Madelyn Poteet, a senior majoring in meteorology in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, admits that her college experience hasn’t all been a bed of roses. “Through my time at Tech, I have had both ups and downs,” said Poteet. “I have made my fair share of mistakes but also learned many lessons. I know I am graduating a better leader and better student from Virginia Tech not only because of my work in the classroom, but also my work outside of it.”

That’s the idea behind Virginia Tech’s new Residential Well-being initiative, which launched with move-in in August: supporting the individual success, learning, and well-being of every student, both in and outside the classroom.

Poteet is one of 251 Residential Well-being student leaders. With experience as both a resident advisor and a Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets company commander, she is excited to take part in changing living-learning environments on campus. “I see the potential of this model to transform the residential experience from just a residence hall to a place of growth for all students living on campus.”

According to Rebecca Caldwell, who came to Virginia Tech last spring as director of Residential Well-being, the initiative is a proactive approach that brings holistic well-being and student success right to students’ doors.

“Rather than expecting the students to find Virginia Tech’s world-class campus experiences on their own, we are surrounding the student with the key elements of first-year success inside of their living environment,” said Caldwell. “The focus is care and relationships, while connecting students early to our campuswide web of resources and experiences.”

Rebecca Caldwell, Virginia Tech’s first director of Residential Well-being, stands on campus under a vaulted arch with arms crossed.

Rebecca Caldwell, Virginia Tech’s first director of Residential Well-being, stands on campus under a vaulted arch with arms crossed.
Rebecca Caldwell is Virginia Tech’s first director of Residential Well-being. Photo by Mary Desmond for Virginia Tech.

The Residential Well-being model organizes Virginia Tech’s large residential campus into smaller communities, each supported by professional case managers, well-being coordinators, ExperienceVT coordinators, embedded counselors, and highly trained student leaders who focus on inclusion and belonging, well-being, and engagement.

Dalton Kaiser is an Residential Well-being student leader who is finishing an undergraduate degree in smart and sustainable cities while pursuing an accelerated master’s degree in urban and regional planning. “I strongly believe that all students should be taught that it is OK to ask for help because that is what makes people wiser and stronger. One area where I know students can pick up on this is during those first few weeks of college in their residence halls,” Kaiser said.

Olympia Ghosh, an Residential Well-being student leader and senior majoring in public health in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, added, “It is especially important to continue to bring wellness resources into living-learning spaces as students learn to negotiate a healthy balance between work, life, academics, and the fun of the college experience. Relationship building in a culture of kindness welcomes students to communicate their experiences and needs to caring administrators.”

“Almost every undergraduate student at Virginia Tech begins their experience in a residence hall, and the habits, patterns, and relationships formed that first year can significantly influence the trajectory of a student’s success,” said Frances Keene, interim vice president for Student Affairs. “We have a unique opportunity to equip our new students, when they arrive on campus, with habits, practices, and behaviors that can positively impact their well-being in their first year and beyond.”

“It would have been so easy to continue doing things the way we always had, but it was brave and bold to realize that what we were doing was no longer working for today’s students. The model was broken, and we needed to try something different, something brand new,” said Amy Epperley.

As senior director for Hokie Wellness, Epperley oversees the residential experience and was instrumental in developing the strategy for this new approach. “I think it is this care and compassion for our students, and wanting the very best experience possible for them, that set the stage for this huge transformation. The team was committed to the vision and willing to work really, really hard to see this come true for our students.”

“It is exciting that a campuswide team of dedicated professionals have been given permission to invent a different way for students to live on campus and have the complete backing of the institution,” said Caldwell. “My background is in public health, mental health and well-being, and student affairs. I am able to use my background in all those areas daily as I help to bring this vision to light. This model incorporates best practices in building resilience and positive mental health skills in innovative, new ways.”

“We knew that what we were working to accomplish would require cross-departmental collaboration, both within Student Affairs and throughout the university,” said Chris Wise, assistant vice president for Student Affairs’ health and wellness areas. “The opportunity to re-envision the work we do with our residential students, with the great programing already happening all across campus, led us to our goal of developing relationships as an important step in getting students connected.

“We can’t just assume that because a student shows up to Virginia Tech that they will immediately feel a sense of place,” Wise said. “We must reach out to students and develop relationships with them, have them develop relationships with each other, so they can feel welcome, included, and a part of their new community.” 

Related links:

Virginia Tech named one of the healthiest campuses among U.S. colleges and universities

A bold vision to re-imagine the residential experience

Additional mental health counselors now on board to help Virginia Tech stay at the forefront of counseling services

Virtual mental health counseling and wellness resources for students: anytime, anywhere, free, and fast

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