University of South Carolina Aiken is a small program with about 3,400 students, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t taking big steps in inspiring healthy lifestyles for students, faculty, and community members. USC Aiken relies on cross-campus collaboration to create a culture of wellbeing, and the Department of Campus Recreation & Wellness (DCRW) is one of the driving forces for integrating holistic wellness and leadership development in an intentional and sustainable way.

Inspiring a shared vision

Dr. Deb Kladivko, Vice Chancellor of Student Life and Services, says she has seen “a tremendous change in how health and wellbeing are approached on campus” in her 24 years at USC Aiken.

In the early nineties, USC Aiken was primarily a commuter school with only 360 students housed on campus. Now over 900 students live on-campus, and because of this shift to becoming a more residential campus, additional services and opportunities were needed for students. These changes included more staff for the Counseling Center and Disability Services Office, the creation of a Student Health Center, and a reimagining of the role of the Wellness Center and Natatorium.

“When I arrived, the ‘Wellness Center’ consisted of one room that was primarily used as a weight room for athletes and a place to house the cardiac rehab program. Very few, if any, students other than athletes used the facility,” explains Dr. Kladivko.

Aiken Cardiac Rehabilitation is a 25-year-old partnership between USC Aiken and the Aiken Regional Medical Center in which community members can be referred for Phase II and Phase III cardiac rehabilitation with professional staff and student interns at the USC Aiken facilities. Though the program is a tremendous opportunity for students to gain practical experience, and the university had invested in expanding the physical spaces for health and wellness activities through the years, Mila Padgett saw an opportunity to serve even more students when she became the director of the Wellness Center and Natatorium in 2010.

“Working in collegiate recreation, all I’ve ever known is a student-centered approach.”

“Working in collegiate recreation, all I’ve ever known is a student-centered approach,” says Mila. “I knew there were changes we could make to integrate recreation and wellbeing and broaden our reach.” One such change was integrating the intramural sports program with the Wellness Center and Natatorium, which originally had been two separate entities. In 2014 the Wellness Center and Natatorium became the Department of Campus Recreation & Wellness to reflect this change. Another important shift was moving DCRW out from the umbrella of Business Services and into Student Life and Services, USC Aiken’s student affairs division. “We were trying to infuse ourselves into the student population, and we realized pretty quickly that a reorganization would be beneficial,” says Mila. This reorganization happened in 2015, and Mila began reporting to Dr. Kladivko who notes that the move was mutually beneficial.

“Although Mila has always been very collaborative, the move has made it much easier and more natural for her to collaborate with the other departments within the Student Life and Services Division who are also working directly with students on similar initiatives,” says Dr. Kladivko. “While I think the Campus Recreation and Wellness Department has been strengthened by its association with the Student Life and Services Division, our division has been greatly strengthened by the addition of Mila to our group.”

The cardiac rehab program is still housed in DCRW and there are exercise programs specifically for senior citizens in the community, but Dr. Kladivko says the primary focus of the DCRW has shifted to serving students. In addition, students do not have to pay fees for the Wellness Center or Natatorium, and these investments have helped increase student participation.

Dr. Brian Parr, an Associate Professor of Exercise and Sport Science and Co-Chair of the Healthy 4 Life Committee, has worked at USC Aiken since 2001 and has seen this influx of students firsthand, as his office is located within the Wellness Center.

“There are always students there now working and working out,” he says. “The community members really enjoy interacting with the students. The focus on getting more students in the door has not diminished the existing programs for the community.”

“Our student employees and the students working out in the facility are exposed to a demographic that they’re not really used to working with or leading.”

The students benefit from their interaction with community members as well. “Our student employees and the students working out in the facility are exposed to a demographic that they’re not really used to working with or leading,” says Mila. “Students lead classes for people who are their grandparents’ age and have to learn new communication skills and expectations. It’s a unique learning experience and a challenge that has a lot of impact.”

Enabling others to act

Despite the success of the recent changes in organization, Mila has still faced challenges in her work at a small program. “One of the biggest differences when I came to USC Aiken compared to the universities I’d worked at previously was that the other universities all opened brand new facilities on their campuses. That wasn’t an option here, so we had to find ways to create our own excitement and get people in the doors,” she says.

