EngagePerspectivesCommunities of Practice at Penn: Wellness
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Communities of Practice at Penn: Wellness

The PARK Podcast’s new series explores communities of practice, where we ask our partner organizations to help us better understand both how they see the Penn community, and to describe the types of practices they use to engage others in their work on campus.

To shape our thinking here, we are using the definition of a community of practice created by the nonprofit, Campus Compact. “A community of practice is a learning community or collegial network, defined as a group of people who share interest in an area of inquiry, and engage in collective learning about that issue as it relates to their work or practice. Through discussions, joint activities, and relationship building, the community of practice develops a shared and individual repertoire of resources, skills, and knowledge to use in their practice.”

Excerpts from edited transcript.

Lia Howard: So how can we learn together about our community as citizens, and what practices best facilitate that learning? We are so looking forward to hearing from our guests today. Welcome to Benoit Dubé, Chief Wellness Officer and Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at Penn. Ashlee Halbritter, Director of Campus Health at Penn. And Batsirai Bvunzawabaya, Staff Psychologist and the Director of Integrated Care Initiatives at Penn.

Before we get started, I want to thank each of you for the many ways you’ve cared for the Penn community’s mental and physical health, and continue to do so during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are all deeply grateful to you. This year has been such a challenging one, and we are interested and curious to hear your ideas about the Penn community.

Benoit, you’ve been in your role now as Chief Wellness Officer– the first to hold this role in the Ivy League– since 2018. How do you describe your role at Penn, and could you describe your vision for wellness at Penn?

Benoit Dubé: First and foremost, Lia, thank you for hosting us and for giving us an opportunity to share our good work. And to entice people to join us as we embark on a wellness revolution by infusing wellness wherever we can, whenever we can on our campus.

You said something now that just struck me. What can we say about the Penn community’s mental and physical health? I think the first word that came to mind is, resilient. And I say that looking back on the last 18 months, and the challenges that we’ve weathered together. But this also ties into your question, how do we describe wellness on a college campus?

Well, one, our college campus is an ambitious and thriving campus where excellence are always strived for. But we must also remember that there’s another side to this. That if we want to achieve great things, we must not do so at all costs, and must always, always make sure that self care is part of the winning formula.

When we envision wellness for our students, we want our students to navigate their academic journey with us, and learn very useful life skills that they will carry forward as they continue to do great things. We want them to be able to handle competing demands, yet still feel like they’re in control. They’re not overwhelmed, they’re working hard, but they can weather these challenges. These are the life skills– simply dubbed as wellness– we are hoping our students will acquire through their time with us on our campus.

Lia Howard: What a beautiful vision. Thank you so much for sharing that. Ashlee, Campus Health, which you direct, is part of Wellness at Penn. Would you describe the health services available to the Penn community through Wellness at Penn, and your role in the process?

Ashlee Halbritter: Thank you, Lia. Our Wellness Services and our Campus Health are about both prevention and promotion. So, the services that we offer are tools, and systems, and services that students can utilize to prevent burnout, to learn how to sleep better, in support of their academic pursuits. To learn how to access care, whether it be from our counselors or our clinicians within Student Health.

And then on the promotion side, it’s about finding that state of flow that helps support all of the buckets of wellness, all of the eight domains of wellness. And finding the things that make them feel good, and help them in achieving their academic, social, and occupational pursuits.

Lia Howard: Thank you so much for sharing that. It’s so powerful to hear how you’re thinking intentionally about students. Batsi, Counseling and Psychological Services is also part of Wellness at Penn. Could you describe CAPS and the mental health services available to the Penn community? And how do describe your specific role at Penn?

Batsirai Bvunzawabaya: Sure, thank you so much, Lia. So, Counseling Services offers 24/7 access to a counselor for urgent and non urgent mental health concerns. So students can always reach us when they need support. Our services are free, and they’re confidential. We also offer individual and group therapy, medication assessments and management, referral services for providers in the Philly area and outside of Philadelphia, if students require services outside of the Counseling Center. And we also offer consultation services. So if students, faculty, and staff want to reach out to us– if they’re noticing a mental health concern– they can do that and they can receive guidance on how best to support the student that they’re with at that moment.

In collaboration with Campus Health, in my role specifically, we offer outreach and prevention services focused on reducing mental health stigma, encouraging help seeking behaviors, and any sort of psycho-education around various mental health topics, such as how to help a friend who’s having a mental health crisis. But also, topics such as coping with impostor phenomenon, or minority mental health concerns. So, there are a wide range of programs we offer in collaboration with Campus Health around various mental health topics.

Lia Howard: Thank you so much, Batsi. Wow, that collaborative effort seems so powerful and important. I want to think with you both, going along the line of collaboration, a bit more about what the Penn community looks like from your vantage point at Wellness at Penn.

And Benoit, I hope we can start with you again. When you think of the Penn community, what comes to mind? In a place as large and diverse at Penn, how do you balance the need for a unified campus– especially in the current pandemic– with respect and consciousness for the many distinct mini communities? What does it look like at the big vision level, and maybe more than at the programmatic level.

