New course on thriving at USC and beyond earns rave reviews

In a low-stress class geared toward incoming freshmen, students develop skills to lead balanced and fulfilling lives

February 14, 2019 Eric Lindberg

Debbie Lee didn’t realize how much she was ignoring her health and wellness.

The USC junior has a packed schedule — serving as president of the undergraduate student body and volunteering with a Christian ministry on campus while pursuing her political science major. Last fall, as part of her work for a new USC course on well-being, she created a pie chart of how she spends her time. It helped her recognize she had been neglecting other important aspects of life: rest and relaxation.

“Especially when you get to your upperclassman years, you’re always tired, running around, very busy,” Lee said. “I noticed even in my hours on campus, I really lacked time for rest. I would run back and forth from class to the office in a very frazzled state of exhaustion.”

That realization motivated her to strive for better work-life balance this semester. That includes eating at regular meal times rather than grabbing food whenever she can. She is also setting aside more time for exercise and adding 30-minute breaks before her afternoon classes, when her energy usually slumps.

It’s just one lesson Lee drew from the new class — Thrive: Foundations of Well-Being — offered through the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, with the support of USC Campus Wellness and Education. It is intended to help USC students, particularly incoming freshmen, explore their perceptions of happiness and well-being and develop skills to pursue a fulfilling life.

Beyond practical approaches to time management and personal health, the one-unit class covers topics like spirituality, civility and making connections with others. USC leaders are fine-tuning the course this spring with an eye toward expanding it to all interested first-year students and others this fall.

These are the best years in your life to ask the big questions of meaning and purpose, to grow in meaningful relationships, to think about the role you want to play in the world.

Varun Soni

“These are the best years in your life to ask the big questions of meaning and purpose, to grow in meaningful relationships, to think about the role you want to play in the world, to translate your ethics into action,” said Varun Soni, USC’s vice provost for campus wellness and crisis intervention and dean of religious life. “It creates a template that will serve students well for the rest of their lives.”

Innovative new course helps USC students thrive

When 29 students gathered for a pilot test of the class last semester, it represented the culmination of years of planning and advocacy by student leaders. Chief among them is Marina Hrovat, a recent graduate who studied neuroscience and served as director of wellness affairs in USC Undergraduate Student Government.

Thrive course life skills
The first cohort of the class had 29 students, taught by Ashley Uyeshiro Simon, center. (USC Photo/Eric Lindberg)

She had witnessed the struggles of dozens of USC students while working as a resident assistant in New North Residential College. They seemed overwhelmed by challenging courses, busy social lives and countless extracurricular activities.

Hrovat began envisioning a semester-long course that would help them connect with others and recognize that college’s fast pace often stresses out other students, too.

“Our biggest objective was helping students feel a sense of community at USC,” she said. “That’s a big gap to students succeeding here.”

With her peers in student government, Hrovat began lobbying USC leaders to develop the class. It all came together in fall 2018 with the initial offering led by Ashley Uyeshiro Simon, an associate professor of clinical occupational therapy.

Each week, guest speakers lectured on themes ranging from inclusion to identity, from success to spirit. Then students gathered for intimate discussions that delved into the weekly topic. To keep stress levels low, they had no homework beyond optional readings, and their in-class exercises weren’t graded.

“What made it so successful is that it doesn’t feel like a class,” said Rassim Chettfour, who graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering last fall. “When we went into the Thursday [discussion] sessions, it felt like meeting up with friends and genuinely having a good time.”

That’s encouraging feedback for Uyeshiro Simon, who strived to create a low-anxiety atmosphere: “Literally show up with an open mind — that is all you are responsible for,” she said.

USC Thrive class encourages students to find balance

Thrive Course USC life skills
College is a critical time in the transition to adulthood, says Ashley Uyeshiro Simon, far right, pictured with students James Liu Tang, Abby Chen and Chioma Ogbuehi. (USC Photo/Eric Lindberg)

College is a critical time in the shift into adulthood, Uyeshiro Simon said. Students might find it difficult to make friends in a new environment. They sometimes struggle to set aside time to do laundry, cook meals and exercise on their own. They also might feel anxious about finding their place in an intensely competitive academic setting.

“It’s incredible the number of students who come here and feel like they don’t belong — they are lonely or have imposter syndrome,” she said. “And they think they are the only ones, because on social media, everyone looks like they are having a great time.”

Chettfour admitted his transition to college was a little bumpy. Although he made friends and didn’t get too overwhelmed by his classwork, it often felt like his schedule controlled him more than the other way around. He said the Thrive course helped him take a step back and appreciate his experience at USC, rather than worrying about what might come next or stressing about his future.

“College can feel like just a step to get somewhere else, but this is a part of your life, so be here and enjoy it,” he said. “You’re going to get where you’re going, so enjoy the present.”

He acknowledged it felt jarring at first to discuss personal topics like his spirituality with strangers, but within a few weeks, he felt comfortable opening up during the discussion sessions. He also developed strong relationships with his classmates.

The experience helped Chettfour recognize the value of being vulnerable, and he sees the course as part of a broader effort to build a welcoming and accepting community at USC.

“Establishing a generation of people who are able to be transparent and open with each other will be a big step for this university and the change it wants to create,” he said.

Word of mouth attracts more students to USC Thrive course

That positive feedback is promising, Uyeshiro Simon said, and she hopes to carry that vibe into a larger test of the course this spring and its expansion this fall.

The hope moving forward is that it gains momentum and the students spread the word.

Ashley Uyeshiro Simon

“The hope moving forward is that it gains momentum and the students spread the word themselves,” she said. “It’s going to take time, but in an ideal world, all first-year students will take the course.”

Even students skeptical about topics like mindfulness and meditation will gain valuable skills like coping with failure and challenges, building resilience and finding balance. It’s something senior Andie Wright said she could have used when she came to USC.

“I’m very close with my family, so it was hard for me to learn how to live independently,” she said. “You don’t have anyone telling you what to do with your time anymore.”

As the current director of wellness affairs for USC Undergraduate Student Government, Wright is excited to see the Thrive course gaining popularity: “It’s a great way for all incoming students to have that basic knowledge for their first time away from home.”

USC Thrive class helps students find their place at the university

Abby Chen THRIVE course
USC freshman Abby Chen, center, shares her goals for the new year. (USC Photo/Eric Lindberg)

USC leaders also expect the course to help incoming freshmen make friends beyond their peers in student housing. Abby Chen, a freshman from San Jose, took Thrive last fall and said it helped her recognize that others were also nervous about meeting new people and being uncomfortable in new social situations.

She had friends from high school who were social and outgoing but struggled to connect with other students in college, so that was a concern when she came to USC. The class offered an opportunity to talk through those challenges.

“It taught me that making connections with people isn’t as hard as you would think,” she said. “It’s just about being vulnerable. Only by letting people see who you are will you find true friends and have real connections.”

Chen had initially planned to major in environmental studies, but her experiences in Thrive prompted her to look into occupational therapy as a potential career path. Although she hasn’t settled on a focus yet, she said it would be rewarding to help others conquer stress and better their lives. For now, she’s encouraging all of her peers at USC to check out the class before they graduate.

“I tell everyone to take it,” she said. “It will help you think about the many transitions in your life and how to make sense of them. It pushes you to think about what makes you happy and change your thinking about why you might be worried or concerned.”