“Take a big, deep breath—In through the nose and out through the mouth.” A soothing British voice coached Blair students in a softly lit room following lunch on a recent Monday afternoon. “Close your eyes if you’d like to,” the man instructed gently. “Relax and, as thoughts intrude, allow them to pass and return your attention to your breathing.”
Well, not quite. Having never meditated, some students’ eyes fluttered open while other students shifted in their seats, looking around at their classmates. Elsewhere in the room, more experienced students appeared tranquil, all signs of the busy school day erased, their expressions serene as they fully embraced the opportunity to meditate.
A practice that dates back to religious sects from the fifth millennium B.C., meditation is becoming more and more mainstream, thanks in part to easily accessible and guided programs like the one called “Headspace” that Blair students sampled at the beginning of the fall semester. People have been practicing meditation and mindfulness for centuries likely because of its physical benefits. Studies show that it decreases stress and anxiety while increasing happiness, helping bring practitioners into balance. That, explains health-and-wellness instructor Cency Middleton, is the goal for Blair students. Addressing the assembled students at the first session, she asked them to consider, “How can we be more intentional about finding the balance that works best for us?”
Along with school counselor Melany Jimenez, Ms. Middleton is leading a series of discussions with Blair’s dorm and day student groups this year titled “How to Be Well @ Blair.” The sessions seek to cultivate balance in students’ lives as well as help them develop a personal skill set so that when they are challenged over the course of the year, whether academically, emotionally or socially, they have coping skills in place.
Origins of the Program
Promoting students’ healthy development, as well as enabling them to reach their potential, is Ms. Middleton’s priority. “When we create opportunities for kids to be well emotionally, they have more room for academic achievement and a sense of belonging,” she says. In planning the specific curriculum for these conversations, Ms. Middleton recognized the power of peer education and looked to incorporate student voices. Started in 2019, Be Well @ Blair is a student organization that seeks to create positive change on campus by focusing on peer health education. Specifically, students, assisted by faculty, incorporate health education into curricular and co-curricular opportunities, giving seminars about topics of interest to their peers. This group was a natural fit for Ms. Middleton's goals, and within one meeting, they decided to join forces, and the program “How to Be Well @ Blair” was born.
“All idea topics are generated by the students themselves,” says Ms. Middleton, and they come from a variety of sources, not just the Be Well @ Blair student leaders. Some of this year’s topics, for example, were borne from senior exit interviews, a tool that Blair uses to gather students’ feedback about their experience on the hilltop. Others came from a survey in which students noted subjects they would like to learn more about.
Traveling from dorm to dorm and assisted by student presenters from Be Well @ Blair, Ms. Middleton and Ms. Jimenez oversee the lessons in small groups, so that there is space for student discussion and, in the case of the first lesson, meditation practice. In his second year working with Be Well, Gabriel Ramirez ’22 believes the student leadership during these conversations is critical. “There is less translation required when students speak on these topics to other students, because the language is the same,” he says. “And something positive comes from learning information from other students. Being taught by a classmate breaks down barriers. When students see someone they know modeling positive behavior, they think ‘This guy is the same age as me and he knows so much....’ I think it makes students more willing to engage with the lesson.”
Themes for 2021-2022
This semester’s first session, “Finding Balance at Blair,” sought to explore the science and benefits of mindfulness and meditation. It aimed to help students discover what practices work for them and to cultivate a quieter and more focused state of mind.
Topics scheduled for later in the year include teaching effective communication skills, so that, for example, students learn how to approach difficult conversations with roommates. A subsequent session on healthy relationships will focus on what love looks like, while a lesson on social media will explore the impact that Instagram and other social networking sites have on body image. The year will conclude with discussions about how stress and pressure can build resilience and grit if processed in a healthy way.
“This is really a preventative approach,” says Ms. Jimenez. “Rather than waiting for problems to bubble to the surface, we are creating an environment where we can have those conversations before things occur. We are connecting students to the means and tools available to them across campus.”
New student Courtney Payne ’25, for one, feels that the initiative’s efforts are working. “I had never meditated before, but I’m going to be using this before tests.” Be Well student leader Isa Dugan ’22 agrees. “Whether an underclassman or a senior, Blair students are coming into this with different levels of experience. Wherever you are at, Be Well is striving to make an impact and positively influence all aspects of life at Blair.”