First-year Western University of Health Sciences students deal with a lot of change: starting a rigorous academic program and often moving from far away. WesternU’s College of Optometry received a $10,000 Tri-City Mental Health Services: Community Wellbeing Grant to address these challenges.

The overall goal of this project is to support personal health and well-being for first-year optometry students. Under the leadership of the College of Optometry’s Ann Ellis, MEd, Assistant Dean of Students, and Miki Carpenter, PhD, Director of Assessment and Program Development, the project is designed to provide programming and activities for students to build healthy relationships within the class in order to facilitate greater social support in times of stress.

“We’re hoping we’re able to make a difference in first-year students’ experience,” Carpenter said. “The idea of this wellness grant is to create a community and support system to prevent any negative behavioral or emotional issues from arising. Many of the activities are geared to strengthening community, building relationships and building a support network on a day-to-day basis.”

The program complements structures already in place within the College of Optometry, including the House System, in which all students and faculty are assigned to one of four Houses. Programs and activities supported by this grant will complement the House system by facilitating more interaction and support for individuals within and between Houses.

Third-year College of Optometry student Samantha Zaczyk, OD ’15, said her biggest challenge as a new WesternU student was moving from Ohio to a new city where she didn’t know anyone.

“My support in the past was always my family and friends and now I had to begin building that again,” she said. “The College of Optometry does a great job of breaking the ice between students and helping us all to realize that we can rely on each other for help. It is important to give support to first-year students because they are under the most stress and do not yet have a good support network of other students. By helping to build this network from day one, we hope that this will alleviate the stress and strain of their first year.”

Current students will help develop and implement the program, and first-year students will join the planning group once the academic year begins Aug. 12. First-year students are the target group, but other classes will also participate in activities.

“I think that we can improve the first-year experience by helping students recognize the support that they have here within our College and within the Houses,” Zaczyk said. “I wanted to get involved in this program because I survived first-year by creating my own stress-relieving strategies, but there were some of my friends that had a harder time doing this. Perhaps if there was a program such as this during my first-year, we would have less stressed students throughout the remainder of optometry school.”