Benoit Dubé: Well, Lia, at the big level– at the 30,000 foot level– Quakers are a vibrant mosaic. A mosaic of diversity that means various elements of strength and vibrancy that we can all capitalize on. However, after we’ve identified unique– or shared challenges, rather– that bring us together, we also have to make sure that everybody knows or can find a safe place for them.

So it’s important at the local level that students are able to secure the spaces where they see like minded peers, or faculty, or staff. Where they know that their concerns will be heard, unconditionally, without judgment. And that is the balancing act, is identifying community threads, community challenges, while also identifying resources that can be accessible and felt safe by the various members of the community.

Lia Howard: Ah, thank you. So amazing to think about. Ashlee, is there anything else you might add to what Benoit was just shared, from your perspective at Campus Health?

Ashlee Halbritter: I don’t know that I can say it any better than that. We continue to look for policies and systems and structures that make the healthy choice the easy choice for most people, while also recognizing that there is a very diverse group of individuals and cultures and needs reflected in, not only our student body, but our faculty and staff as well. And we do have to be nimble enough to address and support those nuances.

Lia Howard: Thank you, well said. And Batsi, what would you add from the perspective of CAPS?

Batsirai Bvunzawabaya: Yeah, I really appreciated how Benoit talked about the community threads and the importance of finding a safe space. Because we know that social support is key in reducing mental health distress, and that students in distress are more likely to go to their friends and other campus supports first, before they actually get to the counseling center. So, community to us is about making sure that we’re building a community of care where everyone is looking out for one another.

And I think to what Benoit was saying, the Counseling Center is not the only place where a student can go to feel cared for. There are many people in many offices on campus where this occurs, and we just see ourselves as part of the many spaces where students can feel seen and feel nurtured as part of the Penn community. And that’s really important to us, as Benoit was saying.

Lia Howard: I really appreciate that community of care phrase. Thank you for sharing that. So according to Daniel Aguirre, who’s the founder of something called Pueblo Engage, “Community and exclusivity don’t automatically go hand in hand. They need intentionality and opportunities to handle inclusion. We need the conversation and negotiation of words consistently to build this together. When we say community, who are we serving? Who are we making space for? We need to think of inclusion as a practice, as a lifelong journey.” End quote.

Benoit, what kind of practices do you use already at Wellness at Penn to make things inclusive and accessible to all? Going forward, what other practices would you like to maybe introduce? And new practices to consistently build inclusivity and community together in the wellness space at Penn.

Benoit Dubé: So, Lia, I think what’s interesting is that the two topics we’ve just been discussing now really go hand in hand, in that by creating a caring community– or a community of care– and by making sure that all of our constituents, all of our students, can find a safe place, everyone should feel included. Should feel welcome.

One of the driving principles that we’ve used as we’ve looked at programming is to remind students to claim their agency. And to not always ask what is the university doing for me, but to also look for things students can do for themselves, with support from the university.

For example, many of our students have impactful, innovative new ideas about ways to help one another, or to help surrounding communities. We are here, always, to partner with them so that they can execute their plans and make a difference. To better the lives of their peers, or to better the lives of members of surrounding communities who may not be as fortunate in some respects.

That guiding principle of really finding ways for students to claim their agency and be active parts of a solution to a problem they’ve identified– whether it is theirs, or problems they’ve identified in the surrounding communities– is really important to us. Because this goes back to developing very useful, impactful life skills that will serve our students well, beyond the confines of their Penn experience.

Lia Howard: So well said, I appreciate that. The life skills aspect of being a Penn student and thinking that way. Thank you. Ashlee, what kind of practices do you use already at Campus Health to make things inclusive, and do you have ideas for the future?

Ashlee Halbritter: We have data driving most of our decisions, and that data comes from multiple places. It comes from population, health, medical records, scans, it comes from surveys– both institutional and student driven. And it comes directly from student feedback. It matters a lot to us that we continually balance the needs we see our students having based on the data we have at hand, while also being responsive to student needs.

Because we can’t only talk about the things we want to talk about with them. We want their voices included, and we need to know and hear and understand what’s important to them as well.

Lia Howard: Well thank you, Ashlee, so much for that answer. Batsi, I wonder if you might adapt that question to CAPS. What kind of practices do you use already at CAPS to make things inclusive and accessible to all?

Batsirai Bvunzawabaya: Yeah, thanks, Lia. I was thinking about this question, and I think when we talk about it within the counseling center, we often talk about belonging and how important that is for someone’s mental health. So I’m going to share some of the programs and groups we offer just to answer that question more fully.

So, we offer groups and workshops that recognize the unique needs of different populations on campus. So for example, we have a group for students of color. We have groups for LGBTQ+ students. We have groups for international students, and grad women group. So, we really try to think about the different spaces that students may feel may best meet their needs, in addition to some of the more shared spaces that we offer at CAPS as well.

We also have options to receive our services in other languages, such as Mandarin and Spanish. We also have a liaison program, where we work with student leaders, faculty, and staff around the needs of each of the students that they work with and that they serve. So, we try to consult and offer programming that speaks to those concerns, as Benoit was talking about, in our work with student leaders and around their ideas and their input as well.

