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Positive partnership: Graduate students provide well-being coaching in residence halls

Story courtesy Inside Higher Ed (by Ashley Mowreader)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is piloting a wellness coaching program for undergraduate students who live on campus to receive one-on-one care from a graduate student that can help them identify productive strategies to live healthier lives.

Two master’s of social work students serve as well-being coaches in Hinton James residence hall, offering virtual and in-person meetings with any student looking to improve their wellness. The coaches use an empathetic listening approach and help create action plans to achieve students’ goals.

The program launched in January, and staff hope to scale offerings in the future.

What’s the need: UNC recognized a need for additional mental health services after multiple students died by suicide or attempted suicide during the fall 2021 semester. Administrators at Carolina Housing began brainstorming how to make services more available to residential students.

“Also coming off the heels of COVID, it was really … obvious to students and to the university, to the chancellor, to faculty, to all of us that normally deal with student support, it was just a higher level of need,” explains Kala Bullett, senior director of residential education at Carolina Housing.

Well-being coaches are designed to mitigate the negative connotations around receiving mental health care and normalize help-seeking behaviors among residents through near-peer support.

The program also supports residential life staff who may not have the same experience or training working with students in a health and wellness context.

The set up: The master’s of social work program at UNC requires students to fulfill a practicum, and so marrying graduate student education with undergraduate needs became a practical solution.

To equip M.S.W. students, the coaches received training from more experienced coaches, and they practiced via recorded sessions with a supervisor, which were reviewed and evaluated, says Shana Sobhani, an M.S.W. student and well-being coach. Coaches received FERPA training around accessing student files and mandatory reporting training, and they completed a background check (because some first-year students are under 18).

How it works: Sobhani and Devon Pelto are the fall 2023 well-being coaches. All undergraduate students are welcome to participate, but the effort is presently focused on UNC’s largest residence hall for first-year students.

To sign up for coaching, students scan a QR code and fill out a short intake form providing personal information and identifying the top three areas where they want support. Staff created a list of topics students can select from, including time management, stress management, sleep, motivation, confidence, relationship building, health, self-care and emotional wellness.

Having sign-ups be fast and accessible was important to staff, as was highlighting areas of potential support, because some students might not recognize they need help in one area until it is brought to their attention, Bullett says.

Sessions can range from 30 minutes to an hour and are student-guided. Rather than instructing students on what they should do next or how they should improve, UNC’s well-being coaches are meant to be a sounding board to help their advisees gain a new perspective on their lives and explore possible changes and how to reach goals.

“Coaching sessions are goal-oriented conversations designed to reconnect participants with their own wisdom to identify possibilities and create action steps that move them closer to the changes they want to see in their lives,” Sobhani explains.

Sessions can be one-off or reoccurring over several weeks, depending on the student’s level of interest. The number of sessions coaches provide per week varies on student interest, as slots are prescheduled with the coach.

The impact: Sobhani was interested in joining the program because she believes in the importance of coaching as a complement to other well-being supports.

“Oftentimes we have the answers to our problems within us, and we need a thinking partner to help sift those ideas out, and coaching is an empowering technique for supporting individuals in making change,” Sobhani says.

As a result of the program, Sobhani has learned to center the client’s voice and follow their lead, as well as practical skills for working with people and facilitating one-on-one sessions.

“I think this experience will shape my career in a big way, since I have seen how the power of listening and asking questions can unlock ideas and solutions for people that adequately address their concerns and feel manageable in attaining positive outcomes,” Sobhani says.

For the spring 2023 semester, three students filled out an intake form to join the program, but as of mid-November, 20 students had completed the form for next semester.

Looking ahead: Bullett anticipates another year of data collection before making an analysis about the program’s impact, but her hope is to expand offerings among residential living communities.

Devon Pelto (left) and Shana Sobhani (right)/Photo Courtesy Carolina Housing