Working within the constraints of budgetary and professional resources can also be a challenge. “At other universities, I had money to purchase equipment and enough professional staff to have a person dedicated to marketing or dedicated to student development and those kind of things, but at USC Aiken and at my other small program counterparts, that just isn’t what happens. We usually have one person who is doing four jobs,” says Mila.

Despite these challenges, Mila says that limited resources shouldn’t be an excuse for poor programming. “We only have one intramural field, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to have the best program for intramurals that USC Aiken can have. We’re going to figure out how to effectively and efficiently do everything we can and not let ourselves get into the mindset where we allow the limitations to dictate what we want to do.”

“We’re not going to let ourselves get into the mindset where we allow the limitations to dictate what we want to do.”

At USC Aiken, the absolute key to overcoming these challenges has been cross-campus collaboration. “We have to collaborate,” explains Mila. “It’s just not an option not to. I chair a committee on campus within our division of Student Life and Services that is specifically about how we collaborate across our division, how we partner, how we pool money, and how we pool people and time so we can impact as many people as possible. Establishing those relationships across campus is key.”

At USC Aiken, a commitment to collaboration can be found even at the highest levels. Chancellor Dr. Sandra Jordan says, “At a time when funding is challenging, there are many competing priorities. Collaboration across the campus expands ownership, amplifies the message, and leverages more talent and resources. This approach helps embed new initiatives into the campus culture more effectively and helps ensure that the new programs endure.”

“Establishing relationships across campus is key.”

Recent collaborative projects include a program called Exercise Is Medicine in which the DCRW, Counseling Center, Student Health Center, and nursing students and faculty work together to offer exercise programs for stress management that are geared towards novice exercisers.

The DCRW works with the psychology department for the cardiac rehab program and in offering free tobacco cessation counseling. They also work with the biology faculty advisor of the horticultural student organization for the creation of community gardens, and they collaborate with Human Resources to provide educational programs for faculty and staff.

“Looking at these issues holistically allows us to make sure that we are not missing major ‘pieces of the puzzle,’ and assures that we are all working toward common goals.”

“I am a big believer in collaboration, both because of the synergy that is created when groups work together, but also because it allows us to be more efficient and not duplicate efforts,” says Dr. Kladivko. “Looking at these issues holistically allows us to make sure that we are not missing major ‘pieces of the puzzle,’ and assures that we are all working toward common goals.”

Modeling the way

Because USC Aiken is part of the larger USC university system, Mila has been able to partner with the University of South Carolina in order to be included in some of the resources and funding sources the larger school has access to. In 2015, USC Aiken went through the process to become a tobacco-free campus under a grant from USC’s Healthy Carolina Initiative. “It was a fantastic learning experience about what it takes to accomplish such a wide-spread change,” says Mila. “It was a two-year process before even getting to the point of thinking about how to implement a tobacco free campus.”

This change sparked an even broader new initiative: Healthy 4 Life. “Our chancellor wanted USC Aiken becoming a tobacco-free campus to be a part of a bigger picture,” says Mila. “Healthy 4 Life is the model we created from the dimensions of wellness: healthy mind, healthy body, healthy environment, and healthy habits.”

Brian Enter, Senior Executive of University Facilities and Co-Chair of the Healthy 4 Life Committee, describes the initiative as “a way to get people to think and behave in a healthy way in the areas of environment, body, mind, and habits to benefit themselves and people around them.”

Any person, department, or division that does anything to benefit the success of students or the community is encouraged to find a place for their endeavor under one of the Healthy 4 Life puzzle pieces. For instance, Facilities Maintenance can find a place for their job duties under healthy environment. Many programs and projects are underway as part of the initiative including healthy food selections in the dining hall; the installation of gardens on campus; substituting battery carts for gasoline carts; tree planting; seeking solar solutions; recycling; yoga, drumming, mindfulness, and exercise classes; and classes on healthy relationships and mental health, all of which align with NIRSA’s strategic values as well.

“The ultimate goal of establishing the campus-wide Healthy 4 Life campaign was to lend focus to the campus’s work to help promote healthy living and general wellbeing through choosing to adopt healthy habits and promote a healthy environment,” explains Dr. Jordan.

