At a “Day of Play” event designed to foster wellness in the Penn community, surrounded by celebration and positive messaging from the balloons, photo ops, and free food, I felt like joy was being shoved down my throat. In the moment, I tried to force cheeriness, but real wellness is a sustained set of choices motivated by a long-term goal. It isn’t faking a smile at a party.
Co-hosted by the Vice Provost for University Life, Undergraduate Assembly, and Graduate and Professional Student Assembly as part of the broader Wellness at Penn initiative that launched in January 2018, Thriving @ Penn kick-started its programming last year with the lofty and remarkably vague goal to “nurture resilience” on eight fronts: emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, and spiritual.
Its mission-statement is as overextended as it sounds — just like your average Penn student. By attempting to simultaneously achieve progress on all possible fronts, Thriving @ Penn makes no significant impact towards any of its targets. Neither the culture of this institution nor the individual wellness of its students can be altered by periodic, pop-up festivities marketed as a catch-all solution. Instead, these wellness issues — mental health or otherwise — should be addressed by personalized programs with achievable objectives.
The main programs organized by Thriving @ Penn are the “Day of Play” initiatives. Every month, festive tables fill College Green with free food, games, and giveaways. It sounds charming, right? The most recent event, hosted earlier last week, was “Day of Rejuvenation,” which meant stock-piling Houston Hall with desserts, DIY essential oils, yoga mats, hand-sanitizer, a professional massage, and — my favorite part — inspirational rock decorating.
Trying to commit to the experience, I drew a face on my rock with a purple marker, questioning what I was doing there. Despite my best efforts, I felt alienated and even saddened by these 115 minutes of streamlined therapy, just like I had felt at the dozen or so "Day of Play" events last year. These events are open to everyone, but that also makes them impersonal. I noticed that the “Ask a Quaker” conversation space was deserted, and I watched a girl stuff oranges into her backpack from the refreshment table. Then, I picked up my rock and left.
Despite my less than rejuvenating experience, I recognize that these efforts are well-intentioned — a chance to show the student body that there is a community to support them with much-needed relief from daily stressors. Beyond Thriving @ Penn, similar initiatives like the University’s annual Wellness Week and Thrive at Penn NSO modules also promote holistic wellness and educate students about the on-campus resources.
But at their core, these efforts have incredibly vague missions. So, let’s define what “holistic wellness” and “Thriving @ Penn” really signify. Essentially, the eight-tiered holistic approach at the center of this University’s wellness campaign resembles everything from “the six dimensions of wellness” promoted by the National Wellness Institute to “the seven dimensions of wellness” developed by the International Council on Active Aging … but it’s also not that far off from the types of wellness philosophies promoted by self-help experts on Oprah. What these visions all have in common is to set a higher standard of health than fulfilling obvious physical needs, such that people can work toward actively pursuing a fulfilling life. Still, as pretty as that sounds, it fails to create a coherent backbone for policy.
For wellness efforts to be effective, they need to connect with students personally, rather than seeking to induce instant happiness en masse. This means expanding, consolidating, and improving accessibility to existing programs that already respond directly to student needs for well-being, like Counseling and Psychological Services, Student Health Service, Student Financial Services, and the Tutoring Center, to name just a few.
Take financial “wellness.” Free food is great, but it doesn’t alleviate a student’s burdens in any significant way to get a cup of shaved ice once or twice a year. Instead, constantly overemphasizing this “free” stuff creates a distorted sense of urgency that makes students want to horde oranges. Instead, just making it easier for students to connect with their financial aid advisors would be a better stress-relief.
Why is Thriving @ Penn treated as a running joke on campus? Consistently, these events are so overambitious in their messaging that the experience of the Penn community is unfocused at best and hollow at worst. If the University seeks to create an integrated approach to student well-being, it needs to do better than deliver force-fed fun. Wellness at Penn must replace its overextended strategy with a well-defined philosophy.
JULIA MITCHELL is a College and Wharton sophomore from Yardley, Pa. studying Business and International Studies in the Huntsman Program. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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