Cultivating student wellness

September 9, 2019

Public Relations

Palo Alto College held its second annual Advocacy Summit on Friday, Sept. 6, to spread awareness about local, regional, and national student wellness challenges and initiatives. The event was attended by faculty, staff, and students from Palo Alto College and the Alamo Colleges District, as well as community members.

The annual Summit focuses on the needs of college students outside the classroom and what educational institutions can do to help. Topics revolve around various non-academic barriers that can inhibit students from being successful both academically and personally.

"At Palo Alto College, this is a priority," said Carlos Cruz, interim dean of student success at the College. "As an institution of higher education, we have codified our commitment to advocacy and looking at the holistic self and cultivating wellness for our students. We know that it's not just about what's happening in the classroom, but also about what's impacting them outside, to ensure they can be successful in receiving a credential."

While the inaugural 2018 event focused on caring for students' basic needs – such as food and housing – the 2019 event covered mental health and how it is affected by various external factors. Mental illness is a pervasive issue nationwide, with nearly one in five adults living with a mental illness in 2017, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Furthermore, 75 percent of American college students deal with anxiety and 74 percent face depression, according to a survey by the American Council of Education.

This year's event featured two keynote speakers: Dr. Lindsey Bira, clinical health psychologist and adjunct assistant professor at UT Health San Antonio, and Dr. María Félix-Ortiz, psychology professor at University of Incarnate Word. Attendees also heard from Rhonda O'Cana, personal counselor at Palo Alto College.

"I have to tell you that we are among great leaders here at Palo Alto College," said Edlyn de Oliveira, a music instructor at the College, during opening remarks at the Summit. "We're not only are we talking about hard things – we're actually changing. We are actually taking action."

Palo Alto College ignited its commitment to advocacy in 2015 by commissioning a cross-campus advocacy task force comprised of students, faculty, and staff. The task force conducted an environmental scan of the types of advocacy services currently at the institution in an effort to better understand students' needs. In survey results, students articulated that they needed assistance with mental health counseling, emergency aid, financial literacy, career preparation, and health services. In December 2016, Palo Alto College responded by opening the Student Health, Advocacy, Resource, and Engagement (S.H.A.R.E.) Center to begin addressing these needs.

"We care about our community; we care about our students; we care about each other," said de Oliveira, an advocacy task force member. "That's reflected in the daily work that we do each day."

In spring 2018, Palo Alto College conducted the Healthy Minds Survey to gauge critical areas of students' mental health needs, evaluate current programs and policies, and create benchmarks to use in comparison to other institutions of higher education. The results of the survey supported the development of resources needed to meet the needs articulated by Palo Alto College students, including expanded mental health services and programming through the S.H.A.R.E. Center.

"The journey continues as there are still many needs our students have," said de Oliveira. "The more we're doing, the more connected we get to our community. We're discovering more of these needs every day because we're getting to know our students and our community."