Mason Student Works for Campus Well-Being with Support from Foundation Related to Virginia Tech

Attendees at the Diversity and Well-Being Summit give presentations about strategies that their groups have come up with in order to create an ideal future. (Bethany Camp/Creative Services/George Mason University)

by Whitney Hopler, Communications Director 

The recent Diversity, Inclusion, and Well-Being Summit focused on creating a culture at Mason where everyone knows they matter and can thrive. One member of the summit planning committee was a Mason student working for campus well-being with support from a foundation created in the aftermath of tragedy. Sabrina Huffman, an Art and Visual Technology major who participates in the Mindful Living LLC, worked with our center on the summit through an internship from the Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Foundation. The foundation, formed by families and survivors of the worst university shooting in U.S. history, advocates for well-being on college campuses – an issue that the tragic shooting showed is vital to protect students and empower them to learn.

“The most exciting thing for me [about working on the summit] was meeting so many different kinds of people who care about well-being,” Huffman said. “Not only did I meet everyone at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, but I got the opportunity to talk to many others at the summit – people who I would never expect to see there. It brought to light a lot of the values of people here at George Mason that I had never seen before. Through the internship, I was able to have really great discussions with friends and strangers about well-being, and to hear their passion about well-being was very enlightening for all of us.”

Directing that passion for well-being at Mason in ways that create stronger community bonds on campus is important to move forward beyond the summit, said Huffman. “One aspect I’ve noticed students (including myself) struggling with is the lack of community around campus,” she said. “There isn’t a strong sense of inclusiveness in the student body, especially if you don’t participate in many clubs or Greek life. Because of this, many students feel lonely and isolated, and don’t have much passion for the school at all.”

The sense of community within the Mindful Living LLC is stronger, she added. “In our community, we’ve discussed loneliness and found well-being practices that help us become more comfortable with ourselves. Personally, I am now able to feel comfortable being alone with my own body, mind, and individual space because of the well-being concepts and practices we worked with. While this doesn’t fix the underlying problem of campus community, these well-being concepts have helped us thrive in situations that may not be perfect.”

Many thoughtful conversations about well-being happened at the summit, sparking all sorts of ideas on how to strengthen Mason’s university-wide culture. Innovative ideas for improving well-being exemplify what the VTV Family Outreach Foundation is working to achieve. “VTV was proud to donate an intern to GMU’s Diversity, Inclusion and Well-Being Summit,” said Paul Friedman, the foundation’s executive director.  “It produced invaluable ideas by which GMU can improve its environment in the deepest sense, and markedly enhance the educational experience.”

Foundation president Joe Samaha, whose daughter Reema passed away in the Virginia Tech shooting, has spoken in national media interviews about the behavior patterns that can indicate a dangerous lack of well-being in students’ lives. Those behaviors – such as mental health struggles, misuse of alcohol and other drugs, hazing, and sexual assault – need to be addressed on every college campus, he has said. In addition, colleges need to pay close attention to their own policies for dealing with well-being crises – from assessing threats well to sharing information across university departments. The foundation does education and advocacy work for all of those issues, Samaha has emphasized, creating a powerful “living legacy” of well-being for the Virginia Tech students who died in the 2007 shooting.

One key aspect of the foundation’s well-being work is its 32 National Campus Safety Initiative, which provides surveys to help colleges assess areas where well-being needs to improve on their campuses. Other foundation initiatives include Campaign 32, which works to prevent gun violence by strengthening the U.S. background check system.

A new foundation project close to Mason is a grove of memorial trees in Alexandria. “In keeping with the spirit of reflection and action generated by GMU’s Diversity, Inclusion and Well-Being Summit, VTV just held its first planting of its memorial tree grove honoring the victims and survivors of the Virginia Tech tragedy,” Friedman said. “… the grove will be a living memorial.” Readers can support the VTV Family Outreach Foundation’s well-being work by donating at: www.vtvfamilyfoundation.org/donate Friedman added.

Now that the Diversity, Inclusion, and Well-Being summit has inspired people across Mason and beyond, the momentum it has generated should continue, said Huffman. Beyond the summit, she said, “I’d love to see more people here interacting and sharing their interests with the entire campus. Imagine if almost everyone on campus was excited to go to basketball games! Or see the art students’ senior showcase! I can picture a university where we all share community pride that brings us together.” The summit has laid the foundation for a “strong and inclusive community” at Mason, she said, “where people are dedicated to strengthening their own well-being as much as helping others. We have a long road ahead of us, but the summit was an incredible first step to creating an inclusive and well-being focused culture on campus.”

Creating college campuses where students can thrive involves more than enforcing safety laws – it involves strengthening campus cultures by prioritizing well-being, said Friedman. “Safety and security on campus and in our society goes far beyond law enforcement. It is found in how we are all taught, encouraged and inspired to treat each other.”