A professor in the Faculty of Health and Exercise Sciences, Dr. Sally Willis-Stewart has long been an advocate for facilitating academic excellence through integrating wellbeing into her classrooms and lecture halls, a theme that can be seen through many of her current research projects as well as her educational leadership.
Her passion for teaching and bettering the lives of her students drives much of her involvement in health promotion at UBC Okanagan, and most recently, she has launched HEALTH 100, a course that is open to all UBC Okanagan students that focuses on supporting their personal wellbeing.
We spoke to Dr. Willis-Stewart about her hopes for the HEAL 100 course and her thoughts on how UBC faculty can integrate wellbeing into their own classrooms.
What do you see as your role in advancing wellbeing at UBC?
I see my role in advancing wellbeing as having it be a part of everything—not just through my courses and programs on campus, but role modeling wellbeing as well.
As a faculty member, I feel the need to do what I can to facilitate wellbeing in everything to do with campus life—whether that be influencing policies and practices, or integrating activities/opportunities into my classes. I very much see my role as an ambassador for promoting wellbeing, not only in my own department, but in all avenues all across campus. I often say that the purpose of my course content is to try and fill the “buckets” of my students with things that help them thrive and succeed outside of the classroom—things such as positivity, self-esteem and resiliency to help them feel and act like the incredible human beings that they are.
I think that knowledge dissemination is so important—I see faculty as playing a key role in informing practices around wellbeing because of our knowledge and research base. We need to get that expertise out of the labs and classrooms and out there into the world through the students we impact!
Why did you create HEAL100?
I love to actively facilitate projects that make a change in my own classroom. As I mentioned, taking our knowledge around health and wellbeing and translating it into action is incredibly important. This is part of the reason I started the HEAL 100 course in the first place.
We need to take care of our students. University is one of the most exciting times in a young adults’ lives, yet in student surveys we see that students report being anxious, sick, and dropping out., These issues are not unique to UBC Okanagan—students across Canada are facing the same. University is a very competitive and demanding environment, so we need to make it one that promotes and supports wellbeing; we need to be forward thinking about students’ needs so they can thrive and do well in their academics. This course is open to all students in any program, other than Human Kinetics (since they already have knowledge in this area built into their programs).
My vision for HEAL 100 is to educate students about their own health and wellness and how to integrate all aspects of wellbeing into their lives—food, exercise, sleep, relationships, etc. This course also prompts them to practice what they learn to develop skills of resiliency and others to facilitate wellbeing and academic success. Hopefully they will practice this once they leave our campus and begin their careers; they can be role models and carry these skills forward. We are training future leaders and change makers —I’m teaching these students about nutrition, physical activity, mental wellbeing, stress management, wellness etc. for themselves and their own person wellbeing, but this also trickles into the greater community and impacts the broader society.
What can instructors do to help promote wellbeing in their classrooms?
We are very fortunate to have so many tools and resources for promoting wellbeing already in place; faculty members who are interested in how to promote wellbeing in their classrooms should definitely check the wellbeing website and use these tools. Those of us working in wellbeing have a responsibility to communicate about these tools and resources and let people know they exist.
I don’t want faculty members to look at wellbeing as something else they have to “add” to their course content, but rather see it as an “approach” in how they deliver their courses. For example, it could be as simple as making sure they have office hours, greeting students at each class, offering a smile, or integrating standing or movement breaks into their lecture halls. It could even be how things are worded in their syllabi.
UBC is known for excellence in many avenues and higher learning institutions are places of expected rigour. Supporting wellbeing as in the examples above does not mean lowering standards or rigour or “being soft,” we can still have rigorous, high standards but position things in a more positive, fair and compassionate way. We can make sure students know that they are respected humans and not just numbers, even in a large class.
There are many assumptions depicted in the media about the millennial generation—(eg. being entitled, or not hardworking), but we absolutely cannot assume this about our students. They are incredibly high achievers and we need to be kind and have faith in their abilities, while helping them to reach their goals. Kindness in the classroom does so much for a student’s sense of wellbeing, sense of belonging, and thus academic success.
I like to think of my classroom as a family, and as the instructor, I am the head of the family—it is my responsibility to nurture my students, and I can do so in a way that better challenges them and ensures that they are ready to take on the world when they leave, because of simultaneously, supporting and facilitating their wellbeing.
The School of Health and Exercise Sciences at UBC Okanagan now offers a 3-credit course designed to provide an in-depth introduction to health that will enhance students’ knowledge and skills for optimal well-being and academic success. This course is open to all undergraduate students who are not in the Human Kinetics program.
What excites you most about working to advance wellbeing on our campuses?
I think what excites me the most is the sheer potential of what we are doing and the possible impact. I can clearly see that there is so much potential in our students and our university to thrive and excel because of the focus we are placing on wellbeing—think of the energy, the positivity and incredible potential of thousands of students who are well!
I am also incredibly excited about the potential of this course to impact students on our campuses and the greater community by broadening its reach—whether that means offering it online, on the Vancouver campus or at other universities. HEAL 100 was featured in the Academic Top 10 and there has been much interest expressed from other universities from across Canada. This is very encouraging to see.
What challenges does UBC face in promoting wellbeing? What do you think UBC is doing really well?
I think UBC is doing an excellent job in coordinating efforts across departments and disciplines and collaborating—we are not all doing the same thing or reinventing the wheel, but leveraging our strengths. We are moving forward and taking the time to think through how wellbeing is integrated across our campuses rather than trying to do everything at once. I also think we are doing a great job with communicating that wellbeing is a priority.
A huge challenge is the question of what to prioritize—UBC is an extremely busy environment and faculty, staff and students can be stretched thin. As I mentioned before, I think it’s not about asking people to do more, but to do things differently. If we look at how some programs are structured, for example where there is no room for electives—sometimes it is these students who could benefit most from a course like HEALTH 100.
What are 1 or 2 things that UBC can do to really impact wellbeing for students?
I think to really impact student wellbeing UBC needs to continue to emphasize that it is a priority; if that is the message moving forward than faculties will independently pick this up, research will guide it and students and community members will care about their own wellbeing. If we can help this come across, then it will direct and guide our research, teaching and success.
What does a happy, healthy, sustainable campus community look like to you?
More than anything, it is about the feeling you get when you are on our campuses and whether it reflects health and happiness. Do we see wellbeing reflected in our environments? Do we sense that liveliness, activeness, and excitement from our students? Do we see healthy, nutritious food available? At a closer glance, what are the policies and programs that impact wellbeing? We need to see wellbeing present in our UBC brand!
What do you do to support your own wellbeing?
I firmly believe that I need to practice what I preach so I definitely take time to be mindful and reflect. I recently completed a sabbatical and had time to do this and it made me change my plans and priorities as an educator. I look at wellbeing as something that is not necessarily just about me—my wellbeing impacts my students and my family. I need to cut back on some things and move other things to the forefront of my life. Each year brings new challenges, and being mindful of these challenges and how to tackle them can be incredibly helpful.
If you could give a high-five to anyone on campus for the work they are doing to support wellbeing, who would that be and why?
There are so many people who do incredible work on both campuses—it’s hard to choose!
If I had to choose just one, it would be Tracey Hawthorn (Director of Wellbeing, UBC Okanagan). She is an amazing advocate and has been for a long time. We share a passion for making UBC a more wellbeing-focused place!
Do you have a wellbeing example or research project to share?