Faculty get “quirky” as students call the shots for wellness initiative videos

Posted on May 12, 2021

On April 16, the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science (FEAS) posted a three-minute clip featuring the Dean, Dr. Kevin Deluzio, contorting himself to make repairs to his sailboat—his own unique interpretation of “boat yoga”. The video was part of the EngWell hub’s Quirky Wellness Challenge, an effort to boost mental health awareness using videos of faculty members performing tasks selected by the students.

“Some of the normal support that students would have—their time with friends, sporting events—these normal things that we rely on for ballast in our lives, they weren’t there this year,” said Dr. Deluzio. “Although [the wellness challenge] was a jokey kind of thing to do, buried within it was a message: what do you do to deal with stress, and how do you keep yourself as mentally fit as you can?”

 One of the previous videos featured first-year calculus and algebra professor, Dr. Alan Ableson, breaking plates against a wall in his basement. On some of the dishes he used a marker to write down stressors, like missed birthday celebrations or endless screen time, before smashing them to bits. 

“I thought, ‘that might have some traction for students’, because they’ve all had their frustrations this year,” said Dr. Ableson. He says the display seemed to resonate with one young engineer in particular. “After their exams, [they] wrote up their own plate, and it had stuff I had taught them in some of my classes, and some of the problems in other classes,” he said. “Students have their legitimate frustrations and some of them learned a new outlet for it.”

Dr. Paul Hungler’s video was the first in the series, and his task was the most daring of the three: students voted to make him take a plunge in a cold lake. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Dr. Hungler headed to the water in the middle of April, bringing his kids along to film the stunt.

“I had this vision that I would swim around for a little while, but as soon as I hit the water I was on my way out,” he said.

For Dr. Hungler, the project was a way to give students a momentary respite from the sometimes stressful world of academia. “When you go to university, you don’t see a baby, you barely ever see a dog; you’re in this really weird microcosm of society,” he said. “We want them to take a step back and see the bigger picture, which is hard, but if they see a prof making fun of themselves, maybe that’ll help.”

The Quirky Wellness Challenge was part of a broader effort on the part of the faculty to keep students mindful of their mental health. That was the main motivation behind EngWell Hub, an online portal that helps connect students to support services they may need. As the manager of student services at Queen’s Engineering, Stacy Shane was instrumental in the site’s creation.

“We wanted to provide opportunities for students, and the engineering community in general, to discuss and hopefully remove mental health stigmas, while also ensuring that they were aware of the resources that are available to them,” she said. Shane says that students are inundated with information, which can make it difficult for them to know where to turn when they need help. “Now you can go on [the website] and say, ‘I’m having trouble with this’, and find resources specifically for that issue.”

For her, the Wellness Challenge was a fun way to get students to interact with the EngWell hub. “We’re always looking for opportunities to improve mental health literacy in the community—to engage students on that aspect—and so we believe this initiative to be a good step in that direction,” she said. Shane also stressed the need to consult with the students themselves about the best way to accommodate their needs. “This needs to be a two-way discussion, so to any students, or members of the Engineering community, that have ideas for resources and supports that would benefit them: please reach out to us in the Student Services,” she said. 

In addition to drawing awareness to mental health, Dr. Deluzio says the Quirky Wellness Challenge was an opportunity to provide students with some levity during a tough year. “We really feel for [the students] and miss them, and part of this was to give them something to laugh at—to cheer them up for a little bit,” he said.