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Emory co-sponsors inaugural summit for student health and well-being leaders
Group from summit

Senior leaders from colleges and universities across the nation gathered at Emory for three days in November to discuss student health and well-being, share solutions and discover ways to meet the evolving needs of students.

— Claire DePalma

In November, Emory University hosted the inaugural summit that drew 56 of the senior-most leaders responsible for college and university health and well-being. Attendees represented a variety of public and private institutions of higher education throughout the country.

Student well-being, including physical and mental health among other dimensions, has long been documented as a critical issue across higher education. Against this backdrop, a diverse network of leaders met to collectively examine such challenges, explore trends and share effective strategies to advance the holistic health and well-being of students.

The University Health and Well-being Leaders (UHWL) 2023 Summit was co-sponsored by Emory University and the University of Georgia. Participants in the invitation-only event represented an array of institutions with student bodies ranging from 3,000 to more than 50,000.

Created in collaboration

The genesis of the leadership summit is a membership list that has grown since its inception four years ago to connect more than 100 health and well-being thought leaders in higher education. James Raper, associate vice president for health, well-being, access and prevention with Emory Campus Life, developed and maintains the list.

“Based on our membership list, we held an initial meeting of 25 members in spring 2023 at Washington University in St. Louis, which was the impetus for our summit this fall,” says Raper, noting that the spring meeting and the fall UHWL Summit are the first of their kind.

Going forward, Raper says, “We’ll convene senior leadership at a UHWL Summit each fall specifically to discuss strategy, problem solving and colleagueship in student health and well-being.”

He points out that Atlanta’s accessibility for travelers and Emory’s robust, ongoing work in student health and well-being made it an ideal location for the inaugural summit. However, future summits will rotate among other locations connected with different member institutions.

Members of the group communicate regularly with one another between annual summits, understanding that addressing issues collectively is essential. They also meet at other national professional association conferences throughout the year, where they continue their critical discussions.

“Connecting at a summit like this allows us to learn from one another and build relationships that go way beyond the summit,” says Rebecca Kennedy, assistant vice president for student health and well-being at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. “As a result, when an issue arises on our campuses, we have a myriad of expert consultants who we know and trust, who we can reach out to and quickly develop appropriate, vetted best-practice responses.”

The summit also offered Emory and UGA, as the hosting institutions, a unique opportunity to share the challenges and successes of the work on their respective campuses to enhance and promote the health and well-being of college students, notes Beau Seagraves, UGA’s associate vice president for student well-being.

“I am very proud of the robust services and resources we provide at UGA,” Seagraves says. “Yet, like other summit participants, I came away from the meeting full of new ideas and connections that will help our team move forward in meeting the evolving needs of our students.”

‘Extraordinary range of experience, expertise and wisdom’

“UHWL members have long identified the complexities of effectively supporting and advancing the health and well-being of our students — from COVID-19 to mental health to the impacts of violence, xenophobia, climate change and many other issues,” Raper says. “Our shared commitment to holistic well-being on college campuses means we also must be holistic in our colleagueship and strategy as national leaders.”

Given the “extraordinary range of experience, expertise and wisdom” reflected in the group, Raper explains, the summit is based on a shared leadership model. Before the event, a list of dozens of possible topics was sent to participants for them to prioritize in order of importance and, if attendees chose, to write in additional topics. The two days of summit meetings then focused on discussions led by any or all participants based on their collectively expressed priorities.

Participants proposed dozens of topics for discussion in categories such as prevention and health promotion, data, staffing, services, intervention, leadership and organizational structures, and the impact of politics in the workplace and at state, national, and international levels.

“This summit is a significant step forward for health and well-being leaders to share trends and solutions for coordinating student services that will help their collective institutions rise from crisis toward resilience and ultimately flourishing,” says Brian Victor, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

“Summits like this not only provide collegiality and support among health and well-being leaders across the country,” Victor notes. “They inspire a sense of identity and point to pathways for the next generation of college and university health and well-being leaders.”

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