It is a cold, rainy day in March, but Vassar’s campus still holds its appearance as the beautiful, contemplative place of learning for which it is famous. Its lush green quads and remarkable architecture reflect a traditional liberal arts experience. But like any community, Vassar is more than it appears to visitors. Over the past two decades, its landscape has significantly changed in many ways, both positive and challenging. 

Among its many distinctions, including its outsized number of famous alumni, Vassar’s President Elizabeth Bradley hopes the school will be known as a place of good health and wellbeing. To make this vision a reality, she recognizes that the college must establish a universal sense of belonging amid a new, more diverse student body where students of various identities express different expectations and needs. Like their Gen Z peers everywhere, many Vassar students struggle with their mental health.  

Since becoming President in 2017, Bradley has worked with faculty and the college’s senior leadership team to foster a campus of wellbeing as a key part of her administration’s agenda, with a focus on belonging in the classroom and in the community. “When I think of wellbeing, I think about our students’ ability to thrive, and to grow, and to learn to become confident young adults who will go out and do the things that are in their hearts to do,” she said. “You can’t thrive if you feel like you don’t belong — in or out of the classroom.”

A noted public health expert, Bradley believes success in this area requires all campus stakeholders to work on improving wellbeing within their respective realms and across departments when necessary. This means professors being attuned to the personal and emotional aspects of their students’ lives and practicing inclusive pedagogy along with their areas of expertise. Student affairs roles, such as the office of Student Growth and Engagement, steer students toward co-curricular activities that help them “thrive, not just survive.” 

Mental health services are highly utilized and, like many college counseling centers, the office is experimenting with new strategies like bringing community partners onto campus for students with acute needs. But even mental health is not confined to any one service, partly due to capacity and partly due to philosophy. Early in his tenure, Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana asked, “Can we, as a community, shift our perspective on whose responsibility it is to think about wellness?” 

One inter-departmental effort that is central to wellbeing and belonging is the Office of Engaged Pluralism (EP). Like the term implies, EP seeks to engage all community members in acknowledging differences through an asset-lens where unique perspectives and norms are respected, if not universally agreed upon. It is both a program (offering workshops, trainings and events) and a pledge. The concept evolved from tensions on campus shortly after Vassar moved to need-blind admissions and the student body make-up changed significantly. 

All of these efforts, taken together, are demonstrations of the college’s commitment to building a campus of wellbeing, and one can’t help but wonder what role initiatives such as Engaged Pluralism may have played in more recent controversies, including the voluntary, and atypical, removal of the pro-Palestinian encampment at the school. But to better understand how Vassar’s intentionality on wellbeing and belonging has affected its students overall, LW discussed the topic with four students in various stages of their education. In this enlightening interview, the students talked honestly and graciously about their aspirations, their challenges, and what wellbeing means to them. Here is an edited transcript of some of what they had to say. 

Editor’s note: It is unclear whether any of the interviewees participated in the Vassar protest encampment which occurred after this conversation, but it is worth noting that each of them expressed support for the right to protest on this and other issues, though it is not reflected in this transcript. 

LW: Let’s start with mental health and wellbeing. What kinds of supports or strategies help you thrive here at Vassar?

Marissa is a junior majoring in Science, Technology and Society (STS) with a minor in prison studies.

Marissa: For me - I'm a student leader here on campus alongside a whole bunch of other amazing students. I'm the vice president of the Black Student Union. I'm the co-head of a small concert throwing organization that we have on campus. My friends are always saying, “Marissa, you're so busy. How do you do it?” But I think the thing that allows me to do all these different things and be in all these different places but still be flourishing is the fact that I'm consistently working with people who all love it. We come together and we support each other and I think for me, thriving is being in these spaces where you are able to laugh but then cry about assignments and experience this whole breadth of emotions. The school has a counseling center, and there's been times where I went there – some were good and some were not.But I feel like, overall, the thing that really allows me to continue going and not burn myself out is being in these spaces with these people. 

Prisha is a senior psychology major and international student from Bangalore, India.

Prisha: Can I add on to that? I think something that might go unnoticed, but that I feel has a big impact, is the fact that we acknowledge that mental health, your mental health, changes every day and that it does impact your work and your interpersonal relationships. Coming from an international standpoint, I think a lot of students come here as first-generation students arriving in a new country with all of these aspirations and goals for themselves and also expectations that I feel like they don't give themselves enough grace around. They’re doing a lot here and their wellbeing is a part of something they need to take care of, not just their futures. 

For me, it's in the really little things that I find solace; just having check-ins at the start of class or meetings like the “rose, thorn and bud question” — a rose is what went well this week. A thorn is something that didn't go as well and a bud is something you're looking forward to. Before I was asked those questions, I didn’t even think in that frame of mind of, “Oh, what went well this week?” I actually began to think about myself and what I’m putting out in the world, more than just going through the motions.

“My peers are a significant source of support for me. Another is my professors.”

Maya is a senior biochemistry and psychology double major.

Maya: I think I approach wellbeing from three avenues. My peers are a significant source of support for me. Another is my professors. I know that there are professors on campus who push you and want you to do your best, and sometimes it can feel very overwhelming. But there are other professors who are very, very understanding. I remember two years ago, I was going through a very difficult situation in my personal life and I was able to reach out to my professors and they immediately said, “I can be that avenue for you to make sure that you're advocating for yourself and advocating for what you need during this time, extensions, whatever.” In general, professors will work with you, which is so nice on this campus. And that definitely helps a lot because things can get very overwhelming very quickly, especially during this time of year when you have burnout from papers and finals. 

