In 2005, Georgetown professor Joan Riley was walking across campus when she had an epiphany that would change the way she thought about teaching. Riley has just been to an evening meeting of the “Friends” group—an intradepartmental team of administrators, students, and faculty members who were working together on harm reduction strategies to combat student alcohol misuse. The silo-crossing activity was unusual for higher ed and got Riley thinking from a different perspective.
“I remember stopping in the middle of campus and asking myself, ‘What can I, as a professor, do to help address this problem?” The next day, she told the undergraduate students in her Health Promotion and Disease Prevention course to throw away their syllabi. For the rest of the semester, they studied the effects of alcohol throughout one’s lifetime, from the metabolic breakdown of alcohol, to familial alcohol patterns, to binge drinking, all in a way that engaged students both academically and personally.
“When you bring topics like these into the academic setting and use evidence to describe them, students listen in a way they don’t with other interventions,” said Riley. “I started asking, ‘Why aren’t we talking about these subjects inside the classroom?’”
Riley’s seemingly simple question would lead to a precedent-setting initiative in curriculum infusion called the Engelhard Project for Connecting Life and Learning. Launched in 2005, out of Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS), the Engelhard Project engages faculty in making connections between students’ academic studies and their broader life experiences, especially in the areas of well-being, flourishing, and mental health. You don’t have to be in health studies or psychology to teach an “Engelhard course,” as it is not so much about the topic as it is about the technique of combining learning with personal growth. While this approach is often touted, it is reluctantly applied in higher education, even at schools like Georgetown that seek to teach to the whole person.
“The tradition of academe, especially in highly competitive settings, was the radical mind-body split,” said Randy Bass, who led the creation of Engelhard as executive director of CNDLS and now oversees an education innovation unit at the school. “Classrooms were places for your head and the rest of the campus was the place for your body and soul.”
Building the Bridge
For Georgetown, the Engelhard Project’s effort to fuse these personal dimensions has been a steady progression, starting shortly after Riley’s course shake-up, and continuing to this day with the full weight of the president’s office behind it. Georgetown President John J. DeGioia sees the project as the embodiment of the Jesuit school’s mission and is quick to thank the other woman who made it possible. Sally Engelhard Pingree funded CNDLS’ first proposal to infuse wellbeing into the classroom through Bringing Theory to Practice (BT2P), a fund she launched with Don Harward, who was, at the time, president of Bates College. Motivated by the personal experiences of Pingree’s daughter when she was a student at Bates, BT2P seeded campuses with the support to craft programs that focus on the intersection of student well-being, engaged learning, and civic engagement.
At an early BT2P conference, Riley met a faculty colleague in the Department of Philosophy named Alisa Carse and learned that she, too, was doing similar integration. Together with a student and the head of the counseling center, the Georgetown team began to explore how to make curriculum infusion its own program. Under the leadership of Professor Randy Bass and Todd Olson, who was then vice president of Student Affairs, and others, Georgetown sought and received two rounds of multi-year funding to establish the framework, staff, and criteria for the new inter-disciplinary program. They named the program the Engelhard Faculty Fellows, with a nod to the professors who were recruited to mold the classes to their own design and comfort level. In 2010, they received an endowment gift from Pingree for what is now called The Engelhard Project for Connecting Life and Learning.
"I wanted students to be healthier and supported and Georgetown was a perfect fit as a campus already dedicated to looking at the whole person,” said Pingree. “I feel very lucky to be included and able to interact with faculty and staff doing this work in the Engelhard community of practice and to witness the positive impacts on faculty and the Georgetown community."
“Georgetown leaned into something that was deeply connected to their mission and then went about engaging faculty in ways that honored their time and seeded ownership,” said Ashley Finley, who was a national evaluator for BT2P and is now vice president for research and senior advisor to the president for the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). In addition to the “faculty first” mentality, Finley said the intra-departmental nature of the work, led by an advisory committee of faculty, staff, and administrators, created a unique and powerful learning community.
What began as five original classes has grown to over 500 courses in a wide variety of disciplines, with a combined student enrollment of 25,000 and the involvement of over 150 faculty members. Joselyn Lewis was a graduate associate at Georgetown when Engelhard first launched and she now leads the project as part of her education development work for faculty and graduate students at CNDLS.
Lewis is responsible for a large portion of faculty coming into the program and is adept at identifying the “sweet spot” that might get them engaged in designing or redesigning their course to integrate an element of student wellbeing. Part of the recruitment involves reassuring faculty members who worry they will cross a boundary by bringing personal issues into the classroom or will “screw up” the unfamiliar approach. Lewis addresses this by offering a robust orientation session and continued support along the way. Monthly meetings and social gatherings for all Engelhard participants, past and present, are another level of security and offer friendships with colleagues one might not otherwise get to know.
Part of reducing the barrier to entry is the program’s intentionally simple criteria. Faculty are asked to choose a wellbeing topic that connects to the course they teach. For one course meeting, they bring in a partner from a student-facing service area. This can be a clinician from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), an expert in healthy eating, a Title IX coordinator, a DEI officer, even a financial aid advisor. They then ask students to do a reflective writing piece about the experience.
What does this look like for students? Lewis said most are unaware that they are in an Engelhard course as the wellbeing topics are so well integrated into the subject matter. They may study mental health within Foundations of Biology; examine sexual assault as part of Introduction to Ethics; or discuss anxiety in The Physics of Climate Change. The difference, whether they know it or not, is that the courses are designed to make connections that build relationships with their professors and with each other.
