The noise of a construction site often annoys the people living and working nearby. But at MIT, it can lead to creativity and innovation. Such was the case with the creation of the new well-being graduate resident advisor (WGRA) role at MacGregor House. With the construction of a new apartment in the residence hall, heads-of-house Professor Larry Sass and his wife, psychologist Terry Sass, saw the apartment as an opportunity to add a graduate resident advisor (GRA).
In discussions with MIT’s Division of Student Life about ways to use the space, the idea of a WGRA was pitched. The suggestion also aligned with an increased emphasis on well-being campus-wide and the four pillars of well-being developed by the Health Promotion Working Group and Office of Student Wellbeing (OSW).
The WGRA was created as an integral part of the OSW and the Student Support and Wellbeing teams in the Division of Student Life. The person in the role is tasked with identifying ways to positively influence the residential environment and create opportunities that promote well-being. The WGRA participates in the same training as a traditional GRA including safety practices, crisis management, LBGTQ+ services training, student mental health and counseling, as well as training with MIT Medical and other MIT support resources.
“We've seen a need for more opportunities to educate students in an experiential way about their social, emotional, physical, and mental health. Similar to other GRAs, the well-being GRA is an adult neighbor providing a caring presence to undergraduates. This presence fosters relationships that are centered on wellness, not productivity or evaluation,” says Sass.
Jimmy Doan, associate dean of the Office of Student Wellbeing, adds, “We thought this position would be a great way to connect with students, reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and asking for help, and promote overall well-being. The WGRA plays an important role in helping students learn the tools and skills to live healthy and purposeful lives.”
Kyla Tucker, assistant director of training and education in OSW, was the first person to serve as a WGRA beginning in summer 2020 while she was completing her master’s degree at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Due to Covid-19, not all students were living on campus, and Tucker quickly saw a need to creatively connect the residents of MacGregor House. She and her husband let students take their dog for walks, hosted online yoga sessions, held end-of-exam game days with s’mores in the MacGregor courtyard, and made well-being kits that contained face masks, toys, ear plugs, and notes encouraging students to take care of themselves.
“The students really enjoyed the activities — because of Covid it was challenging for them to get together and build a community. I appreciated that they would do whatever they could to be involved to create and develop a sense of community. Everyone was very supportive of one another. MIT students are not only innovative and brilliant, but they care deeply about each other,” says Tucker.
Deidra Jefferson, a graduate student in the higher education program at Salem State University, is the current WGRA and loves working with MIT students. After finishing her practicum in the Office of the First Year last spring, she heard about the job and quickly applied. Jefferson landed the role and soon became immersed in the MacGregor community.
This fall she had an event for students to connect with one another over food and crafts. Later, to help students cope with anxiety over midterms and less daylight, the MacGregor House team set up a petting zoo with ducks, goats, and other small animals. Jefferson partnered with them to make sure the event ran smoothly.
“It’s wonderful to see new faces — these types of events draw students out of their rooms to gather together. I also made a bulletin board with information about the four well-being pillars with flyers that students could take with them or scan the QR code that directs them to the DoingWell website — to remind them to take care of themselves,” says Jefferson.
By all accounts, the WGRA position has been a successful collaborative effort. “Our first two years with this pilot position were significantly constrained due to Covid regulations. As things have opened up, we have noticed more students talking about ‘work-life balance,’ expressing concerns about overworking, engaging in hands-on stress-reducing activities, and even asking questions about therapy,” says Sass.
“Larry, Terry, and Charlie McBurney (the MacGregor area director) are great partners to work with,” says Grace Conte-Bennett, assistant director in the Office of Student Wellbeing, who supervises the WGRA. Adding, “Kyla and Deidra have done a great job in this position. The role has shifted and adapted to better support the needs of the students. While there was a significant focus on Covid support when the role was first created, these days there is more of an overall focus on whole-student well-being, with the hope of bringing well-being to the forefront of the conversation at MacGregor.”
Sass agrees, “It's been exciting to see what ideas the WGRA comes up with. The WGRA's engagement with other OSW initiatives means that they bring this additional knowledge and experience to MacGregor.”