Mila supports healthy habits by organizing lunchtime walks for faculty and staff and having guest speakers to present on a variety of health topics during “Wellness Wednesdays.” She also works with the cafeteria to identify healthy choices for students. The DCRW program PacerFit encourages people who don’t normally exercise to engage in a semester-long competition to complete a series of workouts. “PacerFit became something fun for people to talk about,” says Brian Parr. “It says a lot about the quality of the programming that we can get students to stay and get involved because it can be tricky to do at a commuter school.”

“It says a lot about the quality of the programming that we can get students to stay and get involved.”

Not only is Healthy 4 Life a way to keep a conversation about wellbeing visible and relevant while expanding people’s notion of health, but it also encourages collaboration, efficiency of programming, and sustainability. “The resourceful directors of these programs worked hard to provide incredible opportunities for our campus population. However, the sheer number of projects and programs seemed to dilute awareness of each enterprise,” says Dr. Jordan. “By bundling the ideas, programs, projects, and opportunities together and marketing them under one program and one brand, individuals became more aware of the overarching focus on wellness and health. We found it was a more effective strategy to heighten awareness of the programs and highlight the value the university places on holistic student development.”

Brian Parr says one of the biggest strengths of the initiative is how accessible it is. “Talking about only one thing like weight loss turns people off. It’s better to be broad,” he says. “Maybe people are at a healthy weight but they need to work on something to create a healthy environment or a healthy habit like getting enough sleep. Healthy 4 Life makes it so everyone can gain from it, and teaches our students that health is more than just eating right and exercising. It’s the whole lifestyle.”

“Healthy 4 Life makes it so everyone can gain from it, and teaches our students that health is more than just eating right and exercising. It’s the whole lifestyle.”

While there are still challenges to be solved in how to keep up a continuous conversation about Healthy 4 Life across campus, Mila has already been thinking about ways to implement a wellness ambassador within different departments who could serve as a go-between for the chairs of the Healthy 4 Life Committee and other faculty and staff. “Even if Healthy 4 Life is a small item on the agenda at a staff meeting, that would be a way to get information about what’s happening on campus and where you can go to learn more to people who don’t have direct contact with our committee,” she says.

Brian Parr also pointed out how simply modeling different healthy habits can spark people’s curiosity and prompt them to act. “For example, if people walk by and see the exercise science department using standing desks, they might ask about them and find out how they can get them too,” he says.

Challenging the process

Besides the work she does creating a healthy campus and healthy community through the Healthy 4 Life initiative, Mila is also committed to fostering leadership in an intentional way. “We are one of the largest employers of students on USC Aiken’s campus and have a direct impact on the development and growth of attributes that employers are looking for as students graduate from college,” says Mila. NACE data includes the ability to work in a team, communication skills, problem solving, work ethic, initiative, and adaptability as some of the attributes desirable for employment and lists leadership as being the number one attribute. It should come as no surprise that leadership is also one of NIRSA’s strategic values.

“If you were to look at the top 20 attributes, Campus Recreation & Wellness provides the practical, experiential learning to cultivate these exact attributes,” says Mila. “We’ve always said collegiate recreation develops leadership, but we haven’t been very good about telling our story. We have to be able to say what we do for students in a way that is validated and make sure the students can articulate what they’ve learned.”

“We have to be able to say what we do for students in a way that is validated and make sure the students can articulate what they’ve learned.”

Mila was the chair of the NIRSA Leadership Commission for three years and knows the importance of intentionally applying leadership development theories or models to student training. Since USC Aiken didn’t have a strong student leadership development model she decided to start the process of figuring out what that model was going to look like for her school. They went through a two-year process to develop a model to serve as the foundation of hiring, training, and evaluating student employees across the department, and their new model is being implemented this fall.

“I can completely understand where some directors, departments, or individuals are so overwhelmed with the thought of implementing something like this that it can just cause them to stand still, but being the chair of the Commission made me realize I couldn’t stand still and that I needed to take USC Aiken through this process to help others understand how they can make it happen on their campuses even if it seems overwhelming,” says Mila. “What we learned is that it can’t be implemented all at once. There are steps—it’s a process.”

