Students meditate during the WE program’s “Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies” class taught by James Hudziak, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the Larner College of Medicine (Photo: Caleb Kenna).
It’s 6:20 p.m. on a Thursday in mid-September, sixty-three degrees out, and the first-year students around McAuley Hall are thirsty. No, not in a “Thirsty Thursday,” wink-wink kind of way that suggests a trip down the hill to Last Chance Saloon.
It’s a more virtuous thirst on display. For instance, Luke Nawrocki has just ridden back from calculus class and eyes the water fountain as he locks up his bike. Also working up a sweat, weightlifters rotating through sets on the Precor machines, runners on the treadmills in the residence hall’s fitness center, and a class of students in a “Lunar Flow Yoga” session. Says instructor Nalini Flanders as she lights a candle, “Release through your head.”
Release through the head, indeed. This is a glimpse of the Wellness Environment (WE), a profound new program at UVM that is changing the way many undergrads go about their every day, from taking better care of their physical and mental health to engaging as mentors. While other campuses crack down on the binge drinking practiced by as much as 42 percent of undergraduates (Ohio State)—banning hard liquor or kegs, as reported by The New York Times in late October—UVM is lifting up a new model.
Pioneered by Professor James Hudziak, M.D., Dr. Jim to his students, WE has significantly reduced substance abuse on campus while earning national buzz for its novel and ground-breaking approach to neuroplasticity, mindfulness, and the charismatic mastermind behind the program. No college has tried at this level before.
WE goes way beyond pulling the plug on poor behavior. Grounded in the latest research on neuroscience and health promotion, the program shows students how brains are physiologically different, depending on how you treat them.
“I’m an optimistic fellow, and I believe in the goodness of people, and I believe in young people, but in many universities, it’s difficult to make healthy choices,” says Dr. Hudziak. “So my idea was to create an environment that will incentivize you to practice mindfulness, yoga, fitness and good nutrition, and to avoid alcohol and drugs.”
Introduced at UVM in 2015, WE is hitting a major nerve in northern Vermont. In just one year, the number of students opting out of “happy hour” and opting into another higher level of happiness has quadrupled to 480, with demand outpacing supply in residence availability.
NBC News, the Boston Globe, and other major media outlets have all taken notice of this novel approach to clean living. Alcohol violations at UVM, meanwhile, dropped from 1,000-plus in 2013 to 657 in 2015. Drug violations dropped from 682 violations to 318 in the same two years. Though there was a crowd lighting up on Redstone on 4/20 day last year, a larger group was lining up for a WE-sponsored 5K around the golf course loop.
“This is just a huge paradigm shift for the way colleges have operated,” says Dr. Jon Porter, director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing and strong supporter of WE. “The bar has just been set too low in higher education for too many generations.”
Brain science has arguably never been a hotter topic, with Scientific American Mind appealing to millennials and octogenarians alike, and paper after paper illuminating that what we thought we knew about our noggins may no longer be true.
This is especially prevalent among young people. As Richard Friedman points out in an October 8, 2016, op-ed piece in The New York Times: “Neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to form new neural connections and be influenced by the environment—is greatest in childhood and adolescence, when the brain is still a work in progress.”
While Friedman goes on to explain how recent research is showing that older adults can recapture the brain’s earlier plasticity, he hits on an illness prevention strategy that Hudziak, whose primary job is serving as director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families, has been quietly and almost exclusively promoting for more than two decades. He believes there’s no such thing as a bad kid, just bad brain wiring.
“Some of my scientific peers have said, ‘Well, you just made WE up,’” says Hudziak. “But no, I’ve been working on it for twenty-five years with the families and children I work with in the clinic, and so WE was just the Vermont family-based approach goes to college.”
In his research, Hudziak and his colleagues have been following 100,000 twins since their birth in the Netherlands, examining how their surrounding environment affects their genomes. “It affects our thoughts, actions, and behaviors,” he extrapolates. “So all health comes from emotional behavioral health.”
THE ROAD TO WE
Born and raised in the Midwest, Hudziak attended St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He suggests that his own early undergrad days weren’t exactly wellness focused. “I made a number of bad decisions, so sophomore year I decided to hang out with Theresa,” says Hudziak, referring to his wife of three decades, who went to the sister school of St. John’s. “She is very smart and disciplined and I was neither, so it was nice to learn those skills.”
Dr. Hudziak joined the Department of Psychiatry at UVM’s College of Medicine in 1993, landing in a place that fit just right with his love of ice hockey (he has coached youth sports) and of engaging with kids and families at a critical juncture in life. When it came time for his daughter to apply to college, he began to closely examine the environment in which he was teaching and working. How could it be better?
