Nestory Ngolle is a sophomore at Georgetown University, a biology and global health major, an EMT, and a member of the Engelhard Project Student Advisory Council. The Engelhard Project for Connecting Life and Learning is Georgetown’s curricular approach to integrating whole-student learning and wellbeing into academic contexts — and, as Ngolle sees it, creating an environment where students can connect what they learn about the world to what they learn about themselves. 

Bringing health and wellbeing into the classroom increases engagement, encourages collaboration and self-reflection, and cultivates a sense of purpose that helps students flourish across all facets of college life, he says. In late March, Ngolle joined Joselyn Schultz Lewis, Director of Inclusive Pedagogy at Georgetown's Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, for a presentation on Engelhard’s innovative, student-informed pedagogy at the Coalition for Transformational Education’s national conference in Washington, D.C. LearningWell caught up with Ngolle to see what his experience can teach leaders and learners in higher education.

In his first semester at Georgetown, Ngolle took a foundational biology class that happened to be an Engelhard course. “Rather than memorizing information and applying it to problems, we were applying what we learned to ourselves and our experiences. It helped students feel connected to what they learned and reflect on their own lives in relation to the academic material.” The following semester, Ngolle enrolled in a medical anthropology class, another Engelhard course. “From there, I think I sort of fell in love with the Engelhard mission,” he said. “You can see the positive impact in the classroom, in student participation, and in how students approach the work.” 

Bringing health and wellbeing into the classroom increases engagement, encourages collaboration and self-reflection, and cultivates a sense of purpose.

While we tend to look to college counseling centers, peer advising, or support groups as the first frontiers of student mental health, Ngolle emphasizes the transformative potential of acknowledging and promoting wellbeing within the content and culture of academic life. In the classroom, that means inclusive pedagogy and exploring the relationship between student wellbeing and engaged learning. Engelhard’s course model invites faculty to redesign existing courses by identifying an area of wellbeing that is relevant to the curriculum. Engelhard courses exist across academic disciplines, so students of philosophy, mathematics, business, or medicine have opportunities to enroll in courses that incorporate topics such as substance use, depression and anxiety, sleep, social media use, or sexual assault into their curricula. 

Crucial to this integration is getting students to understand that good grades, even superlative grades, are not at odds with wellness. Rather, Ngolle says, academic success and wellbeing can coexist and complement one another. For students like Ngolle on the pre-medical track, academic rigor and ambition have a reputation of souring into severe stress or competitive, unsupportive peer relationships. Professors can be active in dismantling this process before it begins, Ngolle says, by creating a sense of community and belonging among classmates. “Those are the people we are going to walk across the stage with in four years,” Ngolle said of classmates, who often see each other as opponents rather than as peers. A spirit of unconditional individualism, he argues, can get in the way of finding community and belonging, an essential ingredient for good mental health in college. 

The end goal, as Ngolle sees it, is to arrive at a point where “all classes are centered around students and strive to cultivate a sense of health and wellness in the classroom.”

Ngolle believes that healthy behaviors, improved memory and information retention, positive peer networks, and the confidence to talk to professors or speak up in class all reinforce one another. He hopes to dismantle the narrative that students, in order to achieve a good GPA or ace their exams, must compromise their sleep, suffer under stressful conditions, and work themselves to the point of burnout. The Engelhard Project has taught Ngolle that wellbeing and care can extend into every aspect of a person’s college existence, including academic life. He now amplifies his peers’ voices as a Student Advisory Council member for the Engelhard Project, and he hopes to see the program’s reach grow. The end goal, as he sees it, is to make every course an Engelhard course, eliminating the need by arriving at a point where “all classes are centered around students and strive to cultivate a sense of health and wellness in the classroom.”

Ngolle’s experience as a student in classes that prioritize wellbeing has affirmed and shaped his ambition to pursue medicine. “Healthcare is more than just prescribing medication to a patient. It can mean connecting with patients on an individual level, being there to just sit and talk with them. These courses have led me to see patients as people: the goal is not to treat a disease; the goal is to treat a patient.” 

For Ngolle, the pre-med student experience has expanded his definition of what it means to be well, both for himself and for all medical patients receiving care. His professors have “challenged student perspectives of what it means to be healthy and well. That means that going to the doctor or talking to a psychiatrist are not the only settings where we can talk about our health and wellbeing. In the classroom, we can achieve wellness — not just through grades, but through the knowledge we acquire.” Students connect more meaningfully to course material when they are able to see its relevance to daily college life, Ngolle says. That connection not only leads to better academic outcomes, but to better lives.