It’s understandable that those preparing for college – especially for the first time – would spend months planning schedules, doting over book purchases, school supplies and dorm room décor, and wondering what a greater sense of independence will mean.
Throw in a major change in family financial dynamics and it’s unsurprising that a key element of the back-to-school planning process often is overlooked.
“There's a lot of buzz right now about self-care and that’s often the first thing to go when people prioritize school,” said Carissa Uschold-Klepfer, assistant director for outreach in Health Services at the University at Buffalo.
Students often arrive on campus without a solid sense of how they can best feed their bodies, minds and spirits – and schools including UB and SUNY Buffalo State have started to pay more attention to that, in hopes it will help boost retention rates.
Fewer than four of 10 students who enroll in four-year public colleges in New York State graduate within four years, and less than 60% do so in six years, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. For private schools, those figures stand at 55.1% and 68.2%, respectively.
“People leave school early because they don't feel a sense of connection,” said Rock Doyle, vice president of student affairs for health and wellness at Buffalo State. “What we're trying to do is form that sense of connection in the form of wellness.”
Buffalo State and UB are among colleges that have medical and mental health clinics on campus. Like many other schools, they also offer free nutritional counseling, fitness centers, and a host of ways students who live on and off campus can plug into social activities.
Both colleges train staff – particularly teachers, coaches and resident assistants – to look for signs of depression and anxiety in students, and help them plug them into support if needed.
“When students are happy and healthy,” Doyle said, “they're more likely to have academic success, which is really key.”
He and Uschold-Klepfer recommended the following tips students can use to stay physically and mentally sharp during their transition into college – and far past graduation.
“We really push activity, just getting your body moving,” Uschold-Klepfer said. That includes walking more on campus, instead of taking public transportation, and using school fitness facilities at least two or three times a week. UB provides fitness equipment in most residence halls and has large fitness centers students and staff can use free on all three campuses, including its downtown medical school campus. Both schools also provide free group fitness classes throughout each week.
Both schools are doing more to help students eat more fruits and vegetables and less processed foods on the go. Apps and dining service health food labeling are among practices designed to steer students toward better choices, though in the end it’s up to them.
Buffalo State opened a new Nutrition Education Counseling Center last school year to help students get a baseline body scan and provide nutrition counseling to those at risk of high blood pressure, diabetes or other weight-related health conditions. UB provides free fruit across campuses once a week in a program called Snacking Tuesdays.
Nutritionists and dietitians at both schools discourage students from skipping meals, particularly breakfast, and avoid eating unhealthy carbohydrates, particularly during the hours before bed.
Make sleep count
Traditional-aged college students need eight hours of sleep nightly as their brains continue to develop. “A lot of students will forsake sleep to stay up and study,” Uschold-Klepfer said, “and a lot of studies have shown that what you retain up until about 10 o'clock at night is what you're going to retain. Staying up late and cramming is not going to help.”
A regular sleep schedule, even on weekends, is healthiest, she added. Good sleep hygiene matters, too. In a college dorm or student apartment, that may well require a meditation app, noise cancelling headphones or other tweaks to make the sleep environment more calming.
Avoid alcohol and drugs
“Drug and alcohol use, especially during times of stress, is an ineffective form of coping,” Uschold-Klepfer said. Students might believe this offers short-term relief and peer acceptance, she said, but over time it can endanger emotional health, tax the body and hamper sleep.
Students should add the following phone numbers to their smartphones or phone book when they arrive on campus: Campus police, campus health services, campus counseling services, the nearest urgent care center and hospital.
Adjustment concerns are common when a student arrives at college, especially those who come from a different hometown or country. Heightened academic expectations and more rigorous class requirements also can quickly set in.
“A lot of students feel like they're not making connections,” Uschold-Klepfer said. “I often think that there are 30,000 students here at UB, so there has to be a person for everyone to be able to connect with. We recommend people link up with clubs and activities. There's so much offered on campus, whether it be an academic club or a recreational club, or just socialization. We offer a weekly group called Tea Time, which is for domestic and international students, where they play games and get to know one another. So those connections can really be helpful, and they can really decrease isolation.”
Find time for yourself
Meditate, take yoga, find something to clear your head and keep school at arm’s length for a while.
Both UB and Buffalo State offer several free classes each week that incorporate meditation, mindfulness and yoga. "Everything goes that has happened to you during the day, you reset,” said Cory Sampson, a former Canisius High School football player who discovered free yoga classes when he was a Buffalo State junior – and has since received a scholarship to become a yoga instructor.
The UB Office of Inclusive Excellence has started a program called the Year of Yoga for Every Body, which will offer free classes to students and the public this school year, and include lectures by regional and national yogic leaders.
Turn off that smartphone and go easy on social media, at least some of the time, in favor of more face-to-face interaction with schoolmates. Also remember that some “friends” may create the online illusion that they’re living the best college experience ever imagined. They’re only sharing part of their story, Uschold-Klepfer said.
Help is available
Most school websites feature health and wellness sections that include tips, resources and special events. Counseling and medical support is available on campus and nearby. These services nurture well-being, help prevent illness and are there in emergencies.
“We try to build resiliency in students through mental health practices,” Uschold-Klepfer said. “By resiliency, I mean they're able to cope and deal with life events that we all deal with. We’re helping prepare students to make the right decisions to support a healthy outlook on life.”
Parents can help through the process for making agreements with their children about how often they’ll be in contact during the school year, offering encouragement during the smooth and bumpy times, and allowing their kids to learn how best to help themselves in situations that call for it.
“The overall sense of well-being really adds to your ability to succeed in school,” Uschold-Klepfer said. That’s why striking a healthy balance in college, forgiving yourself when you don’t, and resuming efforts to improve are such an important part of college life.
“Statistics are showing that one out of every five college-bound students are choosing colleges based on wellness programs,” Doyle said, “so this is critically important.”