for psychological counseling has far outstripped the demand. These are national trends, but officials note that they are reflected among CU Boulder students.