Mila says they learned a lot along the way, first reimagining their mission and vision statements and creating a set of values they wanted students to understand, then having to tweak the values and definitions once they figured out how they would evaluate their results. However, the most important part was making sure everything was a group decision from the beginning. “We’re a staff of five including me, and this was another thing being loaded on their plates, so I had to make sure that everyone was on board,” Mila explains.

In the end, they chose the Leadership Challenge for their framework, which highlights five areas: Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart. The values of the DCRW—Development, Collaboration, Inclusion, Accountability, Leadership, and Personal Wellness—align with these areas.

“We wanted a model that our students could easily place themselves into when thinking about what they are being asked to do as a part of their position within our department,” says Mila. “Having access to evaluation tools that are research based and validated and already created at a relatively low cost of purchase was also key.”

Another plus is that Leadership Challenge is an online tool. “We didn’t want something that would take more of our time, and the reports that Leadership Challenge provides are really great at breaking down each of the areas and telling you where your students feel they are getting good training and where there is room for improvement,” she says.

During fall orientation, student employees were trained on what Leadership Challenge is and why it’s being used. There is a set of thirty questions that they will answer at the end of fall semester, which will give the department a good indication of where they need to train next. In the spring semester, they will be evaluated with the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI) on the DCRW values. They will do a self-evaluation and have a peer evaluation and an evaluation from their direct supervisor.

Leadership Challenge includes both a number rating as well as a reflection component, and the reflection will be key for the student to tell their story and articulate the connections between how they evaluate themselves and why.

“I’m amazed when our students cannot speak to what they’ve really done,” says Mila. “They don’t have the words or the knowledge or the ability to make connections between the actions they do and the skills they develop. I feel like helping them articulate those connections is one of the things we have to do better.” Helping students make those connections is a key role of educators working across campus, not only those teaching within the classroom.

All the information garnered from the Leadership Challenge will allow staff to evaluate current practices in training and how they are impacting student employees. Mila says it will show what areas need to improve in order to meet DCRW’s strategic goal of developing responsible and socially conscious graduates who are ready to lead, work, and contribute to their communities.

“Each one of these skills transcends into the personal impact on the communities they will live in as they graduate from USC Aiken. If they were involved and engaged students that learned the value of leading and what that entails within our department, they will more than likely be individuals that will lead in their respective communities,” says Mila.

“Each one of these skills transcends into the personal impact on the communities they will live in as they graduate from USC Aiken.”

Encouraging the heart

Mila noted that though change can sometimes feel slow while in the midst of it, a lot has been accomplished at USC Aiken over the past several years thanks to the top-down university support. “We share the goal of offering and integrating all our health and wellness components under one umbrella because we understand that they all interact,” says Mila. “If one piece of a student is lacking that’s going to affect everything else.”

“We share the goal of offering and integrating all our health and wellness components under one umbrella because we understand that they all interact.”

Dr. Jordan echoes these sentiments, stressing that USC Aiken is committed to the holistic development of its students. “This means that in addition to mastering the curriculum content, we want them to learn to be good citizens, ethical members of the community, engaged leaders, and aware of their own capabilities,” she says.

Whether it be Healthy 4 Life creating healthier people and a healthier environment for, as Brian Enter calls it, “a more satisfying place to work, play, and study,” cross-campus and cross-community collaboration, or providing students with a deeper understanding of the multitude of ways they can act as leaders, USC Aiken is a school committed to the holistic connections of health and wellbeing. Their faculty and staff recognize that change cannot happen in isolation and offer a network of resources that will foster healthy minds, healthy bodies, healthy environments, and healthy habits for years to come.

“In addition to mastering the curriculum content, we want them to learn to be good citizens, ethical members of the community, engaged leaders, and aware of their own capabilities.”

Learn more

Visit www.nirsa.org/greatleaders for more information about how NIRSA supports the development of #GreatLeaders.

  • To learn more about Campus Recreation & Wellness at the University of South Carolina, Aiken, contact Mila Padgett. To learn more about NIRSA’s Small Programs Advisory Council, contact NIRSA Membership Services Coordinator Megan Granholm.

Photos courtesy of the Department Campus Recreation & Wellness at the University of South Carolina, Aiken

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Communications Specialist at |

Sarah Kosch is a Communications Specialist at NIRSA.