But then the third avenue for me is all the work that I do as a leader on campus. I work at the women's center. I'm a women's center intern, and we do a lot of events that are centered around wellbeing, but I also lead a women of faith group. Religion is very important to me and has become even increasingly important to me as my years at Vassar have gone on. Which is interesting because a lot of people look at Vassar and they're like, “Oh, it's a liberal arts school. You could do so many other things. Why talk about religion?” I am a Christian and my beliefs have developed throughout my time here. And that's because I've been able to ground myself in these groups and in these places where other people also believe. And the women of faith group, I mean we have people who are Jewish, we have people who are Muslim, we have people who are Christians and they're coming from all different perspectives, but we're able to unite about our experiences on this campus as well in life. And that has been so centering for me.

Mia is a first year, first-generation college student.

Mia: I would say a lot of the same things. Community is huge. I don't think I would've made it through the year if I didn't have people to rely on or people to have conversations with. And just to know that you're not alone. People are having the same experiences, especially when you're transitioning from high school to college. For me that included feeling like you don't necessarily belong in the classroom just based on everyone else's background. I am a first-generation, low- income student and I look at other people in the classroom and sometimes I think, “Do I really belong here?” Then I'll talk to other people and it's a very common experience to feel like that — it's very normal. Knowing that you're not alone makes it a lot better and helps you find ways to feel comfortable in this space.  The role of professors is huge. Before I came here, I'd never heard of a mental health day. I had a professor who said, “If you need a mental health day, you can just take it. You don't have to email me or anything.” And I realized, wow, there's a really big emphasis on who you are as a person outside of your academics. That is something that is sometimes really hard for me to separate because I'm a goal-oriented person. I will get through this task no matter what because I'm looking at a bigger picture. And sometimes that also can harm me because it can lead to burnout. Sometimes I have moments where I realize, “Wow, I'm definitely struggling.”

LW: What are some of the challenges to wellbeing and belonging here? How can things be improved? 

Prisha: I think I can give this a go. All of us need to better understand our different cultures and perspectives. I work at the Office of International Services and we do a bunch of these events throughout the year, some big, some small, all celebrating the different cultures that are present on our campus and give students, especially international students, a platform to celebrate their own cultures as well as to spread awareness. And something we always face is how can we get more students to come engage with us? I think a lot of international students feel the need to just disappear into the crowd of white Americans here on campus, and they feel a really strong need to conform.

“Considering how fast college goes by, you have to create your belonging quickly in four years.”

I think another way to cultivate a larger sense of belonging is how can we get white Americans or locals to also look at what we do? It’s like you see the email and right away, it’s not for me. And it's just such a missed opportunity. If it was the other way around, if instead of putting the pressure on international students to fit in, we got all students to learn about all the different kinds of cultures we have here, it would benefit everyone. You would learn to be more tolerant, be more open. “Hey, this is what exists outside of this campus, outside of this state, this country, and this is what's going on, and you should look at it.” That is something I’d like to change. 

Marissa: It can be tough here sometimes. Vassar is a PWI, predominantly white institution, and I think statistically the numbers of students of color are going up, but you could look out into the college center, into the dining hall, and it doesn't feel that way. Oftentimes I hear people say, “This is a really small school. I feel like I know everybody.” And I think, “I don't know everybody.” And I think that's because even as extroverted as I am, there are different pools here, you have your cliques. Vassar is still just like any other school that way. And sometimes it can be hard to mesh those, even when we are all taught to be very multidisciplinary and interconnected. That's why I rely on my peers to uphold one another. But sometimes it feels like if we don't do it, nobody else is going to. And then we could fall through the cracks. Considering how fast college goes by, you have to create your belonging quickly in four years. And then you want to be able to not just make your own belonging, but to make spaces for other people like you to belong that are consistent, that are long lasting, that don't disappear. 

Mia: I knew coming here it was going to be humbling. I knew the workload, the difference in material and curriculum was going to be huge for me. I came from a Title 1 school. It was not going to be the same. There's always going to be something you don't know. I think my biggest fear was also not having a community here. I was so scared I wasn't going to make friends. I thought, “I'm going to be all alone. This is going to be so hard.” But I came in and I made friends the very first week, and they're still my friends now. We're eight months down the line and we have dinner every single night. You don't realize how much people will impact you as you spend time here. So, I think you expect certain things and you just don’t know what it’s really going to be like until you get here. 

LW: You are all so inspiring and accomplished. I wonder, have you thought much about your purpose in life, which is different from just what you want to do. 

Maya: For me, personally, the desire to go into research, and specifically researching disorders like ALS, is because my dad was diagnosed with ALS and he passed away two years ago. (That’s the personal thing that I was struggling with.) So that was very embedded in me since his diagnosis. I understand the person suffering as well as how much suffering their family is going through and how much support they need during this time. And the fact that we have so many unanswered questions remaining despite all of the technological advancements that we have, seems like we need to really focus on certain aspects of these diseases to further our understanding and to further treatment and cures to these problems. I do think my experiences on campus, specifically talking with other people who are in my majors, who are also close friends, has further solidified my interest in research. I see the research that they're doing with other professors on campus, or I see what they're learning about and I'm like, oh, that's really interesting. I want to learn about that, too. I would definitely say that finding my purpose in life has been facilitated throughout my time at Vassar. 

Marissa: I think, at least for me, my purpose — the thing that drives me — is to be happy. Because there was a period where I really wasn't. And I look back at my younger self and I just want to give her a hug. But I look at her with grace and I look at the journey and I'm so grateful that I was able to go on it. And when I'm here, I think I also believe in the power of storytelling. And telling the stories, whether it be how it was back then or where I'm at now, it's just being able to do that. And I think what college gave me was a toolbox for all that.