"Be the change you wish to see in the world." –Mahatma Gandhi
My time at Luther is coming to an end. After nearly five years of managing Luther's web presence, my heart is nudging me in a different direction. I am sad to leave yet excited for opportunities that lie ahead.
Aside from working on Luther's website, I've had several opportunities at Luther that I cherish. I've guest lectured in five different departments, taught a semester-long course on data analysis and led a J-Term course that traveled to Scandinavia to study resilient, sustainable community models. I've spent a year working from the Washington D.C. area during Todd's sabbatical. I've mentored work-study students, sending them off into the world as ambassadors for the rich liberal arts education they received here at Luther. And I've worked with committed people across campus to help tell Luther's story in the digital space.
For this I am grateful. I feel lucky that I'm still part of the Luther community as a faculty spouse and parent—it truly is a special place.
College campuses in crisis
My great passion in life is working to transition to a society that is conducive to human and planetary well-being. This work stems from a horrific experience our family had with mainstream psychiatry and the mental "health" system. Years of research to answer the question of why so many young people in our country are seeking help for mental and emotional distress led me to the conclusion that human well-being is more related to our social environment than anything else. The significant rise in mental and emotional distress is a systemic problem that we address primarily by attempting to suppress symptoms using psychiatric drugs, a practice perpetuated by the chemical imbalance myth.
While none of us can single-handedly achieve systems change at a national scale, we can look at the systems we control and determine if these environments can be changed to support human and planetary well-being. One such system is a college campus.
As a nation, we are facing a mental health crisis on our college campuses. A recent survey by the National Council on Disability of 16,000 college students on over 100 campuses "suggested that 35 percent of students met the criteria for at least one mental disorder in the prior 12 months." New Republic reported earlier this month that "depression has increased 1,000 percent over the past century, with around half of that growth occurring since the late-1980s." On college campuses, feelings of anxiety and depression are common—and, like the rest of the population, students identifying as female are more likely to experience these overwhelming emotions than students identifying as male.
Luther College students are not immune to these increasing feelings of worry, sadness and stress. These feelings are completely normal and should be investigated with curiosity as to their meaning and what signals the body is trying to send. However, when these feelings become so overwhelming that managing life becomes difficult, we know there's a problem—not with the student, but with their environment.
Are there ways we can think of systems change at Luther to promote the emotional and mental well-being of our students—and faculty and staff? We can't afford not to. Holistic wellness is a prerequisite for engaged learning, which is at the core of Luther's mission.
A vision for campus well-being
I will share a few of my own thoughts on this topic—some quite radical—in the hope that it will generate conversation and lead to change. This crisis will not dissipate until we achieve real systems change. Luther College has a unique opportunity to be a leader in human/social sustainability—a logical next step considering our leadership in environmental sustainability.
Realistic expectations. I've heard from many students who they feel immense pressure to "do everything" at Luther. Indeed, this is one of Luther's key value propositions. "Here you don't have to choose between being a musician and an athlete and a top student—you can do it all!" Some "super students" can pull it off. But many struggle to do so. I recommend a culture shift to: "at Luther you can find your niche—we help you find the intersection of your passions and strengths—the sweet spot for a meaningful life. You don't have to do it all."
Let's redefine success at Luther. Perhaps success is more about having enough time in the day to stop and notice the beauty around us or a friend in need. Success might also include having time to exercise, share meals, sleep and enjoy a hobby. In the end, isn't success about being authentic, giving and receiving freely, and leaving the world in a better state than when you arrived? Let's have that conversation.
(And, by the way, faculty and staff should find ways to model this more humane pace.)
Normalize "negative emotions." A second approach to optimizing student well-being is to educate students about normal feelings and give students tools to recognize and become curious about their emotions. One of the biggest problems in our culture is that we have designated certain emotions such as sadness, worry and anger as "negative emotions" and do everything we can to avoid feeling them. The fact is, all emotions have a purpose. Instead of trying to suppress uncomfortable feelings, it is important for students to learn to identify their emotions and derive meaning from them.
Of course, Luther should also continue to provide students with techniques to manage these emotions if they become overwhelming and get in the way of college life. This is called building resilience. People who are resilient are better equipped to bounce back when life throws you a curveball. Indeed, it is the single-most effective way for people to overcome childhood abuse and neglect.
A curriculum for transition. In addition to the many forward-thinking courses Luther already offers related to environmental studies and sustainability, consider courses focused on the emerging solidarity economy, social entrepreneurship, cooperative enterprises, restorative justice, Art of Hosting leadership, permaculture, biomimicry and other models that contribute to a society focused on people and planet first. (If some of this already exists, please let me know in the comments!)
And can we add a course drawing from dialectical behavior therapy, a skills-based approach to managing life? Every single student, faculty and staff member could benefit from learning mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness skills.
Academic evaluation. Consider a portfolio-based or narrative evaluation process rather than grades. In other countries, such as Sweden, there are no grades at the university level. Students either pass or fail a course—or pass with distinction. Several U.S. colleges have also moved away from conventional grades—and yes, their alumni go to graduate school.
Alfie Kohn, a vocal critic of the mainstream education system, presents a strong case against grades. Specifically, he points to the following negative effects of grading:
- a. Grades tend to diminish students' interest in whatever they're learning.
- b. Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task.
- c. Grades tend to reduce the quality of students' thinking.
Grades also contribute to students' stress levels and reinforce competition versus promoting collaboration. A socioeconomic environment based on collaboration rather than competition would be more conducive to mental and emotional well-being. Luther College could model this paradigm shift.
Inclusive excellence. I would be remiss not to include in this list the important work Luther has already started and that Dean Scott is now leading to transform Luther College into a place that welcomes ALL people—in word and deed.
Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are almost five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth. Hispanic college students have a higher risk of depression and anxiety compared to other students. In general, minority groups on college campuses face emotional adversity and students of color may suffer from impostor syndrome. The challenges are many and the history of discrimination long and dark. We have work to do.
By being intentional about achieving inclusive excellence, Luther will be positioned to create a place that promotes well-being for ALL people.
Luther's mission states we are committed to "an education that disciplines minds and develops whole persons equipped to understand and confront a changing society." Can we take this to the next level by committing to develop whole persons equipped to be the change our society needs? We can start right here on our campus in Northeast Iowa by deciding that human and planetary well-being matters most. The rest will follow.