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UConn Adopting Okanagan Charter, Commits to Health Promoting Practices

'More than ever before, stakeholders see the interconnectedness of equity, sustainability, health, and student success'

UConn is joining an international movement to promote the well-being of people, place, and the planet in all aspects of its operations, joining a growing number of colleges and universities nationwide advancing health as part of their mission.

On Wednesday, UConn will officially adopt and commit to the Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges. UConn leaders will sign the commitment Wednesday at the Board of Trustees meeting, joining about two dozen institutions that have adopted it so far, and more than 230 in its network of schools sharing best practices and lessons learned.

To become a Health Promoting University, UConn will measure its current services and approaches to promoting the health and well-being of its campus communities and beyond, and will create strategies to connect various initiatives and make wellness a core part of University operations.

It builds on UConn’s work as a JED Campus, a comprehensive public health approach to enhance student well-being by guiding students to incorporate wellness strategies into their everyday lives and helping institutions better identify and serve students in need of mental health assistance.

The Okanagan Charter expands those principles to include wellness as a focus not only for students, but also for UConn faculty, staff, and the broader community. The initiative will also help the University embed well-being principles in the campus culture, and across administrative, operational, and academic realms.

“More than ever before, stakeholders see the interconnectedness of equity, sustainability, health, and student success … As a premier research university, UConn can lead innovation and scholarship in the promotion of human and planetary health,” President Radenka Maric wrote to Board of Trustees when it recently approved a resolution authorizing adoption of the charter.

As its next steps, the University will form a steering committee to guide action teams to advance progress toward the adopted commitments; and will make plans to sustain ongoing efforts in those areas.

Several initiatives already are underway throughout UConn to promote community well-being in physical and mental health, and bringing them together to increase effectiveness will be one of the group’s goals under the Okanagan Charter.

The charter is an outcome of the 2015 International Conference on Health Promoting Universities and Colleges, and was developed by scholars, researchers, and practitioners from 45 countries. It calls on universities to look beyond individual behavior, and to embed well-being practices into the systems and settings that influence the health of people and the planet.

It also emphasizes strong involvement from students and others in the campus community, building on strengths, valuing local and Indigenous communities’ contexts and priorities, promoting trans-disciplinary collaborations and cross-sector partnerships, and other guiding principles.

The commitment does not include or envision a financial burden, since it focuses on aligning and strengthening the many systems already in place to support the well-being of people, place, and the planet.

“If there is one thing UConn has in abundance, it is students, faculty, and staff invested in a future in which all members of the community flourish,” UConn leaders wrote in an executive summary of the initiative. “The work ahead is not about adding to the pile or priorities and needed resources, but rather about creating connection among existing initiatives to achieve a greater collective impact.”

The trustees’ unanimous vote in February to adopt the Okanagan Charter came on the recommendations of Maric and the board’s Student Life Committee, which consists of students, trustees, and University administrators.

That committee also launched UConn’s efforts four years ago to become a JED Campus, the predecessor of today’s commitments under the Okanagan Charter.

Through the JED Campus initiative, UConn has worked to bolster students’ mental health through work in seven domains: helping students develop life skills, promoting social connectedness, identifying students at risk, increasing their help-seeking behavior, providing strong services in mental health and substance misuse, following effective crisis management procedures, and promoting a safe environment.

Trustee Joshua Crow ’21 (CLAS), a UConn Law student who represents graduate students on the board, was a student leader in the Undergraduate Student Government when the University started its work toward becoming a JED Campus, and supported adoption of the Okanagan Charter.

“What a herculean effort it was to get us to this point,” Crow said. “It’s incredible to me the way that generationally, students have picked up the torch and carried forward with this — people who’ve never met each other, people who never knew each other, all dedicated to this one particular goal. It’s because of them that people’s lives will be saved, and it’s because of them that students’ experiences on this campus will be better.”