The co-author of more than 175 peer-reviewed papers in scholarly publications from Psychoneuroendocrinology and Neuroimage to Current Sports Medicine Reports and The American Journal of Psychiatry, Hudziak is a consummate researcher who understands developing brains on a highly sophisticated level. But it’s one thing to study epigenetic mechanisms and their influence on health outcomes—the subject of a current project for the National Institutes of Mental Health—and another to actually explain that to students, let alone equip them with the tools to benefit from outcomes.
“I read exhaustively and aggressively,” says Hudziak, who hits PubMed (an online database of 26-million-plus science-based citations) every Monday morning before turning toward the kinder, gentler Science section of The New York Times on Tuesdays. “This helps me relate back to students the science I read,” he explains. “But I cross literatures—wellness, neuroscience, genomics, mindfulness. And the best neuroimaging on stress, anxiety, aggression and substance abuse; that’s a must read.”
What Hudziak shares with students is what will empower them to make better choices. “Are there frustrations and are there times when an idea is too big?” he says. “Sure. Am I always understanding and tolerant of that? Probably not. But we all work together.”
It was with this premise that Hudziak assembled a team to create WE, which is a work in progress—much like the man behind it. He began meditating five years ago, is learning to play cello, and dedicates just about every moment of his spare time to promoting positive living. Jon Porter calls his friend Hudziak “a freight train of a man.” (For the record: The Boston Globe went with “affable bear of a man” for Hudziak descriptor.) What begins as a single cellular change in the brains of UVM students grows exponentially to impact the entire campus. Vice president for student affairs Annie Stevens says that WE has been so popular among new students, it’s changed the way the university looks at residential living.
“It’s a challenge logistically,” she says. “But it’s a challenge we all believe is well worth it, as long as the students are healthy and happy. Any time you have that many students living together, bonded by one common goal to be healthier in their lives, they’re naturally going to be happier.”
Near the former footprint of Chittenden-Buckham-Wills halls, an impressive new 700-bed residential complex rises which will be home to WE students when it opens fall 2017.
“I had no idea that my brain could be shaped this way—this program has changed my life in more ways than I thought was possible,” says first-year student C.J. Cropper. “I started running again, I started meditating, and I started studying the principles, and I could feel myself getting healthier—I was blown away.”
Adds fellow first-year Brenna Coombs, “I’m fascinated by how much neurological information we’ve been given, and how applicable it is to college life. It’s not necessarily that we’ve gotten smarter, but we more understand the how and the why.”
DON’T JUDGE, JUST PRESENT
WE’s foundation is the “Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies” class taught by Hudziak. Sessions typically begin with the professor tossing a brain-shaped football around Carpenter Auditorium and are followed by several minutes of group meditations before lectures on neuroscience, sleep, nutrition, and relationships, among other topics. Leading many of these discussions are national and international experts who arrive via Skype or in person to much fanfare, including legendary mindfulness author Jon Kabat-Zinn.
There are pilgrimages over to the neuroanatomy lab for a look at how scientists are picking apart real brains, and final group projects that see creative ideas ranging from a WE pet program to a WE app that prevents drivers from starting their cars until they’ve done a five-minute meditation. One week Hudziak brought in Kelley Gibson, a nineteen-year-old patient whose psychosis had led to hospitalization and over-medication. Music, diet, weight-lifting, and meditation all brought him back to wellness.
“The brain is in an incredibly vulnerable period of development when it goes off to college,” says Hudziak, who has compared the mind of a twenty-seven-year-old to a beautifully painted house, but that of a seventeen to twenty-three-year-old as one still under construction. “WE is about making it possible for individuals with those brains to promote healthy brain growth. We don’t judge—we just present gorgeous neuroscience.”
WE is poised to take it up a notch with a new mentorship program that partners past participants with newcomers to share the journey on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. They have Apple watches with a WE app that incentivizes students to engage in the health promotion activities in WE: yoga, mindfulness, fitness, nutrition, and mentoring.
“The evidence is very strong that mentors live healthier lives,” says Hudziak. “They’re less likely to use alcohol and drugs, they’re less likely to have academic problems, and they report elevated mood.”
That helps explain the congeniality behind the mentor-in-chief of the WE program—Hudziak himself.
“It’s an incredible privilege to work with and serve these students. They buoy me. They’re young, they’re dynamic, they have strong feelings, they’re passionate,” he says. “But in the end, as a group, they’re just extraordinarily positive human beings. What drives me is the habits they form in college, the relationships they form, and how they value themselves during this critical period of brain development they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.”