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11 Questions With... Binghamton University's Cindy Cowden

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Headshot of Cindy Cowden, M.S. Ed., CHESÒ is the senior associate director of Campus Recreation at Binghamton University.

Cindy Cowden, M.S. Ed., CHES® is the senior associate director of Campus Recreation at Binghamton University. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Cardiac Rehabilitation and Exercise Science from Ithaca College and a Master of Science in Education from SUNY Brockport. She is a Certified Health Education Specialist and an ACE certified Health Coach. Cindy has worked in the clinical, corporate and educational sectors of health and wellness for over 20 years. Since 2013, Cindy has chaired the Healthy Campus Initiative at Binghamton University.

Cindy discusses Binghamton’s success with implementing HCI guidelines, and shares insights on how other campuses across the nation can begin creating a healthier environment for students, faculty and staff.

1. Share why your college or university got involved with PHA’s Healthier Campus Initiative.

Binghamton University has made a commitment to student health and wellness. It is both an institutional priority and a value added component of the Binghamton experience. Regardless of a student’s academic major or professional plans, we want to help them create healthier habits for the rest of their lives. Active Bearcats are healthy Bearcats and engaged alumni.

The PHA’s Healthier Campus Initiative provided us the opportunity to be part of a larger movement that is attempting to change the health culture in America. By joining PHA, we opened up the opportunity to interact with counterparts from other colleges and universities, to collaborate, problem solve and share best practices. The PHA commitment has been a catalyst to move programs and initiatives forward that will impact over 16,000 students and 5,000 faculty/staff on campus. We knew that PHA would provide resources, guidance and support to help us reach out our goal of becoming one of the healthiest campuses in the nation.

Photo of Binghamton University students holding pamphlets at a campus health fair. The school is a PHA partner participating in the Healthier Campus Initiative.

Binghamton University

2. Which HCI guideline has been the most impactful and cost-efficient to implement on campus?

That is a difficult question to answer! We are still in the process of evaluating impact, both in behaviors and costs. I would have to say that the guidelines most frequently mentioned when we ask campus members for feedback about B-Healthy include the posting of the healthy campus signage around campus. For example: the mileage markers, hydration station and point of decision signs near stairwells. I would also say that the many changes in the dining facilities have created a buzz regarding healthier eating habits. Our residential dining facilities advertise the Plus 1 program, the new Wellness Meals and the 150 calorie desserts. It seems that the campus community is starting to have an awareness of the PHA guidelines in action.

3. How are you or other staff and faculty members benefitting from the Healthier Campus Initiative efforts?

I’d like to think that faculty and staff members are benefitting from the Healthy Campus efforts in that healthier choices are now more readily available to them, both in food options, programming and services, but I suspect the bigger benefits will come from the increase in dialogue about the positive benefits of employee health and happiness on institutional and student success. We are talking more about the need for positive role modeling for our students, the potential of implementing mindfulness in the classroom setting and the need to support employee wellness and professional development. Healthier Campus may not solve every concern, but it may be the reason important conversations start.

4. Any advice on getting the word out to students about the healthier options available?

Binghamton University students at a campus health fair. Binghamton is a PHA partner participating in the Healthier Campus Initiative.

One unique way that we have found helpful to get healthy eating information out to students is to create energy, excitement and engagement with the Dining Services employees. They have not only become great ambassadors for the Healthy Campus Initiative in the dining facilities but many are actively engaged in the Binghamton University Dining Services(BUDS) Employee Wellness Program. They are talking up healthy choices because they are participating in monthly challenges and workshops themselves!

5. PHA is all about partnerships! How have you joined forces with any other PHA partners?

Binghamton University has been lucky to connect with a number of other institutions involved in either the PHA or their own Healthy Campus Initiative. The collection of schools involved is a great resource for problem solving and idea generation. We participated in a panel discussion about the PHA at the 2016 NIRSA National Conference with NC State, University of Miami and the University of North Dakota. It was a great opportunity to share the initiative and our successes with peer institutions.

We also have an outstanding collaboration with our food service provider, Binghamton University Dining Services (BUDS) by Sodexo. BUDS has served as a PHA resource and presented to many other constituents in the food service area as well.

Binghamton has also recently joined the National Consortium for BHAC (Building Healthy Academic Communities). It has been another great source of information and networking with like-minded campuses.

Image of students at Binghamton University playing basketball outdoors. Binghamton University participates in PHA's Healthier Campus Initiative.