Lewis said while the student affairs professionals appreciate the effectiveness of sharing important information inside the classroom, the program’s effects on teaching and learning at Georgetown have been profound. She said some faculty choose to do just the basics which allows students to make a connection between the content they are learning and their own wellbeing. Others do “All Engelhard, all the time,” embracing a full pedagogical shift that welcomes students’ interior lives into the learning process.
“I have faculty say to me ‘Engelhard gives me permission to teach the way I’ve always wanted to,” said Lewis. “I just didn’t know that it would be valued.’”
Jennifer Woolard was one of the first faculty members to teach an Engelhard course at Georgetown and continues to do so today. As a psychology professor, she was eager to find a way to humanize mental health topics and found that forging a partnership with a professional from CAPS was a powerful statement that said, “Mental health is part of life.” She begins every class with a breathing exercise as a way to ground students and ask that they pause and be present. For high achieving “perfectionists” like many of those who attend Georgetown, taking a moment like this can mean a lot.
“For me, Engelhard is about modeling,” said Woolard. “Taking the time out of class to discuss these issues, to invite colleagues from other departments in to join me, says to my students that I care about their wellbeing.” Woolard said that the student reflections confirm this. One student reported, “I felt cared for—like the professor was genuinely interested in our wellbeing rather than us just churning out good grades.”
“I think the most powerful thing about being an Engelhard faculty member is that it allows you to communicate to your students that you care about them as people,” said Bass.
In the near two decades since Engelhard was launched, rates of anxiety and depression reported by college students have nearly doubled. During the 2020–2021 school year, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem, a near 50% increase from 2013, according to the Healthy Minds Study. The stress and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues. A 2021 survey of over 1,000 faculty across 12 diverse institutions by the Mary Christie Institute, the Boston University School of Public Health and the Healthy Minds Network found a strong majority (87%) believed that student mental health had “worsened” or “significantly worsened” during COVID-19. Almost 80% had one-on-one phone, video, or email conversations with students about their mental health.
“There isn’t a faculty member in this country that doesn’t see that our students are struggling,” said Riley, pointing to a list over her door of the mental health issues she asked her students to identify having experienced. Loneliness topped the list.
“At the beginning, we didn’t talk a lot about addressing mental health issues in recruiting professors,” said Lewis. “They were really concerned about crossing that line into counseling, which is why our early work focused more on awareness of the campus safety net and referring students to CAPS.” Now, she said, faculty are becoming more comfortable with discussing mental health with their students; many open up about their own struggles. “A lot of our faculty say, ‘If I’m asking my students to come as whole people, I have to be able to model that.’”
While many professors value the Engelhard Project’s role in prioritizing mental health issues amidst alarming prevalence numbers, others resonate with decades of strong evidence on the impact of relationship-based learning on a range of positive student outcomes. In their book, Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College, Peter Felten and Leo M. Lambert cite ample evidence of this, including Mathew Mayhew’s book How College Affects Students, and write, “Students’ interactions with peers, faculty, and staff positively influence the breadth and depth of student learning, retention and graduation rates, and a wide range of other outcomes, including critical thinking, identity development, communication skills, and leadership abilities.”
Lewis said referencing literature on the strength of the pedagogy has convinced many professors to join the Engelhard Project and is one reason its appeal has crossed over into numerous departments. While the faculty representation skews heavily female, the program has a good ratio of humanities and STEM courses. One neuroscience professor told Lewis, “It’s not my job to know who my students are, but I am open to doing this because I believe it will make them better scientists.”
Randy Bass said that some of the places the Engelhard Project has worked the best are those that are the least obvious, like in the sciences. “If you ask students to examine the biological basis of any mental health issue,” as they do in a long-running Engelhard course taught by Heidi Elmendorf, “they will choose topics such as their mother’s alcoholism, their brother’s autism, their own eating disorder, or someone they know who was suicidal. These are unbelievably personal connections that deepen their knowledge and appreciation of what it means to study biology.”
Can this Idea be Scaled?
Engelhard leaders are not aware of the existence of another wellbeing curriculum infusion program, to this degree, on any other US campus. They receive a fair amount of requests for information from other schools and try to respond among limited time and information. Outcomes for the project are largely anecdotal, but they have begun a check list for other schools on what needs to be in place for a program like this to gain traction, starting with a multi-stakeholder leadership team, an academic orientation, and the availability of willing student affairs professionals. This last category can be a problem for schools with fewer resources, but for the most part, the project is low cost, particularly when compared to more direct mental health interventions. It is an important equity consideration as advocates like Felton and Lambert argue that high-impact practices, like those within the Engelhard Project, are particularly beneficial for first-generation, low-income students, and students of color.
At Georgetown, enrollment in the project has stayed about the same for several years despite a growing acknowledgement of its many benefits. Part of the plateau may be a continued reluctance, on the part of some faculty, to embrace the personal side of students. While this appears to be changing, Woolard says professors who view Engelhard as too “touchy feely” should probably sit out. “There may be some faculty members for whom this is not a good option,” she said.
Riley, who also recruits for the Engelhard Project, said professors are worried the project will take time away from their many responsibilities. “The irony is the Engelhard method makes you a better teacher—like exercising over time—and that works in your favor when it comes to managing multiple roles.”
Another theory is that the Engelhard Project may still be ahead of its time. “I think what education will become about is the development of the inner self in relationship to the capacity to do external work, what we’ve called “the inner/outer” problem,” said Bass. “That’s the next frontier in higher education, but most of higher education doesn’t know that yet.”