Mental Health & Student Success

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Colleges and universities are investing more and more resources into student retention and success initiatives, and student mental health has become an escalating crisis on many campuses. This week, Ken Steele sits down with Janet Morrison, president and vice-chancellor of Sheridan College, to discuss some lessons she has learned over 25 years as a champion of student success, in the university and college sectors.

There is a wealth of research into student success, and Janet believes in programming that is “evidence-based and theoretically informed.” Institutions now need to understand their own specific demographics, and pilot-test interventions. Janet emphasizes that “on many levels student success is a commentary on privilege,” and many students at commuter institutions (like York or Sheridan) have very different experiences than the faculty or administrators responsible for their education. Many students are working in excess of 26 hours a week, and commuting an average of 2 hours daily, while attending school full time, and potentially also juggling responsibilities for dependents and significant debt. We need to “co-define success” with learners, in ways much more holistic than mere grade-point averages. Janet emphasizes the crucial importance of “purpose”, because when things inevitably become challenging, “that sense of purpose is the pull, the energy, the fuel, the accelerant to help students make it to the next gatepost.” She is truly inspired by the perseverance and dedication of many students who have overcome incredible obstacles.

Institutions can help support student success by conducting research to identify the top ten obstacles to student learning, which will differ by campus and by student demographic. Students need a sense of academic culture, and particularly for first-generation students, a lot of that falls to academic advising staff. Students need a sense of connection with faculty, staff and peers, and student affairs staff can organize co-curricular records, and promote wellness. “This really is a team effort” with staff and faculty fostering a sense of purpose, connectivity, and resourcefulness in our students.

Negative mental health in particular has been a rising issue on campus in recent years, with a significant increase in demand for counselling services on campus. Janet observes “a multitude of causal contributors” to the trend, but sums it up as, basically “life is more complicated.” Socioeconomic demands and anxieties, among incoming and graduating students, drives considerable stress. “There are limits to what post-secondary institutions can do to support students, and those are difficult conversations to be having.” Sheridan is trying to cultivate a healthy campus for students, staff, faculty and guests, but it’s a “really big” challenge. Students pursuing creative vocations can be particularly vulnerable, perhaps because they are more sensitive and introspective, and certainly need to face ongoing critique of their work.

Janet emphasizes the importance of psychological resilience, and shares one student’s metaphor of the “Bobo doll”: the ability to bounce back from setbacks and difficulties. “Being mentally health is a foundational requisite to student success,” and institutions need to continually improve. The crisis, however, is visible everywhere in broader society, in secondary and even primary schools: “it truly is the challenge of our time.”

Dr Janet Morrison championed student success at York University for 17 years, ultimately as VP Students, before joining Sheridan College in 2016 as VP Academic, and 2 years later becoming Sheridan’s President. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in History and Education. (If you missed part 1 of our conversation on “Cultivating Creativity”, check it out here: https://youtu.be/awH4WVFV-hc).

Next week, this 3-part series with Janet concludes with a look at the converging solitudes of colleges and universities (or 2-year and 4-year colleges). So you don’t miss it, be sure to subscribe! http://eduvation.ca/subscribe/

Special thanks to Sheridan College for the onsite videography. (If you would like to host an onsite episode of Ten with Ken, please see http://eduvation.ca/twk/site-visits/for more information.)

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