6. How do you encourage students to get involved when it comes to planning HCI activities on your campus?

There are currently over 10 different health and wellness related internships, advisory boards and committees that students can become part of. Our students actively seek out leadership opportunities and want to be involved. They are our best sources for creative problem solving, program development and marketing strategies. These groups include:

  • Student Culinary Council;
  • Nutrition and Fitness Interns;
  • Student Health Advisory Committee;
  • Mental Health Outreach Peer Educators;
  • REACH (Real Education About College Health) Peer Educators;
  • 20:1 Sexual Assault Peer Educators;
  • Personal Training Internship; and, the
  • Campus Recreation Program Advisory Board

All are enthusiastic to plan events and collaborate with various campus departments.

7. What’s the best way to collect information on new physical activity opportunities, nutrition-related efforts, etc. that students, faculty and staff may be interested in next?

We are constantly looking for feedback, suggestions and input from the campus community! While many of us involved in the Healthy Campus Initiative collect information informally in our daily interactions with students and other staff members, we do offer more formal ways for people to leave ideas. B-Healthy has its own email account that is answered daily. Campus Recreation and BUDS have online comment cards that can be submitted anonymously. B-Healthy also utilizes an Instagram account to post updates and tips along with posts called #HealthyBearcatsofBinghamton where we travel across campus and ask students questions about how they stay healthy at college, what they think a healthy campus is and what they have concerns about. The feedback is revealing and helpful in many ways.

8. What is your college or university’s health philosophy?

Student health fair at Binghamton University, a PHA partner participating in the Healthier Campus Initiative. Pictured are a student  and the university's mascot holding a sign that says "R U Green?"

Binghamton University recognizes the impact a favorable state of wellness plays in an individual’s overall success, both academically and personally. Students with a positive, flourishing health status have a greater ability and readiness to learn and be fully engaged in educational experiences inside and outside the classroom. Through collaborative efforts across Binghamton University divisions, the Healthy Campus Initiative (HCI) strives to cultivate a culture that is supportive of individuals and groups in pursuit of their optimal potential.

9. What have been some of the challenges your school has experienced trying to implement Healthier Campus Initiative guidelines on campus, and how has it overcome them?

There was initial apprehension from some areas on campus as we approached the guidelines because they required changes to existing processes, policies or programs. However, once we clarified the ultimate goal, to create an environment and identity that encourages and supports healthy living, we were able to find solutions that allowed all parties a voice in the implementation plan. The outcome was a greater buy-in across campus for the Healthy Campus Initiative. Offices and departments suddenly realized that they do have a role in helping to change the culture on campus, even if their core services have nothing to do specifically with health and wellness.

Binghamton University students participating in an outdoor class. Binghamton University is a PHA Healthier Campus Initiative partner committed to creating a healthier environment for its students, faculty and staff.

Binghamton University

10. How have college students responded to the changes you’ve made on campus? Feel free to share specific examples.

As part of the Healthy Campus Initiative, a student intern developed the Healthy Bearcats of Binghamton series on our Instagram page. Our intern then traveled around campus asking students questions like what they did that day to improve their health, or what they felt contributed to their health and wellness on campus.

We then posted their picture and response on the Instagram page. The responses were interesting, revealing and in some case directed us to other changes to implement. Here are some sample responses:

In the food halls there are healthy nutrition facts everywhere! I sometimes take them into account ;). #healthybearcatsofbinghamton

The gym on campus has a really welcoming atmosphere, and all the health and wellness classes are really fun! There’s also water everywhere on campus. #healthybearcatsofbinghamton

I love making art and the fine arts building offers a lot of opportunities to do art. A form of stress relief. #healthybearcatsofbinghamton

11. Have the HCI guidelines helped to foster any additional health and wellness changes on campus? If so, please share other programs, policies and/or activities that are taking place!

Aside from the 23 PHA guideline changes, the HCI has also worked on the following:

  • Established residential dining ambassadors who promote healthy food choices;
  • Designated B-Healthy parking spots to encourage extra steps;
  • Created a Healthy Meeting Reference Guide for work-related events;
  • Supported the campus decision to become tobacco free in August 2017, serving on one of two committees – the Campus Policy Committee and the Education and Smoking Cessation Committee – and helping to provide resources to those who wish to quit smoking or using tobacco products;
  • Achieved ACSM Exercise is Medicine (EIM) silver certification and are developing an on-campus referral system; and,
  • Installed a walking meditation labyrinth.

We engage students in wellness throughout their college experience through:

  • The Admissions Tour Guide Pedometer Program for prospective students;
  • Resources and information sharing at Orientation;
  • Developed a Health and Wellness Learning Community within Residential Life;
  • Academic internships in various health-related concentrations; and,
  • Ongoing programs and activities.

Our Work In Motion