Credit: LA Johnson

Meditation, Nutrition, Fitness: One 'Party School' Tries To Tame The College Brain

March 14, 2017

Right in the heart of the University of Vermont, Burlington campus, there's a big dormitory going up, with room enough for 700 students next fall.

The dorm is being set aside for students like Azilee Curl, a first-year studying neuroscience who has taken a pledge — of sorts — to live out her college career at UVM with her health in mind.

She's part of a growing group on campus who all live together in a clean-living residence hall, have fitness and nutrition coaches at the in-house gym, and can access free violin lessons, yoga and mindfulness training.

There's also zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol use here — one infraction and you're out.

Dr. Jim Hudziak, a pediatric neuropsychiatrist at UVM's Medical School, started the program about two years ago. His message is clear: Take good care of your young mind.

"The most critical part of the brain, for paying attention, for regulating your emotions, for making good decisions, has not even been organized yet," he says, talking about the college-age brain.

For the program, he teaches a mandatory course called "Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies" where students learn that even at 18- and 19-years-old, their brains are still developing, and will keep doing so even after they graduate.

"When I heard about it, it made me really excited to come to UVM. It really, really sparked my interest," says Azilee Curl. Studying neuroscience, she says "It just didn't make sense to read about it and not live it."

Hudziak says UVM, which has a reputation as a party school, is trying to mitigate risk of binge drinking, and other risky behaviors, as soon as students arrive on campus.

"You get accepted to college, and we celebrate the fact that we are putting a wildly unprepared, underdeveloped brain in a high-risk environment."

But grooming health-conscious students might not be the only incentive for UVM. As colleges compete for a smaller pool of students in New England, administrators hope applicants find Hudziak's program a reason to come to the Burlington campus. It's a heavily marketed option for incoming students.

UVM administrators predict Hudziak's program will grow, too. They're expecting more than 1,200 students to enroll next fall, up from 400 total students this year. And maybe the messaging is working. According to reports, drug violations are down on campus.

Still, for every one student in the wellness program, there are about 25 who aren't.

"It was probably gonna be too regimented for my lifestyle," says 19-year-old Emily Bruggeman from Hebron, Conn. "I like to be a little bit more autonomous in terms of my well-being and stuff like that." You hear that a lot on campus.

For those already in the program, Hudziak says, nearly everyone sticks around for a second year.

"I have this prevailing belief that young people, given the opportunity to make good decisions, would choose to make good decisions. But they have to be in an environment where those choices are as easily available as high-risk decisions."

His program is capturing the attention of higher education leaders across the country. He says leaders at more than 20 other schools, including New York University, Tulane and Boston University, have reached out seeking advice.

Lydia Emmanouilidou contributed to the reporting for this story.

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