Published: The California Aggie. December 9, 2016. Viewable here.
Chemistry professor Andreas Toupadakis makes sure to ask the 400 plus students in his lectures questions which allow him to learn more about them. His questions range from whether they would prefer that he upload homework assignments online to whether they know about the Reflection Room in the Student Community Center.
With a passion for helping others, Toupadakis’ name has become associated with his genuine care for the well-being of his students. Although he loves teaching chemistry courses, Toupadakis said teaching first-year seminars about student success and wellness is what keeps him at UC Davis.
“I had a driving force inside me to really see people happy,” Toupadakis said. “For years I [have been] teaching two seminars [that] are very, very successful; the comments are extremely positive. I’m acting like a catalyst to bring [students] together, [to] talk to each other [and] help them navigate through the things that they’re going through. I’m very thankful for these programs.”
Toupadakis teaches two first-year seminars: From Self Awareness to Inner Growth for True Success in and After College as well as World Music as a Means to Embrace Diversity and Reach Self-Discovery. In addition to the resources offered through the university, such as the Student Health and Wellness Center (SHWC), faculty members and students alike are pioneering new efforts to promote student well-being.
Sylvia Sensiper, the director of The Guardian Professions Program, which helps former foster youth throughout California go to graduate school, also teaches two first-year seminars.
“The Science of Well-being [seminar] looks at meditation [and] gratitude, and we also do a physical practice — sometimes it’s tai-chi sometimes it’s yoga — to look at how that keeps people centered in their mind [and] body in a holistic way,” Sensiper said. “[The seminar on] Contemporary American Buddhism is more like a cultural, historical look at different traditions, and we [engage in] different meditative practices.”
Sensiper said that maintaining stability is essential to achieving personal stability.
“Well-being is the ability to remain stable and flexible in the face of endless change, because there are very many things that are not in your control,” Sensiper said. “We’re all in the midst of a flux of change, and just knowing the resources on campus, knowing when you need to ask for help, knowing when you can just settle down and sit with something and let it go — that’s well-being.”
This personal and external awareness is relevant in the videos Sarv (aka Sodid) Mithaqiyan, a fourth-year philosophy major, creates for his YouTube channel Elevated & Meaningful. Mithaqiyan asks random passerbys meaningful questions, such as “What is Human Nature?” to build awareness about the community, society and ourselves.
“I try to raise the kind of questions that [explore] the kind of knowledge about who we are as human beings,” Mithaqiyan said. “There [needs to be a] catalyst to start the process of talking about things that matter, things that do contribute to well-being — either spiritual or mental or physical. I’m trying to show that people are capable of doing more than they can imagine. We can do more [and] we can construct a more meaningful life if we have higher goals.”
Mithaqiyan has joined a group of students on campus who attempt to engage classmates by offering a constructive, open dialogue. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) club at UC Davis focuses mainly on eliminating the stigmas surrounding mental illness and aims to providing a safe space for students to talk freely. Kim Shuster, a fourth-year psychology major who serves as the speaker coordinator for NAMI, said mental health is at the heart of well-being.
“When I first started my psychology major, I thought that mental health [was] more important than physical health,” Schuster said. “But the longer I’ve been here, I’ve started to realize there’s a lot of intersections. It’s hard to be mentally well if you’re not physically well. [It’s] so important to have a holistic [health].”
The promotion of holistic health is at the crux of the efforts of the Naturopathic Medicine Club (NMC), a student club started this quarter. Naturopathic medicine is a branch of medicine which stresses alternative forms of treatment and emphasizes patients’ individual needs to find the most effective solutions for them.
“Instead of [just] prescribing someone medicine, [naturopathy tries] to focus more on [the patient] as a whole,” said Talha Kilic, a second-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major and public relations official for NMC. “Whether it’s mental health […] meditation [or] acupuncture, [the focus is on] soothing you as a whole. As a holistic health [club], we’re able to touch on a lot of different areas.”
Kilic said that the NMC is planning to bring in different professionals from the naturopathic medical field as well as from alternative treatment processes, such as Chinese acupuncturists.
Similarly, both Toupadakis and Sensiper utilize meditation in their seminars to lower stress levels, as it is a practice that is becoming more popular and more secular. Toupadakis said he hires a professional to come to both of his first-year seminars every quarter to lead yoga meditation for two hours. Sensiper requires her students to observe the effects of meditation and other soothing activities, such as writing in a gratitude journal, on students.
“My goals are for them to discover on their own what they can [learn] about these practices, [as] meditation is [an] internal [reflection]” Sensiper said. “Anything I teach externally is not really going to be helpful to anybody until they internalize it and find some benefit for themselves.”
Mithaqiyan, who said he wants to promote reflection as well as introspection through his videos, believes that asking questions and starting conversations has the power to create a large ripple effect that could potentially change current cultural climates.
“The kinds of interactions I try to encourage are ones […] that are directed towards bringing peace, bringing unity and even analyzing what […] that means,” Mithaqiyan said. “More and more individuals [could be] working together and […] coming up with, hopefully, the kind of actions we need to come up with that will stop violence, stop arrogance, stop disunity and hatred and racism.”
Toupadakis also focuses on opening up the dialogue on mental health as well as decreasing stress and anxiety amongst students. Toupadakis said that faculty have a responsibility to reach out to their students. He was recently given the UC Promoting Student Mental Health Guide meant for all faculty and staff and said he finds it incredibly useful.
“I wish I was given this guide years ago,” Toupadakis said. “I truly believe every subject teacher should be equally [if not] more devoted to the well-being of the students [and] this is the guide that could do it. The final solution [is to] cultivate compassion.”
Furthermore, both Sensiper and Toupadakis feel that requiring each first-year student to take a course that deals with topics such as well-being would have a huge impact.
“When [students] come in, there should be required classes about well-being of students,” Toupadakis said. “Your peace and health is more important than anything else.”