New program taps into student-to-student connection

When students have a problem they typically turn to other students first for help. That is the idea behind the new student wellness program, Thrive@ISU.

It is a confidential program that helps students identify well-being issues they're struggling with, through conversation with a trained graduate student, and then develop an action plan for improvement. The student-to-student effort provides a safe space to learn about areas of well-being affecting them, available support resources and help in establishing steps to improve their situation. It is not counseling or a crisis service.

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Faculty and staff can help the program by making students aware of it. It's not an option for crisis care, but it is a good starting point for nearly anything else.  Faculty or staff with questions about the program, or a department or unit that would like to have a graduate student visit and explain more about Thrive@ISU, can email

"When student wellness addresses health and well-being issues, we implement a care model that uses a range of strategies and approaches," said director of student wellness Brian Vanderheyden. "We offer a lot of things on the treatment side, but we had some gap areas in our community-based prevention and peer support.

"Peer-to-peer programs are very helpful -- particularly for college students -- because a lot of times they feel more comfortable engaging with or learning from their peers."

The program began to take shape last spring and was implemented in September. Corrine Schwarting and Pauline Freud are graduate students in counseling psychology who meet with students and help oversee the program.

It's being used on campuses across the nation, including the universities of Iowa and Northern Iowa, Vanderheyden said.

Managing the need

The pandemic coupled with the return to campus, in-person instruction and more frequent social interactions added stress for students. That means an increase in cases at student counseling services. Thrive@ISU helps alleviate some of that. About 100 students already have enrolled in the program.

"We are trying to promote some of our other support services, particularly early, before things worsen for a student," Vanderheyden said. "We want to be able to help them in a variety of ways because not everyone needs individual counseling."

Vanderheyden said the conversation about mental health has been going in a positive direction in recent years, but there still is stigma that creates barriers for students. Thrive@ISU also acts as a bridge to connect students to other services, if needed.

How it works

Students enroll by visiting the Thrive@ISU website and completing an online form. They are emailed a screening survey that takes 10 to 15 minutes to complete.

The survey focuses on 12 areas that impact success -- particularly academic success -- such as mental health, sleep, substance use and eating disorders, Vanderheyden said. After submitting the survey, the student completes a writing activity about what is going well and not well for them personally, academically, emotionally, etc.

Students then can schedule a 60-minute meeting -- virtually or in-person -- with one of the graduate students who reviews the submitted information. The session is conducted through motivational interviewing, a conversation style that is "an empathetic, nonjudgmental approach that positions the student to be a partner with the grad student," Vanderheyden said. "It takes the power dynamic out of it and puts the student in the driver's seat with the grad student along with them."

The student is able to direct conversation to the most important things to them, which accounts for most of the meeting. The final portion is dedicated to action planning, where the student generates their own next steps, Vanderheyden said.

"They come up with at least three steps," he said. "It is very important because it is meeting the student where they are, and they are coming up with steps they are confident in."

After the meeting, students submit an action plan and reflect on how they are doing in weekly check-ins. There is an option for a second meeting.

The graduate student can suggest other offerings available to assist in achieving goals. They have received training on motivational interviewing and can step in to help students who are a safety concern to themselves or others.

Students receive a final survey after 30 days to assess their progress.

"We want to be able to set them up with some sustainable change," Vanderheyden said. "Students are busy, and this is a hybrid structure where they do things on their own and meet with a peer."