Well-Being at the Heart of New Century College's Learning Experience

by Carrie Drummond

Well-Being at the Heart of New Century College's Learning Experience
New Century College Learning Community students participate in the construction of the Innovation Food Forest.

New Century College (NCC) defines well-being as the “lifelong experience of satisfaction, happiness, and purpose,” and views this as a core competency for all NCC students. NCC seeks to achieve the goals set by its motto, “Connecting the Classroom to the World,” by offering course work, field studies, internships, and volunteer opportunities that encourage its students to find connections between their personal well-being and that of their community.

NCC’s associate dean for academic affairs, Kelly Dunne, explains, “NCC’s Integrative Studies program encompasses the whole student—not just what he or she learns in class, but what happens out of class, at a job, at a volunteer opportunity, or at an internship.

“At NCC, we see personal well-being as one component. While students look inside themselves to care for their own well-being, there should be an expectation that they will be just as concerned with the well-being of others, our community, and our environment. Ultimately, this complements the portrait of the ideal Mason graduate: an engaged citizen prepared to act.”

This action occurs through many avenues at NCC. Through classes on environmental sustainability, legal studies, early childhood development, social justice, and human rights, NCC students assess and look for opportunities to promote well-being in a wide variety of arenas.

The Environmental Connection

Professor Andrew Wingfield teaches courses in environmental sustainability and directs the Sustainability Living and Learning Community (LLC) on campus. As part of NCLC 210 Sustainable World, he requires all students to perform 25 hours of service learning, where they work directly to improve the environment on or off campus. This hands-on work tackles environmental problems and helps students connect with their surroundings.

Wingfield says that this effort also helps students understand the difference they can make. “My class is full of bad news,” he says. There’s a lot of negativity in the content, and it’s easy for students to feel paralyzed. If they are energized and feel empowered to engage and do something…they feel like they are making a tangible difference. The service learning is a high-impact teaching and learning experience.”

Students can often feel overwhelmed and stressed by school and work. “Given this,” Wingfield explains, “it’s important that the well-being you want to see in the world outside has to be mirrored inside you. If students want to work for a sustainable world, they need to work toward personal sustainability.”

Community Connection

Patty Mathison, NCC’s associate director for Social Action and Integrative Learning, directs programs that connect Mason students with service-learning opportunities on and off campus. These opportunities range from single-day volunteer activities to semester-long internships to alternative break trips hosted domestically and internationally. With each program planned, Mathison and her team work with Mason students to connect each program or volunteer experience with participants’ lives.

“Our students have these powerful experiences, but it’s not so much about the experience as it is to relate it to your everyday life,” says Mathison. “Through all these programs, we try to give students the opportunity to personally interact… and humanize a social issue.”

In his social justice and human rights courses, Professor Al Fuertes approaches well-being from two angles. First, he asks his students to create their own classroom guidelines for participation and engagement. Second, he and his students consider the concept of well-being as it applies to those who have survived traumatic experiences.

“I approach well-being in two ways: through the course content and the classroom atmosphere,” Fuertes says. “I emphasize that these [people we discuss and meet] are real people, and we need to consider where we go from here. What are the best practices in reaching out to survivors of trauma and violence?"

Fuertes creates different learning opportunities for students to witness and experience the challenges others face. “I want to give students the opportunity to get in the shoes of a person who has suffered,” he says.

To do this, Fuertes offers students windows into the lives of the vulnerable. For one class, he may invite survivors of human trafficking to tell their stories. In another, his students take part in a “displacement day” during which they must build their own shelter out of found materials. Fuertes also asks his students to perform 15 hours of service, working firsthand with those who are vulnerable. His students volunteer at nursing homes, day laborer facilities, early childhood education programs, homeless shelters, and organizations that provide services for those in need.

“The courses I teach,” Fuertes explains, “encourage students to ask, ‘How can we be proactive? Where can victims go after experiencing trauma and stress?’ That’s where well-being comes in and students must find ways to improve circumstances for others. Specifically, we look at protection, reintegration, and rehabilitation.”

Fuertes and Mathison encourage students to reflect on their experiences and draw parallels from within their own lives. Using the social change model that connects the individual with the community, Mathison helps students link personal well-being with that of the community. Personal well-being empowers an individual to support community well-being. The well-being of a community, in turn, improves well-being for all its members.

Impact on the Individual

The roots of well-being run deep in each individual and can have lifelong, lasting effects. Professor Pamela Garner researches emotional regulation—a person’s ability to manage stress and emotional arousal—in young children. She says, “This involves skill in controlling your internal state and your external state—what you feel and how you express it.”

Garner used the example of the typical two-year-old’s tantrum. If denied something she or he finds appealing, a toddler may scream, cry, or become visibly upset. Garner notes that society accepts this response among young children, but not among older children and adults.

Garner says that the development of self-regulation has a long-term effect. “There is evidence that children who can successfully regulate their emotions have more positive relationships with friends and teachers and therefore have more academic and social success. They have better academic and career outcomes and demonstrate an overall better sense of well-being.”

In Professor Suzanne Carmack’s NCLC 375 Stress, Crisis, and Well-Being class, students learn that quality of life and level of personal satisfaction are closely tied to well-being, critical for managing stress.

“How we handle challenges in our lives is shaped by our well-being,” she says. “A crisis occurs when an individual does not have the internal or external resources to handle an event. Meaningful social ties help you deal with stressful events.” Carmack uses an example of an individual who has car trouble while driving, asking her students, “If you have car
trouble, how many people can you call? How satisfied are you with that list?”

“People who rate their social support high,” Carmack explains, “also rate their well-being high.” She concludes that, fortunately, “we are wired to the idea of lending a helping hand. When we support each other, we know it’s very good for us. Knowing that we are not alone makes a real difference in our ability to handle something . . . .When it comes to crisis, half the benefit is knowing the tools you can use to cope and the other half is using them.”

Professor Duhita Mahatmya researches how students’ social relationships are vehicles for well-being, specifically with respect to their academic performance and civic engagement. Mahatmya is collecting data from Mason students enrolled in the first-year Cornerstones program and using self-reported points to determine whether students are self-focused or more actively engaged in their community. She has student survey data from 2012 through 2015 and is analyzing these data to assess the students’ social connectedness and how that affects their civic engagement and academic performance.

Although still collecting and analyzing data, Mahatmya’s preliminary research provides significant clues on the importance of social connections among college students. She says, “Relationships in school and the family are the best indicators of civic engagement…Social connections relate to many positive outcomes for students, including their academic performance, physical health, and mental health.”

Mahatmya notes that NCC’s signature elements foster well-being among students. NCC’s small class size, hands-on learning experiences, Living Learning Communities, and connection to many campus activities and organizations give students ample opportunities to make social connections that bolster well-being.

Mahatmya says, “Generally, Cornerstones students are busy and engaged. They participate in sports, government, on-campus clubs. Finding something they are interested in helps them cultivate these connections.”

NCC stands with the university in its commitment to serve students and the community, and help those students develop the strengths they need to address 21st-century social, global, and environmental challenges. NCC’s experiential approach to learning, informed by the consideration of personal, community, and societal well-being, helps prepare Mason graduates to effect positive changes and make a difference.