Setting the Stage for a Healthy Life

Unique mentoring program addresses all aspect of wellbeing
DiscoverU Columbia Heights students and their mentors
DiscoverU Columbia Heights students and their mentors. Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Columbia Heights Public Schools

The School of Public Health and School of Nursing have joined with Minnesota’s Columbia Heights Public School District to improve the health of middle- and high-school students while providing college students with experiential learning opportunities. 

Their program, called “DiscoverU,” is funded with $800,000 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of its “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child” framework, which seeks more collaboration among education leaders and health sectors. 

The goal of DiscoverU is to integrate social-emotional learning, physical activity, and nutrition into an out-of-school program. Social-emotional learning includes working on self-awareness, social skills, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. 

Good timing

The program comes at a time when school districts need it most, says Katie Arlinghaus, the grant’s co-principal investigator and School of Public Health assistant professor. 

“Kids’ emotional and mental health is at high risk coming out of the pandemic, and there’s a great need for this program,” says Arlinghaus. “We’re seeing a lot more violence, stress, rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation, as well as declines in a lot of physical health markers, including a significant increase in Type 2 diabetes.”

Arlinghaus says that as schools struggle with resources, and families are unable to participate in separate programs, DiscoverU has the practical effect of being more efficient and supportive by simultaneously addressing all aspects of health.

Kristen Stuenkel, director of community education and communications with Columbia Heights Public School District (CHPS), co-created DiscoverU with Arlinghaus and says that CHPS is a perfect fit for the program. It’s a relatively small school district with 3,400 students, but it is also racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse. Over 33 percent of students are English learners and 70 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, says Stuenkel. 

“Many people within those demographic characteristics have higher risks for health disparities,” she says. These disparities are often systemic, and tied to racism and other social determinants of health.

DiscoverU is in fact designed for communities with concentrated poverty for whom health and educational programming is often less accessible and who typically carry a disproportionate health burden.

Discovering the mentor within 

DiscoverU uses a tiered mentoring system where mostly University of Minnesota undergraduate students are trained to mentor high-school students, who in turn mentor middle-school students.

DiscoverU runs after school two days per week for eight weeks. During the first three weeks of the program, mentors meet with middle-and high-school students separately. After the high-school students gain some mentoring skills, the middle-school students join them beginning in week four, says Mary Onchiri, DiscoverU project coordinator and SPH Community Health Education MSW/MPH dual degree student.  

Onchiri says that during each session, students participate in at least two physical activities, ranging from weightlifting to a popular game called Gaga ball. CHPS also has a robust school garden, which has allowed students to learn from mentors about nutrition first-hand, and to have an opportunity to make their own snacks, roast and pickle vegetables, and more.

Students also take part in large and small group discussions, and talk about what Onchiri calls “big feelings” and how to handle them. They set health goals and identify their core values, says Onchiri, such as family, respect, honesty, or faith. And then they talk about challenges that they’ve run into, how to overcome those, and how to navigate conflict and cope with stressful situations. 

SPH Assistant Professor Katie Arlinghaus, right, and School of Nursing Associate Professor Barb McMorris, center, lead the grant that funds DiscoverU. SPH dual degree student Mary Onchiri, left, coordinates the program. Photo credit: Chris Cooper

“Kids are facing a lot right now in schools,” says Arlinghaus. “And so, having programs like this where they feel that they belong and are safe is really important.”

Katie Arlinghaus

“So knowing when you’re about to rise up and be out of your window of tolerance… how do you recognize that and bring yourself back down before you’re out of that window?” says Onchiri. “We are giving them those skills on the front end to hopefully set them up for a healthier life in the future, not just physically, but also emotionally.” 

As the college and high school mentors model these skills and behaviors, the younger students develop a greater understanding of their importance for their overall health and future success.

“Students really enjoy hearing what the college students have to say,” says Stuenkel. “It’s more fun for them than just engaging with other adults, because college students are kind of in between adults and high school students, so they serve as a bridge [to adulthood].”

DiscoverU began in the spring of 2022, and after gathering feedback and improving the program during the summer, the program began its second iteration in early October. 

“Kids are facing a lot right now in schools,” says Arlinghaus. “And so, having programs like this where they feel that they belong and are safe is really important.”

Barb McMorris, School of Nursing associate professor, joins Arlinghaus as co-principal investigator and SPH Professor Nancy Sherwood rounds out the investigator team.

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