More First-Years and Student-Athletes Benefit from CSC’s Course Focusing on Resilience, Critical Thinking, Social and Emotional Well-being

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More First-Years and Student-Athletes Benefit from CSC’s Course Focusing on Resilience, Critical Thinking, Social and Emotional Well-being

Since the fall of 2017 when the Contemplative Sciences Center first introduced “The Art and Science of Human Flourishing” to 60 first-year UVA students, course enrollment has doubled, and almost half of the 120 first-years in this semester’s cohort are student-athletes. 
“We have continued to grow our relationship with the athletic department at UVA,” said Leslie Hubbard, CSC’s Program Director for Student Engagement and Contemplative Instruction. “They really value the course, and it aligns with the mission of what they are trying to do with their student-athletes to promote a more inclusive and holistic approach to wellness that incorporates contemplative practices. We now have student-athletes in the course representing football, baseball, softball, women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s basketball, lacrosse, soccer, tennis, and swimming.”
Developed as part of a larger Student Flourishing Initiative in partnership with Penn State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the course explores different dimensions of human flourishing from the perspectives of neuroscience, psychology, and the humanities. The goal is to encourage first-year students to develop and maintain cognitive and emotional well-being, manage their stress, and build strong and positive relationships.
Hubbard, who teaches the course along with CSC’s Associate Director of Pedagogy and Faculty Engagement Karolyn Kinane, said the course is designed to help students “understand intellectually the different components of flourishing according to the sciences and humanities and be able to link that to their lived experience. Another objective is to help students combine their studies with contemplative practices that can help them improve things like focus and compassion and reduce their biases and performance anxiety to offer tools that can help them approach future problems by training their bodies and brains to respond in different ways that help promote flourishing.”
UVA Lacrosse player Will Cory said, “The course has been great. I have learned a lot of new information and strategies that I have been able to apply to my day-to-day life, and it is always interesting to see how much the topics we cover come up in other areas of study and in other areas of life in general. I think there are definitely big takeaways from the course that will help me for the next couple of years and down the road. I can’t tell you that I will remember all of these, but I think I will definitely remember how they made me feel and how they augmented my life.”
Cory says he also sees great potential for positive impact on his and his fellow athletes’ performance on the field. “When you are playing at an ACC school or lacrosse, the competition every week is very tough. There are definitely some freak athletes out there, but generally speaking, each team is sort of at the same skill level and athletic ability. Where teams can get a competitive advantage is in the mental side of the game, and this class is really showing me how to achieve that advantage.”

Turning theory into practice both on the field and off is one of the course’s main objectives. Since the course’s inception, Hubbard says she and fellow CSC instructors have taken steps to make it a more active and engaged classroom “to ensure that our students not only understand the materials, but can effectively apply the materials and contemplative practices  throughout their college careers and beyond in their lives.”
Student Jordan Talafierro said the course has been very helpful to her first-year experience. “One of the most important skills the class has taught me as a first-year is the importance of resilience. At the start of your college experience, you really don’t know what to think. You just have to learn to adapt. For me, part of that has been dealing with the fact that we are all going to make mistakes. In the past I’ve been the kind of person who focuses so much on my mistakes that I can probably still tell you the questions I got wrong on tests in high school. This course helps you to twist that around and focus on how you can put these mistakes in context and focus on what is going to make you better in the future.”
Helping students deal with their own emotions is another focus of the course, Hubbard said. “We have found that understanding the different mechanisms and deconstructing emotions can help students understand and have agency over how they want to respond when they are triggered. They learn that they don’t automatically have to react in ways that could be detrimental to their relationships and to their mental and physical health. Understanding these emotions and changing their responses to them can promote the students’ own flourishing and the flourishing of other people they come in contact with.”
First-year Grace Parker said, “Learning about different kinds of stress and how to cope with them has been helpful during this time of change and growth. I’ve found the exercise of acknowledging stressors and thoughts without judgement and simply letting them be has been a very helpful way for me to take control of my own emotions.”
Combined with the course’s focus on emotion is a focus on improving critical thinking. “I remember seeing this bumper sticker that read ‘Don’t Believe Everything You Think,’” Hubbard said. “It is something we talk about with the students in our unit on identity. If you have a thought, is it really you thinking it? We often have no distinction between awareness of a thought and the thought itself. Let’s say you have a thought that you are no good at math. That is just a thought. That’s not you. But the question becomes, how many times do you have to have that thought before it becomes a part of your personality?”
Raising students’ awareness of the sources of their thoughts has led to many “a ha!” moments in class and that is what the course is all about, said Hubbard. “If you take away one thing from this class, that you are so much more than what you think, it will really liberate you and open up so many more possibilities for the way you are going to engage in the world.”
Another important subject students explore in the course is their complex relationship with  technology, which, depending on how it is managed, can be a source of connection or distraction. Hubbard and Kinane designed an experiment to show students just how much of an habitual distraction social media and other notifications on their devices had become. 
“They asked us to turn off the notifications on our phones for 24 hours,” Talafierro said. “And I was like, you want us to do WHAT? But they were dead serious. All I could think about were all the calls I might miss and that my mom might be mad. But I quickly found I didn’t miss them. When I was doing assignments, it was so much easier to actually focus. I honestly thought it didn’t impact me, but then you think about what happens each time that phone buzzes and how many times you grab it just to check that notification, then before you know it, an hour goes by.”
The other thing students explored through the experiment, Hubbard said, was how much personal technology was hijacking time and space for quiet reflection and observation in their lives. “What we found was that the students now consider the limited amount of quiet time they have to be ‘awkward’ and that they often seek to fill those times with their phones. So not only do we have limited quiet spaces in our world today, but now they are somehow labeled ‘awkward.’ What we are missing is that kind of deeper level insight into our behavior and our everyday lives, and part of that is understanding just how deeply interconnected we are as a human species.”
They asked us to turn off the notifications on our phone for 24 hours. And I was like, you want us to do WHAT? 
Part of illustrating that interconnectedness comes from creating experiences that take students out of their social comfort zones and help them expand their circles by finding common ground with students whose college experiences may be different than their own. “Halfway through some classes,” Talafierro said, “we are encouraged to connect with someone we may not have known, people from our ‘out group’ instead of our ‘in group.’ It really gives you a different perspective and helps you learn more about the other person and about yourself.”
Next year marks an exciting milestone for CSC as students from the very first class to take “The Art and Science of Human Flourishing” will graduate. 
“What I am really looking forward to learning when our first students become fourth years next year is what kinds of changes in them we might see. For example, will there be a change in their professional outlooks? Will recognizing injustices in our social systems during their first year of college change the way they approach solving political problems in the future? For example, might some choose to join a not-for-profit or get a master’s degree in public policy in order to pursue work on increasing social inclusivity?”

"I hope students continue to become curious in their understanding of flourishing in all aspects of their lives” said Hubbard. “Physical, social, emotional, intellectual, as well as their civic selves as they continue beyond the University well into their personal and professional lives.”