By the time kids are ready for kindergarten, they’ve already grown 90 percent of their adult brains. Because the human brain grows so rapidly in early childhood, for a long time scientists thought its development was pretty much finished in early childhood too. “The lovely thing about this is that science just keeps getting better,” says Janet Jansen (U-M ’15), the parent-family communication program manager at Wolverine Wellness, who co-taught LSA’s “Living Well in College and Beyond” course in the winter 2020 semester. “Our brains can continue to learn ideas and discover new ways to approach and solve problems.” As her students’ lives were radically disrupted in the winter 2020 term, Jansen hoped their brains would learn to become more resilient. 

The course was one of LSA’s Applied Liberal Arts courses that teach students essential skills that cover a range of topics from multidisciplinary perspectives. “At U-M, students inevitably define their success by three things: grades, involvement, and career,” explains Joy Pehlke, health educator at Wolverine Wellness, who co-created the course with her colleague, Kellie Carbone (A.B. 1992), also a health educator at Wolverine Wellness. “Well-being often gets pushed to the wayside in exchange for busy-ness and competition. ‘Living Well in College and Beyond’ provides an opportunity to integrate academics with well-being. Students very literally get credit to be well, and are challenged to create communities of well-being for their fellow students.”

In the winter semester, when Jansen and Carbone taught the course together, they used a combination of positive psychology theories, social justice principles, and evidence-based strategies to help students learn to cultivate resilience, compassion, and individual and community well-being. The course materials also targeted issues like sleep, stress, perfectionism, and loneliness—common concerns for college students in a time that proved to be anything but common. “We met once after winter break, and then the next day everything was canceled,” Jansen says. “We had spent a lot of class time talking about what community well-being looks like, and now we had to cultivate it.”

As instructors, Jansen and Carbone believed it was important to maintain the course’s structure, which meant a lot of communication, check-ins, and regular meet-ups. They also felt it was important to adjust some of the course material to acknowledge the radical changes that had capsized their students’ lives. People like to think that college is an equalizing force, but it wasn’t until reading their students’ journals that Jansen and Carbone really found that to be true. The same concerns were shared by students from very different economic and cultural backgrounds. There was anxiety about their classes, as in one journal entry where a student wrote, “all of my classes are backloaded and are ramping up. How do I even begin to approach addressing a group project?” There was also shared grief about graduation, which one student described as “the final nail in the coffin. I felt so silly for thinking commencement would be a drag.... It would've been a marvelous day. Having such a momentous, hard-fought conclusion to my U-M journey stolen by unforeseen, uncontrollable circumstances hurts beyond words.” Many students agonized about their families’ health and safety, such as the student who confided that, “I usually am pretty confident that my family can get through whatever is tossed at them, but this situation feels more serious than I ever had to consider. I haven’t moved back home, partially to make sure I’m doing what I can to keep them safe, but I hate not knowing when I’ll see them again.”

“We approached their fears and anxiety by slowing everything down and inserting lots of pauses,” Jansen says. “A lot of what we teach in the course could also be seen through the lens of a world that has been turned upside down. How do we handle grief and disappointment while developing gratitude? How do we learn to wish people well while also managing our fears?"

For some students, suddenly having to leave campus also meant they suddenly had to figure out how to meet their basic needs. “We surrounded these students with support and pushed out a lot of resources,” Jansen says. “Did they need Maize & Blue Cupboard? Did they need to connect with someone in the Dean of Students Office for emergency assistance?” The instructors also offered other accommodations, like making livestreams entirely optional. “We just asked them to tell us if they could or could not make it,” Jansen says. "We had some students say they couldn’t come because they were working. When they showed up on Zoom, we said, ‘Hey, we thought you were working.’ And they were like, ‘Well, I just got laid off, and I don’t know what to do.’”

Even though the live meetings were optional, a huge percentage of their students continued to show up and emailed each other afterward to say how great it felt to connect. “Community well-being is one of the things we often talked about in class,” Jansen says. “We all have our circle of friends who are the people we hang out with that we’re passionate about and loyal to, and it’s hard to extend that commitment to a community where we don’t obviously belong. Our class became that kind of community. We don’t hang out together when we’re not in class, but the students were loyal to each other. They showed up. They were not just looking out for themselves, but for their classmates too.”

Looking back on the semester, Jansen is reminded of an editorial from a few years back in which a professor forcefully rebutted the popular characterization that college students were snowflakes who lacked the resources to cope. “What his op-ed said about his students really reminded me of our students,” Jansen says. “Their world blew up and they allowed themselves to freak out for a little bit and then moved forward in a positive way.  They kept showing up. They didn’t ask for anything special. They did not ask for class to be canceled or to be excused from assignments. They were ready to work and to learn and to interact with each other. They were in the middle of chaos and they were trying—for themselves and for each other—to do the right thing.”



Illustrations by Julia Lubas