What does a healthy campus actually look like? A new study offers ideas.

Interventions on small campuses, such as adding water stations and making healthy foods more visible, can make a big difference in how students, faculty and staff feel about well-being at their university, according to a new study.

The study, conducted at the University of California at Riverside, examined how health factors play a role in university policy and how health promotion programs contribute to campus culture. UC-Riverside is part of the Healthy Campus Networkan alliance of the UC system’s 10 institutions focused on improving physical and mental health on every campus.

Eighteen focus groups of UC-Riverside students, faculty, and staff participated in the study in 2018, 2019, and 2020. As part of the study, Healthy Campus created some new health interventions and sought to raise awareness of existing efforts.

According to the focus groups, during the study, participants became increasingly aware of campus health promotion efforts. In the last two years of the study, participants talked more about broader, institution-wide health policies than about specific programs.

Faculty and staff reported feeling left out of campus health services, researchers said. They could name many resources available to students, such as the food supply and the recreation center, but they did not know what was available to employees. Those perceptions improved by the end of the study.

“There was a lack of, I would say, care for this other population of communities that exist on campus,” said Evelyn Vázquez, one of the paper’s authors. Vázquez is an assistant researcher in the department of community medicine, population and public health at UC-Riverside’s School of Medicine.

Julie Chobdee, another author, said the infrastructure built as part of the Healthy Campus project has made them a hub for the well-being of faculty and staff on campus. Chobdee is now deputy director of the employee health and wellness program at the University of Southern California WorkWell Center.

In addition, first-generation college students shared their increased knowledge of health services with their families, giving them access to mental health services and more, Vázquez said.

The study also found that small environmental changes, such as refurbishing stairwells and installing smoke-free signage, improved people’s perceptions of how committed their university was to health promotion.

One employee praised the stairwell improvements, such as better lighting and fresh paint, as well as signs encouraging people to take the stairs instead of the elevator. And even if someone had to take the lift on any given day, the staff member said, there were posters with brief instructions on how to take a deep breath.

Two staff members said their offices had added wellness activities to their training programs, citing that integration as evidence of a top-down commitment to better health. Walking meetings were also identified as a positive step.

Seeing campus leaders participate in health-promoting activities showed that wellness was a real priority for the university, according to those interviewed.

Faculty members, meanwhile, could help students by doing something as simple as linking to mental health services, said Ann Marie Cheney, another author of the paper and lead designer of the study.

Cheney, an associate professor in the Department of Social Medicine, Population, and Public Health at Riverside School of Medicine, said her research made it clear that students viewed the faculty as access points to other services on campus, even when the faculty failed to take into account the student well-being as part of their role.

Cheney and Chobdee previously served as co-leaders of Healthy Campus at UC-Riverside, which involved nine subcommittees of students, faculty, and staff, overseen by a large advisory board. Chobdee hopes to build a similar program in her role at USC. Cheney and Vázquez both dropped out of the project.

Despite the study’s positive findings, Healthy Campus is in a period of change, Cheney said. UC leaders have been unable to find a new crop of people who have a strong vision for the project and can bring the campus stakeholders together, she said.

Cheney said more investment from university leadership would have helped the team plan for a sustainable future. When she was involved, it was volunteer work, she said. She hopes that the study can be “a bright spot” and get more attention from the university administration.

Overall, the study shows that empowerment is key to creating a healthy campus community, Cheney said.

“I think Healthy Campus was so successful at our university because we identified grassroots leaders interested in creating healthier environments, and we supported their ideas,” she said.