October 2020 Campus Conversations: Megan Brown, Director of McDonald Center for Student Well-Being
Oct 12, 2020
Meet Megan Brown, Director of the University’s Rev. James E. McDonald, C.S.C., Center for Student Well-Being, or “McWell” for short. Megan and her team provide students with opportunities to improve their well-being and that of those around them. She shares why she was drawn to the field of Positive Psychology, how students experience McWell (you’ll probably wish you could experience it yourself!), and what goals she has for her team during COVID-19. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
By Maura Boston ‘17 and Jessie Wurzer ‘17
What drew you to a career in counseling?
I decided to be a psychologist when I was in the 5th grade. I came home from a career fair at school and said to my mom, “I need to decide what I’m going to be when I grow up”. My mom was a very wise woman and she asked me, “What is important to you?” That gave me pause -- I told her I wanted to make people happy. I was a very happy child with a really great relationship with my mom. I wanted others to have what I had. I knew the connection my mom (who was a single parent) and I had was special and that relationships were the source of joy. My mom shared the new terms “psychology” and “social work” with me. I did some research, and confirmed psychology was what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people have happy families. I made that decision and really stuck with it. I took Psychology 101 in high school which sealed the deal. It was fascinating: understanding people, their behavior, and helping them to be happy and well.
Can you talk a bit about why you consider yourself a student of Positive Psychology?
When I graduated with my doctorate in 2002, it was the start of the Positive Psychology movement. Social psychologists were receiving more funds to study happiness and contentment. After graduation I started immersing myself in the field of Positive Psychology. As one famous scholar in the field puts it, I wasn’t just helping people go “from negative 10 to zero,” but I was also helping them flourish, by going from one to positive 10.
What brought you to Notre Dame?
My path was unconventional. Notre Dame was not a dream or a plan for me. I’m from Canada and the child of two Jamaican immigrants. I never watched football and I wasn’t concerned about what college I would go to. I had never heard of Notre Dame until I attended Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, a Seventh-day Adventist institution connected with my denomination, and not far from South Bend.
After I graduated with my PhD from Andrews, I was working as a counseling psychologist at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks. My husband and I realized we needed to move within driving distance of my mom in Canada as she was needing more support. In applying for a staff psychologist position in Canada, I came across an open position at the University Counseling Center (UCC) at Notre Dame. We still had friends in the Michiana area and it was within driving distance from home in Canada, so I just tweaked my CV and cover letter and sent them, thinking I would never get an interview. I actually ended up interviewing for both positions. I really wanted the position in Canada, so I thought I could practice with the Notre Dame interview. But when I met the staff at Notre Dame’s UCC and saw their commitment to students, their authenticity, and their commitment to diversity and growth as individuals, I was impressed and inspired. I felt like “This is where I need to be.” After praying about it, and being offered the job, I let go of being back in Canada and decided on Notre Dame. I am very grateful that I made that decision 13 years ago.
What was it like transitioning from working at the Counseling Center (UCC) to the McDonald Center for Student Well-Being (McWell)?
Transitioning from counseling to health promotion with McWell was really natural to me, and it felt like a dream come true. I was always interested in psychology, but I was also fascinated by the mind-body connection. How does how we think and how we feel impact our physical health? Back when I first asked these questions in the 1980s, we didn’t know as much, but it was pretty clear, even then, that there is a definite impact. Our relationships and how we think can really impact all aspects of our well-being. Now we know so much more with brain imaging showing us what is happening internally based on what we are thinking and doing. Positive psychology had actually been my entry point to health promotion. We had so much valuable information in psychology to make peoples’ lives better. We were sharing that in individual therapy, but couldn't we be giving that information to the masses preventatively so that they didn’t need to go to therapy? So I framed outreach not as “Come to the counseling center” but rather as “Here are things to help you live your best life and maybe to not need counseling or to see a physician.” That was an integral part of what I felt I needed to do as a psychologist.
In 2008, I was starting the ‘Let’s Talk’ program at Notre Dame. (ed note: Let's Talk is a drop-in consultation where students meet with a counselor on campus but outside of the Counseling Center space, to break down barriers) I visited Cornell University to gather information on a similar program they had started. During my visit, I toured their health promotion department. I felt like I was home. These were people who were doing the same things I was doing, but they weren’t psychologists and counselors. They were people who had degrees in health promotion, which I didn’t even know was a field. When I came back to Notre Dame, I said to Dr. Susan Steibe-Pasalich, who was director of the UCC at the time, “We need to have a health promotion department.” Sue was very open to the idea and started talking with others. One thing led to another and McWell came to be. I never imagined I would be a part of McWell (though I dreamt about it) because I didn’t have the credentials in health promotion or public health. My opportunity came when the first director of McWell moved on and I was asked to be the interim director. I was so grateful for the opportunity and it felt like a dream come true when I was eventually asked to stay on as director. It was an unplanned but very smooth transition.
