This semester, the Department of Computer Science will hire its first paid student advocates for health and wellness. The positions, proposed by Sachin Pendse ’17 GS, Grant Fong ’19 and Karen Tu ’20, are just one measure in a department-wide effort to promote the mental, physical and emotional well-being of its students.
Students holding the position will serve for a year and a half and will play a large role in organizing student events on topics like mental health and physical nutrition, said Laura Dobler, financial and outreach coordinator for the department. The advocates will also refer students to campus resources when necessary.
Additionally, the health and wellness advocates will work closely with the department’s diversity student advocates “in instances where there are matters of diversity and inclusion that intersect with mental health,” Dobler said.
To qualify for the position, students will initially undergo 12 hours of training through Project LETS, Dobler said. Afterwards, the student advocates will receive additional training at their own discretion covering more specialized topics through organizations like BWell Health Promotion and Sexual Assault Peer Educators, she added.
The creation of the student advocate positions is the culmination of efforts led by Pendse, Fong and Tu over the past two years to foster a healthier environment in the department, Dobler said. As The Herald previously reported, the computer science concentration is currently the most popular concentration among undergraduates.
Pendse, Fong and Tu said they realized something needed to change in the CS department after observing their friends struggle with their health while taking CS courses.
However, the catalyst to take action came during spring 2016 when students and faculty expressed their feelings of failure in a thread posted on the CS department’s Facebook group, Fong said.
With the combination of their personal experiences and the knowledge of department-wide discontent, Pendse said they felt it was a “ripe time to work on departmental change.”
Following the Facebook thread, the students organized a CS department health and wellness town hall in October 2016, which was attended by approximately 70 students in addition to representatives from Counseling and Psychological Services, BWell, Project LETS, Hack@Brown, Mosaic+ and Women in Computer Science. The intention was to “create a space where people can openly talk about their health issues” and to “take … the suffering that (students) have gone through and turn it into something constructive for the department,” Pendse said.
A recurring theme throughout the event was the “sense that people were feeling alone when they have these issues, even though a whole bunch of people shared these experiences,” said Fong, who co-hosted the event.
Before the town hall, “there was no way to spread … or collect this information where everyone would recognize” the commonality of shared experiences, he added.
Students also cited the lack of flexibility in department policies in allowing accommodations and the regularity of time-consuming assignments as challenges, Pendse said.
Afterwards, in February 2017, Pendse, Fong and Tu published a list of resources to aid CS students that included the contact information of academic deans and tips on sleeping well, eating healthy and coping with anxiety and stress.
“We made it in a collaborative Google Drive, so a ton of people started contributing their own coping mechanisms to the sheet,” Pendse said. Eventually the department heard of the list and asked to make it an official resource on its website, Fong said.
There are multiple theories explaining why students struggle to stay healthy while taking CS courses, Fong said. People tend to idealize “being busy and being unhealthy,” he said. “When that’s being (perpetuated) as the norm,” struggling can be seen “as a sign of weakness,” he added.
Fong said his biggest hope is that “if we find a really good model that works in this department, it could be replicated in other departments.”
Thomas Doeppner, vice chair of the CS department, said the sheer size of the department may cause students to feel isolated. “As faculty members, it’s hard for us to interact with (every) student,” Doeppner said.
Citing her experience in a class containing roughly 400 students, Tu voiced the same concern. “Structurally, it’s hard to talk about your personal struggles when there’s not a forum for it,” she said.
Given the workload students are assigned, Pendse added, “If you want to utilize TA office hours or professor office hours as resources for mental health, (you feel like) you’re sacrificing time (when) you could be working.”
Ultimately, through these conversations, Doeppner hopes “students who are having … issues will see that this is not something weird about them but something that occurs to everybody,” he said. “They shouldn’t be facing all of this alone,” he added.