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Pilot Program Will Train DGSAs to Support Graduate Student Wellness

February 1, 2021

By John Zhu

A Duke pilot program will provide opportunities for director of graduate studies assistants (DGSAs) to pursue training and certification as health and wellness coaches to support graduate students.

Five DGSAs were selected for the initial cohort: Danielle Giles in Biomedical Engineering, Andrea Liu in the Medical Scientist Training Program, Rachel Lo Piccolo in Marine Science and Conservation (based at the Duke Marine Lab), Kendall Mincey in Biostatistics, and Danielle Wiggins, who supports multiple graduate programs based in the Nicholas School of the Environment.

DGSAs
The five DGSAs selected for the pilot training program
(from left): Danielle Giles, Andrea Liu, Rachel Lo Piccolo,
Kendall Mincey, and Danielle Wiggins

The pilot provides funding for the selected DGSAs to participate in 10 months of training through the Duke Integrative Medicine Health Coach Training Program (IHCTP), receive peer mentoring from staff at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and obtain certification as health and wellness coaches.

After completing their training, the DGSAs are expected to spend 5-10 hours per week providing wellness coaching for students in their graduate programs. As part of the DGSAs’ applications for the pilot, their departments must explain how they plan to adjust job responsibilities to accommodate the training and the subsequent wellness coaching. The departments will also work with The Graduate School, Student Affairs, and the School of Medicine’s Office of Biomedical Graduate Education (OBGE) to assess the program’s effectiveness.

Wiggins, one of the DGSAs in the pilot, said she pursued the opportunity because it can help her to better support the students in her Nicholas School Ph.D. programs.

“The training will better equip me to serve as a supplemental resource for our Ph.D. students and make it easier for students to seek help from a familiar source within the Nicholas School,” she said. “This does not in any way take away from other resources like CAPS or DukeReach, but the skills I acquire through this program will make it easier for me to support students and identify those in need of additional support services.”

The program is a collaboration between the Office of the Provost, the School of Medicine, The Graduate School, and CAPS. It aims to help address the wellbeing and mental health challenges facing graduate students, a longstanding issue in higher education that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The pilot grew out of an initiative at the OBGE in the School of Medicine. In January 2020, Kristin Thole, the DGSA in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, began offering one-on-one wellness coaching for Ph.D. students in her program after she completed training through the IHCTP.

“The overall goal is for the person receiving the coaching to gain self-determination,” Thole said. “What I frequently see is someone who is feeling ‘stuck’ and, as we talk, they start to brighten up as they gain clarity and have action steps to move ahead.”

Her success soon prompted OBGE to partner with her and offer her wellness coaching to all School of Medicine Ph.D. students starting last March.

“The timing was serendipitous with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, de-densification of Duke’s campus, and increasing isolation of students due to remote classes and shift work in labs,” said Beth Sullivan, Associate Dean for Research Training in the School of Medicine, who oversees the OBGE. “This was a time in which Ph.D. students needed encouragement and support more than ever.”

The OBGE’s voluntary surveys over 10 months found that students who used the coaching resource reported improvement in both physical and mental wellbeing, and most deemed the coaching extremely or very useful.

Sullivan shared the model and the data with the Office of the Provost last fall, sparking collaborations that resulted in the pilot to expand the model to other Ph.D. and master’s programs.

“We see this pilot as a means of fostering wellness and a sense of thriving among our graduate students, who were experiencing comparatively high rates of anxiety and other forms of mental illness even before the pandemic,” said Ed Balleisen, Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, who is overseeing the pilot. “At the same time, it’s a way to offer professional development and stronger community among our DGSAs, who play such a vital role in supporting our graduate students.”