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The Future of the Campus Health Center and Student Wellness

Bechara Choucair, commissioner of public health for the City of Chicago; Denise Scarpelli, market pharmacy director for Walgreens; and Alex Lickerman, vice president of student health and counseling for the University of Chicago speak at Gensler’s Chicago office about the future of student wellness and on-campus health centers. Image © Gensler

What is your memory of the campus health center when you were in college? For many, it’s of a somewhat sinister building that you only visited when you absolutely had to – and even then, it was with the firm belief that you were going to check out in worse shape than when you checked in.

How times have changed.

Today, colleges and universities are redefining the concept of student wellness, an evolution that mirrors that of the healthcare profession itself. And nowhere is this more evident than in the student health center. What “well-being” means for higher education – and how that translates into the built and virtual environment – was the focus of Gensler’s final installment of its three-part Dialogues series about well-being on campus, which was held last month in the Gensler-designed incubator space known as 1871.

On hand were Dr. Bechara Choucair, commissioner of public health for the City of Chicago; Denise Scarpelli, market pharmacy director for Walgreens; and Dr. Alex Lickerman, vice president of student health and counseling for the University of Chicago. The panelists drew several important connections between campus well-being, and the well-being of the surrounding community. In that sense, the ensuing discussion helped reinforce the concept that well-being is entirely scalable.

No one understands this like the City of Chicago’s Department of Public Health. As head of one of the oldest and largest departments of public health in the country, Dr. Choucair launched a comprehensive program in 2011 called Healthy Chicago with the auspicious goal of improving the general health of the entire city. And Choucair has the metrics to prove it’s working.

“How do we make it easier for our residents to live healthier lifestyles? As we’re thinking about transforming the health of a city the size of Chicago, it’s not just about individual behavior. A lot of the strategies we’ve developed are based on changing the environment that we live in,” he said.

Community health is at the core of Walgreens’ mission, according to Scarpelli. “Most people think of Walgreens as being on the corner of Main and Main, but we’re more than just that,” she said. “We are located within three miles of two-thirds of all Americans. So we touch a lot of people. We want to become part of the community, and we want to design our stores to represent the people that live in that community.”

The Herman Miller Headquarters in Wiltshire, UK. Image © Gensler

In measuring the overall well-being of a campus community, Dr. Lickerman understands the importance of changing individual behavior. “My vision for the University of Chicago was to transform it from an institution known across the world as a place where students are inculcated into the life of the mind, but also a place where students come to learn how to become hardy. Because you can’t be successful if you’re just smart.”

Core to that vision is instilling a sense of resilience in students. “Resilience is not just something you’re either lucky enough to be born with, or unlucky to be born without, but it’s something that can absolutely be learned,” Lickerman said.

The mission of any campus wellness center is to support well-being as part of a holistic lifestyle, so it was fitting that much of the conversation focused how policy – and space – can support mental well-being, not just physical wellness.

“I really think something has been lost in this generation of students. There is a fragility that I do not think was present in past generations,” Lickerman said, citing feedback the university has received from employers of recent graduates. “Students themselves seem to be more anxious and more depressed than they ever have been before.”

One way to combat that fragility is to teach students that failure is OK. That may seem antithetical to promoting mental well-being, but “failure is a teacher,” Lickerman said. “Your impulse is to protect your child from harm. That’s a good and pure impulse, but like anything else it can be taken too far. I think we have done a disservice to children and to students by supporting them a little too much. What we’re finding is that a lot of students now have been protected from failure, and so they have not learned how to recover from it.”

Dr. Choucair agreed, saying that the idea of “failing forward” is promoted even within the bureaucratic constraints of city government. The goal is “creating that environment where it’s OK to fail, and actually challenging your senior teams and the folks in your department,” he said. “If you’re not failing enough, that means you’re not innovative enough.”

So what can colleges and universities learn from a corporation the size of Walgreens, a city the size of Chicago, about promoting well-being?

From left to right: Alex Lickerman, Denise Scarpelli and Bechara Choucair. Image © Gensler

According to Dr. Choucair, it’s about leading by example. One of his department’s initiatives is to improve nutrition on college campuses, but “I couldn’t go and convince them that it’s a good idea to actually have healthy items - and not all the junk that we usually have in vending machines - if I have all junk in my own city buildings.” The answer? The city yanked the junk food out of all the vending machines in the hundreds of buildings it owns, and replaced them without healthier items.

Walgreens also strives to lead by example by instilling the same core values in its own employees, to the point that when it launched an internal wellness program, it hired wellness coaches to help employees through the transition. “A lot of our employees are 25-year employees,” Scarpelli said. “There are some people that embrace change, and some that do not embrace change very well. We knew there would be people that dealt with it differently. At this point I think we’ve transitioned very well.”

Choucair spoke of other wellness initiatives with the potential for a broader impact by embracing technology. “Our approach to the technology strategy is based on three pillars: How do we liberate data, how do we encourage capital development, and how do we use predictive analytics?” The City of Chicago has launched several apps that enable residents to do any number of things to manage their personal health, ranging from learning where they can get flu shots to where they can get free condoms (“That app is really popular, and not just among students,” Choucair said).

But what are the ultimate implications for space, namely the student health center? Is the notion of managing your own wellness going to become a completely digital endeavor?

Dr. Lickerman doesn’t think so, and not just because his department has been promised a new space at the University of Chicago.

“Our current space, to be really frank, is pretty awful. The space profoundly influences the way students think about health services and use health services.” Lickerman explained that the medical component of the university’s services are currently housed in a separate building from its health and wellness services, a setup that isn’t conducive to treating the whole person. “We at U of C are really trying to combine into one space to maximize outcomes. So that when people think about their college student health experience, they don’t cringe and think, ‘I wish I never had to go there.’”

Michael Hanley is a designer in the education practice at Gensler’s Chicago office and has a background in journalism. He’s interested in the unique design opportunities presented by urban college campuses such as Columbia College Chicago, and finding innovative ways to connect higher learning institutions with speculative development enterprises. Contact him at michael_hanley@gensler.com

Reader Comments (2)

Good article. Campus health centers have come a long way in the past 40 years. It is good to see so much importance assigned to student health, both physical and mental. With so much importance put into this area, building design for health care centers is equally important. That creates great opportunities for Mats, Inc. with our impressive line of flooring options for both health care and fitness. Gensler is a leader in the design of these spaces and is an important player with which to become familiar.
07.21.2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark A. Kotulak
Nice Article, Student wellness is very important and campus health center doing great work on student wellness.

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