Facing illness as a first-year

Health issues of one kind or another persist on Grounds, especially during the first year of college, but the University has plans to prepare and protect students

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The Stall Seat Journal is one of many organizations across grounds that provides helpful tips, advice, and guidance for students across all years. 

Vyshnavi Pendala | Cavalier Daily

When moving from high school to college, it is difficult to catalogue all the changes that occur. The particulars vary from person to person, but certain large scale adjustments await incoming students — the transitions from living and eating primarily at home to dorms and dining halls and of course to an increased academic workload. 

Adapting to an entirely new environment may prove stressful, which can manifest in altered nutritional habits and mental or physical illnesses. In response, the University takes certain steps to aid new and current students in navigating a newfound level of independence.

Though the “freshman fifteen” may be an exaggeration, certain evidence suggests that weight gain is still a common characteristic for many during the transition from high school to college. In 2015, researchers at the University of Oxford analyzed multiple studies over more than three decades and found that while 60.9 percent of freshman students gained weight, the amount averaged approximately 7.5 pounds. The authors recommended that “health promotion and health intervention seem critical in the first university year,” and that “universities should embrace their role as potential key health promoters and shapers of student health.”

A “healthy lifestyle,” a buzzword in pop culture, can be an ambiguous term, especially when it comes to eating. With food allergies, conscious dietary decisions and certain chronic conditions, a nutritious diet means different things for different people. However, Paula Caravati, Ph.D., R.D.N., and nutritionist for U.Va. Dining, gave a piece of advice for all students — adopt an intuitive approach to food.

“I think that with the initial transition from home to university life it is helpful for students to establish awareness about the necessity of eating regularly, balancing their dietary intake and being mindful about hunger versus appetite,” Caravati said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “In an all-you-care-to-eat environment, a healthy eating mindset greatly assists.”

While knowing one’s needs may be easier said than done, Caravati went on to reference several resources such as U.Va. Dining and the Elson Student Health Wellness program that help students make healthy choices. Signs containing nutrition facts and indications of vegetarian, vegan and healthy for life options populate dining halls. 

Certain locations cater primarily to certain diets, such as the Copper Hood station in the three dining rooms — which boasts dishes free of the Big 8 allergens — and The Castle, a restaurant on Grounds centered on mindful, plant-based eating.

“Our menus are developed by our culinary specialists, including chefs and dietitians. Nutritional balance, student input (Voice of the Consumer), food trends and popular cultural dishes are all factors that comprise decisions on menu options,” Caravati said. “Food allergies are also considered and a large part of our menu and nutrition services.”

In addition, Caravati oversees wellness-based nutrition counseling for students with a meal plan and collaborates closely with the Elson Student Health Center in assisting students with severe allergies or eating disorders.

When asked for tips on healthy eating, Caravati referred to the Healthy Lifestyle Brochure on U.Va. Dining’s Healthy for Life webpage. She specifically emphasized the dangers of skipping meals when attempting to eat intuitively, as stress and busy schedules could eventually lead to overeating.

Mental health contributes to one’s overall well-being as well. According to the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health International College Student project, 35 percent of college students surveyed experienced a “common lifetime disorder,” such as depression or generalized anxiety disorder. 

For its part, the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services offers personal and group therapy sessions, psychiatric services and outreach and prevention programs. CAPS launched SilverCloud at the beginning of 2019, an online repository of cognitive based therapy modules that can be accessed immediately and as needed.

Director of CAPS Nicole Ruzek said she encourages students entering college to create a support system comprised of peers and University faculty and staff knowledgeable about available community resources.

“It is important for students to know that seeking help is one of the most courageous and important things they can do to take care of themselves and their community,” Ruzek said in an email. “We all need to attend to our health and wellbeing in order to make sure we are prepared to handle the challenges that come our way as well as offer support to others.” 

According to Ruzek, students should try to incorporate overall self-care practices into their daily routine. Not only can simple steps — such as balanced sleeping and eating patterns and a mixture of academic and social activities — foster a healthy mindset, but they can also guard students against sickness.

“When students are experiencing stress they can develop illness more easily, including colds, digestive problems, sleep difficulties and problems with substance use,” Ruzek said. “The mind and body are connected, and both need attention and care to ensure good all-around health and wellbeing.”

Indeed, first years — and students throughout college — have the potential to encounter epidemics of everything from the common cold to strep throat. Costi Sifri, associate professor in the division of Infectious Diseases and International Health, cited dorms, apartment buildings and crowded houses as breeding grounds for infections.

“The issue is with the close living, learning and social activities with people in close quarters,” Sifri said. “It’s easy to transmit illnesses, such as respiratory viruses, from person to person.”

Rising second-year Engineering student Sophia Kerns suffered multiple times from flu-like symptoms while living in dorms, as did her roommate. Kerns agreed that living with many people in a small space definitely contributed to the spread of germs.

“Sometimes you feel a bit like you are living in a petri dish,” Kerns said. “Thankfully when I was sick, though, my roommate was helpful with bringing stuff from the dining hall when I felt hungry, and classmates were helpful with texting information about classes.”

The University has weathered the emergence of several serious illnesses and virus outbreaks. At least 52 students contracted mumps in 2006. The University directed those with confirmed cases to travel home to recover if possible and quarantined any remaining students. 

While scattered instances of mumps still occur each year, and the flu always makes an appearance despite the Elson Student Health Center’s endorsement of annual flu vaccines, more pressing issues have arisen. 

During the 2018-19 school year, norovirus and adenovirus emerged on Grounds. Division of Student Affairs health officials subsequently emailed the University community about the outbreaks, listing medical resources for the infected and suggesting preventative measures for others. 

Sifri reiterated such precautions. Washing one’s hands well, avoiding contaminated surfaces and items that could mingle saliva and coughing and sneezing into the crook of the elbow were several of the main strategies he promoted. 

Sifri also highlighted the importance of proper vaccination to combat certain illnesses, a statement that the Elson Student Health Center supports, as evidenced by the range of required vaccines for incoming students listed on the mandatory Pre-Entrance Health Form.

Ultimately, though, Sifri concluded with the final thought that a holistic approach to health often acts as an effective remedy in and of itself. 

“Sometimes being a healthy student can fall by the wayside,” Sifri said. “Being physically fit, getting enough, having a healthy diet, not smoking, not drinking in excess or at all — these basic things you do to take care of yourself as a healthy person can help prevent infection, or at least lessen its effects.”

Furthermore, as Ruzek noted, the process of becoming self-sufficient relies just as much — if not more — on self-care as it does on learning how to make decisions and deciding on a career path.

“I can't stress highly enough the importance of self-care, including adequate sleep, a well-rounded diet, a healthy social support network and balanced lifestyle that includes both a focus on academics as well as other aspects of one's identity, values or interests,” Ruzek said.

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