For those who are not familiar with McWell, can you paint a picture for us of what McWell is like when a student walks in?
McWell is designed to be a welcoming space, a home away from home, a place where the senses are engaged, where students can really unwind, relax, and connect with each other. The first thing people usually notice is the scent of the ‘make your own’ essential oils we have. A number of students, many of them international students, have said, “This smells like home,” which is very meaningful since that is what we are trying to achieve. I don’t think you will find the colors of the space anywhere else on campus. We have our McWell brand colors of teal and lime, which are uplifting, but also soothing.
There are different rooms including the homey Living Room with a fireplace and the Break Room with creative activities like painting, knitting, playing Wii, games, or puzzles. The Fort is a small, nature oriented room with lots of greens and foliage. All of these rooms are based on research on environment and the psychology of space. There are snacks available, too!
These are spaces where people can connect or be alone, be creative, meditate or pray. With these spaces we hope not only to attract visitors to McWell, but also to inspire others on campus to think about how space can contribute to well-being. McWell has shown how that can be done, and our next phase is to help other campus spaces design for connection and relaxation. My hope is that well-being will be embedded into every aspect of campus life so that when students leave Notre Dame, they are healthier than when they started. If the McWell staff does our job right, students won’t know who to give credit to. They will see the whole University as a place where well-being is a priority, where they learned to take the best care of themselves, and they’ll take those skills wherever they go.
This is a difficult time for mental health. What goals do you have for McWell and your team during COVID-19?
Right now our goals are COVID prevention and mitigation, helping students to know the health guidelines and why they are important to protect the community. When people are thinking of others, they are more likely to follow those kinds of guidelines. We want the students to be able to stay on campus and to be healthy and well.
Before students came back this fall, McWell led a Division of Student Affairs initiative to think about a trauma-informed approach to our work. Our colleagues collaborated on what a trauma-informed approach looks like and developed a community resilience toolbox. We thought about what individuals can do -- no matter where they work on campus -- to influence students' well-being. We shared this toolkit with student leaders, as well, so when they are planning events they can consider the elements of a trauma-informed approach: physical and psychological safety, social connection, emotional well-being, and hope. How do we inspire hope?
Another important aspect of our work at McWell is education around alcohol and other drugs, which has become a COVID prevention mechanism as well, because when people are misusing alcohol, they can’t follow COVID mitigation guidelines.
What do you think draws students to McWell? What have been some of your most popular offerings?
I do think that the space itself draws people to McWell. But we offer many things students don’t initially see when they walk in. Our Dreaming Domers sleep program is very successful. Students can sign up online and come in to get a sleep kit with different items that help with sleep, as well as a weekly email on different evidence-based sleep tips from our on-campus sleep expert, Dr. Jessica Payne. Another popular program is Koru Mindfulness, an evidence-based program designed for college students that teaches mindfulness skills. Weekly 75 minute sessions held over four weeks help students manage stress, develop focus and awareness of their overall well-being, and increase their positive emotion. Another very important program is our peer leader program, GROW (Getting Real on Well-Being). Mobilizing students to inspire and reach their peers is a vital part of well-being work. We currently have 10 peer leaders but just had 15 new students sign up this semester!
We are always assessing the strengths and needs of our students. We didn’t just say, “Let’s do a sleep program and mindfulness program because the research is great.” We actually looked at what the needs of our students were and then developed or acquired programs that would be helpful to them.
I want to emphasize that the team at McWell is amazing. The Division has made our our work a priority which is really valuable. I’m just one little piece amongst many others who are working together to do wonderful things. I am very humbled to have this chance to talk about our shared work.
Thank you Megan Brown for taking the time to share your experiences with us and for all you do for students and the University as a whole!
As we continue our campus conversations, we encourage you to suggest our next interviewee. Do you know a woman on campus who has a story to tell? She can be a professor or pianist, coach or chemist, administrator or athlete. We hope you'll help us seek out more Notre Dame women who can share a bit about their lives, so we can all continue to learn from each other. Click here to make a suggestion.