Healthy and growing: UNCA health and wellness department celebrates 10th year

BE WELL: Stacy Smith, the student director for the Healthy Aging Program Initiative at UNC Asheville, was on hand to answer questions at last week's celebration of the 10th anniversary of the college's Health and Wellness degree program. Photo by Cindy Kunst

The students of UNCA’s Health and Wellness Promotion Department are on a fast track to transforming traditional health care.

“We intend to work with the community to make healthy living the easy choice – the easy choice for children, the easy choice for employees in the workplace, and the easy choice for older adults. Working together we will build a national model that enhances student learning, strengthens the economy and improves the health and well-being of the community. Ultimately, we must work together to create a wellness culture in North Carolina and in America,” said Dr. Keith Ray in 2008, founder of the department, which represents one of UNCA’s fast-growing majors.

On Sept. 1, nearly 100 trustees, board members, staff, students and alumni gathered at UNCA to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Health and Wellness degree program and to honor the work of Dr. Ray.

The event began with a reception held in the staff offices of the Wilma M. Sherrill Center, which houses not only the academic programs for the Health and Wellness Promotion Department but is also the home of the North Carolina Center for Health and Wellness, which informs state policy on health and wellness initiatives.

Working it out

Stacy Smith, the student director for the Healthy Aging Program Initiative, or HAPI Lab, one of the department’s brain-children, was on hand to answer questions. The HAPI Lab focuses on wellness coaching and computerized balance screenings. Students develop exercise programs aimed at training muscles to help with fall prevention and balance training. The lab uses state-of-the art, low-impact equipment. Students program the exercises into a “Smart Card,” a personalized computer card that is inserted into the equipment.

“Then we can actually see how much of the workout they did … it can actually coach them through and map their progress without someone standing over them,” Smith says.

Upstairs in the Biometrics “Fit” Lab, senior HWP major Mo Hakala explained the services and community outreach the lab offers, which is basically used for fitness tracking.

“All of our sports teams come in , every semester to track their muscle mass; whether they lost muscle mass over the summer or gained it through training and how much fat are they adding. We are always open to students, faculty and staff for free, but part of a project we did last year involved opening up the lab to community members. Now community members can come in and for a fee, get measured by the Bodpod, Microfit or both.”

The Bodpod uses air displacement to find your fat percentage and your resting metabolic rate, or basically how many calories you regularly burn when you’re just sitting around. The Microfit program uses fitness-assessment software and testing equipment to measure your fitness status and track progress.

A healthy legacy

Dr. Stephen Hussey, class of 2009, explained how the HWP helped him discover a passion for health he didn’t know he had. “I had no idea what I wanted to major in. I knew I was thinking about medical school so I was making sure I got those science and biology classes but I didn’t want to major in that, I didn’t really have a passion for it, I just knew I needed it. And then this degree program actually came along a year after I got here and became a major and I tried it out and loved it!”

Hussey graduated with a major in health and wellness, and went on to chiropractic school in Portland, Ore., then got a master’s in nutrition and functional medicine. He currently works at a chiropractic clinic and runs an online consulting business that treats chronic disease through nutritional and lifestyle coaching.

“The more I study health the more I realize you can apply it to just about everything,” he says. “That’s what this program did. It showed me the differences in the approaches and illuminated where I saw myself as a medical professional.”

Summer Griffin, who just graduated from the HWP in May, explained the value of her time in the program. “For me this degree gave me a really great foundation in going into public health and service. It emphasized the integration of knowledge, understanding and collaboration among medical and health services caring for individuals.  [It’s] empowering for people trying to go into health services, as well as clients and communities. ”

Griffin, who plans to move to New York City in the next few months, is hoping to work with social justice and health equity specifically with youth, empowering people to take a role in their own health. She highlighted a common theme repeated throughout the evening. “What’s so cool about this department is there are so many people from so many different interest areas who are all together with different backgrounds and expertise because it’s all related to health and wellness in some way. So you have pre-med, PT (physical therapy), you have people who end up focusing on public policy or health-care fund-raising, or nutrition, or sociology, or anthropology, or psychology. In this department you get the opportunity to cross-pollinate with those different applications under the umbrella of health and wellness.”

During the dinner, alumni from all over the world, from Oregon to Africa, sent their respects to be included in honoring Dr. Ray. Luke Howe, Class of 2015, who attended and spoke at the dinner, received his degree in health-care fund-raising and now works as the gift officer for the eastern region for Mission Health System.

”During my senior year Dr. Ray encouraged us all to research areas we were passionate about in preparation for finding a career after graduation. The areas I chose were philanthropy and health care. I spent the semester researching corporate fund-raising methods specifically in health care. I couldn’t get enough. I was captivated by my research and knew philanthropy was where I wanted to be.”

Most important, he learned that philanthropy is a “creative expression of that part of yourself that cares about and believes in the potential for change. The most effective philanthropy joins your interest and experience with current needs and seeks desired outcomes for the public good, not self-gain.”

Given the complexities of today’s health-care environment, that is a healthy goal, indeed.

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