Taking care of students is the essential function of any university, and at UTA, it is our No. 1 priority. That’s why we provide services that not only help students achieve academic and professional success, but also persevere through any personal struggles that may serve as barriers to those successes.
According to the 2018 National College Health Assessment, 53% of students reported that they felt like things were hopeless and 41% said they felt so depressed it was difficult to function. The survey also found that the top four barriers to a student’s success were stress, anxiety/depression, lack of sleep, and illness.
A one-year follow-up survey of freshmen conducted in fall 2018 found that nearly three-quarters of UTA students who did not reenroll for classes said that personal factors contributed to their decision. When students do not have their most basic needs met, the likelihood of their academic success sharply decreases.
“How can we possibly expect students to succeed academically when they are worried about all of these other things?” asks Heather Snow, dean of students.
Recognizing these growing personal and mental health concerns for college students across the country, UTA has instituted a number of initiatives to not only combat these barriers to success, but to prevent them.
COMPASSIONATE MAVERICKS UTA
launched the Community that Cares initiative in spring 2017, bringing together student well-being resources from across campus into one hub. Programs like Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the Center for Students in Recovery, the Behavior Intervention Team, and more are now linked together under one umbrella so students easily know where to go to get help.
The Community that Cares message is presented at each New Maverick Orientation, ensuring that new students know that UTA is there to provide dedicated, caring support before classes even start.
“We can’t eliminate that students are going to face challenges,” says Snow, “but we want them to know the best thing to do is stay in school and that we’re here to help them.”
Snow, who chaired the Community that Cares task force with School of Social Work Dean Scott Ryan, says the team spent a year researching the impediments students face. That research led to a detailed action plan that included new programming, increased communication about services, and hiring professionals who are experts in mental health. One of the new hires is Jonathan Johnson, assistant vice president for health and wellness. The position oversees Health Services, Campus Recreation, the Office for Students with Disabilities, and CAPS.
“There is no one single challenge to resolve or simple solution to inclusively meet the needs of such a diverse student population at UTA,” Dr. Johnson says.
“It’s nice to know that assistance will be available for you so you can get back on your feet.”
Mental health is a major component of a student’s well-being. Negative thoughts, self-doubt, anxiety, and depression can take a toll on students and impact their academic success. CAPS plays a critical role in both preventive and crisis mental health situations.
CAPS saw a 19% increase in visits over the past year and interacted with nearly 8,000 students during outreach events. To address the growing need from students, CAPS expanded to offer expanded services, increasing flexibility and accessibility of its outreach. When the West Campus Residence Hall and the Commons opened last year, CAPS recognized a need for a presence on West Campus and added offices in the Maverick Activities Center. They also extended hours into the evenings and on the weekend and added eight full-time clinicians to ensure student wait time is minimal.
Students also benefit from on-demand counseling services whenever and wherever they are. TAO (Therapy Assisted Online) Self Help provides learning modules, videos, and practice tools to address anxiety and other concerns. The UT System initiative is entirely online, bringing mental health resources to UTA’s online and out-of-state students like never before.
CAPS also supervises Active Minds, a UTA student organization whose mission is to change the conversation about mental health. A key goal of the group is to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide prevention. Last spring, the group hosted the national Send Silence Packing exhibit, which placed backpacks across the Library Mall. Each backpack contained stories and photos of those across the country who died by suicide. The stark reminder serves to facilitate a dialogue between the student organization, their peers, and professional counselors. Members of Active Minds provided information about mental health resources and discussed the stigma surrounding asking for help.
CARE THROUGH CRISIS
When students experience an unexpected crisis, their entire world can be upended. A crisis that impacts students financially can jeopardize their ability to attend UTA. One way the University is helping to address this challenge is the Emergency Assistance Program. The program provides monetary assistance for short-term crises that can impact basic needs and living circumstances, like rent, utilities, emergency shelter, essential personal items, or medical care.
Biochemistry senior Mia Perkins had life throwing everything at her—she was between jobs, hungry, and overwhelmed. But she was able to apply for assistance and get the help she needed.
“The Emergency Assistance Program gave me security,” Perkins says. “It’s nice to know that assistance will be available for you so you can get back on your feet.”
Over 800 applicants like Perkins have applied for temporary assistance over the past four years. Around 70% of students who have received assistance have stayed enrolled at UTA or successfully graduated with a degree—showing that with just a little assistance from UTA during tough times, students can go on to succeed.
While the Emergency Assistance Program can address some financial issues, UTA is going further to ensure students’ basic needs are met.
The UTA Follett Student Leadership Center and UTA Volunteers have partnered with the Christian Campus Center, known as Tri-C, to address food insecurity through the UTA Food Pantry. The Food Pantry provides students with a mix of nonperishable foods to reduce their monthly food costs. The pantry is open for distributions every other Thursday, but students struggling with food insecurity can work with staff at any time to shop in the pantry. Additionally, the International Student Organization has partnered with the Episcopal Church in Arlington to create an on-campus delivery service for food and necessities, including international cuisine.
Student homelessness is another area UTA is working to combat. Currently, UTA has an emergency placement unit that students can use temporarily until permanent housing—which is often occupied—can be found.
Seeing the growing need to address homelessness on college campuses, Brent Little decided to approach UTA with a proposition. A former Maverick and current president of Fountain Residential Partners, Little has a deep affection for what he calls his “hometown school.” His company opened 848 Mitchell Apartments this fall, and 1% of the units available will be designated for at-need UTA students. Students will apply for the housing, and based upon their need, will be offered rent-free housing at the new complex.
Little is determined to bring change, not just to UTA, but to the entire Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Most commercial apartments operate with a typical vacancy of 3-5%. Little is challenging other developers to dedicate 1% of their rooms to UTA students facing housing insecurity.
“Number one, it’s the right thing to do,” says Little. He also adds that since the residences always have open space, giving back to the community and supporting students costs the business nothing.
Many of these initiatives have previously existed at UTA, but a new committee is focused on working strategically to better collaborate and share resources across campus. Dax Kuykendall, director of Campus Recreation, and Angela Middleton, director of Health Services, chair the Wellness Committee.
The Wellness Committee, alongside the UTA Community that Cares initiative, is also partnering with several national initiatives to improve student well-being on campus: Exercise is Medicine, Partnership for a Healthier America, and JED Campus.
Exercise is Medicine bridges the gap between physical and mental health. Students can participate in group therapy exercise classes, and the program will focus on making movement a part of the daily campus culture. Students visiting CAPS or the UTA Health Center may even be prescribed exercise as part of their health plan.
UTA is also part of the spring 2018 cohort for the Partnership for a Healthier America: Healthier Campus Initiative. The program challenges each university partner to meet 23 of 41 guidelines that support healthy lifestyle choices in three years. The Wellness Committee created several new initiatives to support the guidelines, including goat yoga, Care Week, and increased access to the food pantry.
A new initiative that kicked off this fall is a partnership with the JED Foundation. JED Campus is a signature program of the foundation and guides schools through a comprehensive process to improve existing student mental health services, address substance abuse concerns, and help prevent suicide. This fall, JED Campus conducted a student survey to better assess key triggers and barriers to UTA student success.
At a time when issues like anxiety, food insecurity, and depression are affecting college students across the country, UTA is committed to harnessing existing resources and creating new services to ensure that all students have the best opportunity to succeed. “These are not problems that we created, or problems that we really have a capacity to solve, but we’re taking the responsibility to do something,” says Snow. “It speaks volumes to the type of institution that we are and that we try to be.” uta