Shawnté Elbert, EdD, CWHC, MCHES, and Sherrá Watkins, PhD, LCMHC-S, LCAS, CRC, CCS, twin sisters, are making waves in the college health and wellness space. Both work in similar roles at different campuses: Dr. Elbert is the Associate Vice President of Health and Well-being at the Ohio State University and Dr. Watkins is the Associate Vice President for Health and Wellness at the University of Utah.
At the heart of their work is a deep and abiding commitment to help serve students in their communities and build a better campus system that actually supports health equity initiatives. This duo, full of passion and determination, is poised to make a long-lasting impact in the world of higher education.
Two Different Paths, but the Same Shared Vision
Born and raised in Winston Salem, North Carolina, Dr. Elbert and Dr. Watkins saw firsthand the need for health and mental health support. Their father, who received a full scholarship to Wake Forest University, succumbed to drug addiction at a time when the ‘The War on Drugs’ wasn’t treated with critical attention or care, preventing him from graduating. Their mother, just eighteen when they were born, became a nurse and worked in the hospital, then in a doctor’s office, where Dr. Elbert and Dr. Watkins spent many after-school days.
Throughout their childhood, they witnessed the generosity and camaraderie of the healthcare workers, in addition to the kindness of their grandmother who was a hospital nurse and later, a home health nurse, as well as the glue bringing family and community members together. They both decided, early on, they would become lifelong helpers.
After working as peer health educators and graduating as first-generation college students from East Carolina University, they extended their academic careers and went on to acquire five postgraduate degrees between them. Dr. Elbert jump-started her career in higher education right away, and has now spent 17 years experience across health education, wellness, and student affairs. Dr. Watkins, in contrast, spent many years working in public health and ambulatory care, focusing on mental health, substance use, rehabilitation counseling, and chronic diseases, before turning back to higher education. To this day, she still maintains a private practice.
“The majority of my sister’s clients outside of campus are people of color and those in the LGBTQ+ community. Being able to pick her brain on how she’s working with these clients and bring that insight to campus has been pivotal, says Dr. Elbert. At the same time, Dr. Watkins will turn to her sister for mentorship and guidance around higher education, as Dr. Elbert has spent many years working as a leader in this space.
With two different perspectives, but the same shared mission, the sisters maintain an ongoing discussion around college mental health. Dr. Elbert and Dr. Watkins have created a shared space, where they can “cry and debrief” and offer support to one another during challenging times. They often share what has worked in the community, what has or hasn’t worked in higher education, and how they can better support students and their staff on campus today.
One of their long-term visions is to reimagine and restructure the higher education systems of care and take a much larger, preventive approach to health and wellness, which will help reach diverse, underserved students who may not feel comfortable help-seeking or utilizing clinical services.
Building Programs for More Preventative, Holistic Care
A lot of institutions tie student success to student retention, but don’t always consider the full scope of why students are stopping out or leaving, Dr. Elbert explains. “How do we go upstream and find out what’s actually impacting our students prior to coming to campus so we can build a model to assist and support them holistically when they get here?”
Starting with basic needs and the dimensions of wellness, Dr. Elbert and Dr. Watkins aim to equip students with the skills and tools they need to advocate and care for themselves and feel empowered once they graduate. Part of that solution would include peer-to-peer support, wellness coaching, more campus resources, and opportunities for social engagement.
Ultimately, they believe the opportunity and responsibility to create a better culture of care for students, is on the institution itself – and the campus stakeholders.
This is why Dr. Elbert and her colleagues at Ohio State University are working to launch, in phases, the Buckeyes T.H.R.I.V.E. program, which takes a preventative approach to student health and well-being, in partnership with Dr. Kia McKinnie and the First Year Experience team and other campus partners. Part of the program will include a Wellness Passport, which encourages students to engage in campus activities and resources, and will focus on various elements of health and wellness, including sleep, finances, stress, and nutrition. Dr. Elbert hopes to embed the program into existing first-year courses so students really take advantage of it.
Dr. Watkins loved the idea so much, she took it straight to her team at the University of Utah and they are now using the major concepts of the framework to build out their own program. In addition to establishing a preventative approach to student health and wellbeing, which they plan to make some components digital, Dr. Watkins and the University of Utah staff want to really highlight the importance of understanding who incoming and current students are in order to help them access and navigate campus programs and services, and critical health literacy topics like health insurance and deductibles, as students use their current insurance and will have to navigate the U.S. healthcare system upon graduation.
While the programs will vary to account for institutional differences, the ultimate goal for both sisters is to achieve health equity for all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
“Building a connection within the first couple of weeks for a student is very, very crucial when it comes to academic success and mental health wellness,” says Dr. Watkins, which is why both sisters are considering the best ways to assess and screen students in a safe, secure way, and build in more interaction so they can determine the existing state of student mental health on campus. They’re even considering co-creating a healthy equity assessment, which doesn’t currently exist.
Overcoming Limitations and Building Wraparound Services
“We have to stop being a crisis-focused center,” Dr. Elbert says. “If we continue to work this way, we’ll neglect to serve the students who don’t look like they’re in crisis.”
While many institutions are faced with staffing shortages, being under resourced, and budgeting limitations, offering more preventative services can not only improve the student experience and assist with student persistence, but it can actually prevent students from reaching a state of crisis. A good first step to building a preventative model? Using a root cause analysis, Dr. Elbert suggests, and figuring out which systems need to change.
Dr. Watkins also wants to merge the siloed departments that currently exist on campus to build wraparound services for students. One of her big initiatives is creating a referral pathway across the campus that’s open, transparent, and consistent. Bringing together different stakeholders from the counseling, wellness, recreation, student health, and disability departments, she let them all know that at some point they would need to start sharing critical information.
Dr. Elbert is planning to do the same and will bring in other key departments like academic affairs. The challenge, however, is finding the technology to bring all of these people into one central system where there’s just one profile for the student. While student confidentiality and privacy would be incorporated, ensuring that only relevant stakeholders would be able to view certain information, it would eliminate the disparate systems that currently exist in higher education.
“Not every student needs counseling,” Dr. Elbert explains. While some students are in crisis and do need clinical intervention, many just need support. They may be experiencing financial issues or a recent breakup which is preventing them from focusing on their academics. The goal, she says, is to not only help the student, but decrease the amount of time it takes to help the student, and decrease the amount of times that student has to repeat their story.
The sisters want to change the way higher education works – and they both feel as though we’re in a pivotal moment. With more and more people acknowledging health promotion and the need for health equity, they feel hopeful that higher education will change for the better and students will, someday, receive the support they really need to thrive.
“Working on a campus is a privilege and an honor,” says Dr. Elbert. “It’s also personal for us.”
Dr. Watkins and Dr. Elbert were featured as part of our Spotlight series on prominent leaders in higher education. If you know someone who you would like to be featured, please email us at email@example.com.