And then I would just say lastly, for CAPS as well as all of Wellness, our staff is multidisciplinary and utilizes multicultural frameworks to ensure that we’re approaching our work with cultural humility, in recognition of some of the different forms of trauma that different communities may have experienced, or other forms of harm that adversely impact various members of our student community.

So this work is very much ongoing for us, and I think it’s something that we try to keep at the forefront of our minds, of just how are folks feeling included? And what this belonging look like for each of the different groups?

Lia Howard: Thank you. Again, it’s so comforting to hear all of the intentionality that goes on behind the scenes at Wellness at Penn, and all the ways you’ve thought about including others. Thank you.

So, we just want to end our time together reflecting a little bit upon this past year. And looking back, this past year and a half has been deeply challenging. We’re living through a pandemic, which has altered the way we live and work. We’ve been exposed to tragedies, like the murder of George Floyd, and chilling acts of anti Asian bias.

We’ve witnessed widespread protest marches, where people of all races have joined together to decry these deep injustices. We’ve experienced political toxicity, polarization, and even an insurrection on our Capitol building in Washington, DC. Yet we’ve also seen a record amount of voting and political participation.

All of these things have influenced the way we as US citizens think about our US community, and have rippled out to affect the way we think about Penn as well. In short, living in community is both challenging and invigorating. Deeply painful at times, yet also deeply rewarding. We want to examine, what are some of the challenges and joys of your work with the Penn community?

So Benoit, what are some of the things that have been challenging this year, and what have been some of the things that have brought you joy, hope, and encouragement?

Benoit Dubé: I was listening to you list all of these things that we’ve been through, and it’s actually sobering to hear that we have actually weathered the storm successfully. That we are still able to keep our heads above water, despite all of those impactful, significant societal changes that all happened, all at once. It’s a form of cosmic cruelty, I would say, for us to have to navigate all of these challenges in such a short time.

If I bring it back to our campus experience, I think the biggest challenge as it pertains to all of these challenges, is the unrelenting nature of successive, significant challenges. Whether it pertains to COVID or to societal unrest, there’s been an unrelenting quality which generates a form of chronic apprehension or almost learned helplessness.

But despite those challenges, one of the joys of working within the Penn community is the strong sense of community, of an embodiment of, we’re all in this together. And of partnership, of finding solutions together, of supporting one another through hardships, and rising to the occasion without even being asked or summoned. That is the beauty of the resilience of Quakers. We’ve been around for a long time, we’re not going anywhere, and we keep getting stronger with each successive challenge. That brings me joy.

Lia Howard: Benoit, it’s deeply encouraging to hear you say that. Thank you. I’m fired up. But Ashlee, how would you respond to that question?

Ashlee Halbritter: Very similarly. I mean, the list of obstacles and injustices and issues in the world, and here at home, that you listed is overwhelming. And I would combat that with all of the things that we did do, and that did remain unchanged. We had an in-person graduation ceremony in the spring. Penn remained open to students in the spring, even with classes online. Buildings were open, students were here. We’ve continued to work to find ways to gather safely.

And it’s really to the students’ credit. And their– like Benoit said– their interest and ability to be all in this together, and to find ways to connect safely that allow us to stay together, has been really beautiful and powerful, and continues to make me feel hopeful that we can continue to make it through the obstacles thrown our way.

Lia Howard: Thank you, Ashlee, how beautiful. And just making me feel good, too– tears. Batsi, how would you add to this conversation?

Batsirai Bvunzawabaya: Yeah, so you may notice a little bit of a theme in what I’ll say, off of what Benoit and Ashlee mentioned as well. I’ll just say specifically, that the challenge for me is knowing how many students are experiencing mental health and societal injustices that you mentioned earlier, Lia. We know that roughly 75% of lifetime cases of mental health conditions begin by the age of 24.

So, we have many students experiencing mental health distress in ways that they may never have experienced before, which can be really scary for them, and very difficult for our students.

However, as Ashlee and Benoit were mentioning, we also know that we have a campus environment that has a lot of support for our students, so they don’t have to go through the distress alone. Which I think is really important.

And I’ll just say, the joys for me are watching students learn about who they are, what they care about, how to care about each other in relationships, and of course achieving their academic goals. I think it is one of the most meaningful parts of our jobs, getting to bear witness to students recognizing their own power, their own strengths, while also just thinking about ways they want to continue to develop and grow parts of who they are, and how they want to continue to evolve. I think that’s so meaningful.

And I’ll just add to what Benoit and Ashlee were mentioning earlier. Working with our CAPS and Wellness staff, and other partners on campus, who are so deeply caring for our students every single day. Even though you feel like you’re going through something difficult, you know that other people care and are as invested as you are. And that feels really good, and it feels meaningful.

Lia Howard: Thank you so much to our guests. We have enjoyed our time with you so much, and again, are so grateful for the ways you serve and care for the Penn community.

Please join us on October 12th as we visit with Fox Leadership and Penn’s program on Opinion Research and Election Studies, to learn about their thoughts on the Penn community and the practices that they use to sustain their work here.

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