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Managing physical and mental well-being

A letter from Dean Jennifer Widom

Managing physical and mental well-being

April 14, 2021
The Science and Engineering Quad on a sunny day
Jennifer Widom smiles and poses for her portrait photo Jennifer Widom

Dear School of Engineering Graduate Students,

As I mentioned in my March letter to you, a theme that’s continually emerged over the past year in my conversations with students, faculty, and staff is the need to help ensure the physical and mental health of our students. In terms of physical health, I’m optimistic: COVID case rates have come down significantly since their winter peak, and as of this week every adult in California is eligible to receive a vaccination. As a result, the university is actively planning for return to an in-person academic experience this fall.

However, I’m still deeply concerned about mental health and wellness. We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where we took significant precautions to protect our community from COVID, but now individuals are struggling because they’ve felt unable to take a break; because they’re staring at Zoom all day long; or because the pressures of completing courses, research activities, teaching, taking care of family members, or staying financially afloat can feel like too much to bear in such an uncertain time.

In my past letters to you and in conversations, I’ve encouraged you to take the time you need to recharge, and to make use of available Stanford and other resources (as always, they’re listed below). But I also want to let you know of a few of the things the school is doing, in addition to initiatives at the university level and in departments, that we hope will help alleviate some of the pressures and build an even healthier environment for research and education.

First, as I’ve mentioned in the past, our Dean’s Graduate Student Advisory Council (DGSAC) was designed to help faculty, staff, and administrators better understand and improve the graduate student experience, and in particular issues around health and well-being. It’s been a terrific resource for us, and we’re grateful for the contributions of these 21 dedicated students.

Second, we’ve been piloting a program called the Wellness Information Network for Graduate Students (WINGS). In partnership with the SoE Dean’s Office, “WINGers” are student advocates whose goal is to facilitate awareness and effective utilization of wellness resources for graduate students in their departments. We’re optimistic that the WINGers will make strides in normalizing conversations about the importance of wellness within each of our departments.

The DGSAC and the WINGers arose from a series of discussions among faculty, staff, and students in the spring of 2019 that we called SoE Culture Conversations. As a result of those meetings, we also offered training sessions to Stanford Engineering faculty, students, and staff about suicide prevention, mental health, and well-being to raise awareness about the many resources available to those in our community who may be in need. The conversations also led to a plan for CAPS (Stanford’s Counseling and Psychological Services) to provide counseling hours on site at the School of Engineering starting spring quarter 2020. Of course, the pandemic suspended those plans, but we’re now restarting the discussions with CAPS as we plan our return to an in-person institution.

I also want to tell you about some broader initiatives underway. In 2019, the school launched a program for faculty designed to support and promote successful mentoring and management within their labs and research groups. The program began with individual professional coaching for faculty, funded by the school. With high levels of faculty interest and participation, we anticipate building on the program in the months to come. In addition, PhD students should be aware of a school policy designed to reduce financial uncertainty and stress: All School of Engineering students in good standing relative to their PhD program requirements should be funded to the department’s standard. Any student who has questions about this policy or its application should speak first with their department Director of Graduate Studies or Student Services Manager, and if that’s not possible, with Tom Kenny, our Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs. 

Along the same lines, I want to point you to this recent message from the university about financial aid programs implemented in the past year, many of which relate directly to you.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that while the pandemic has been a significant stressor in all of our lives, it is far from the only one. Systemic racism, bias, prejudice, and violence in words and action cause deep trauma, uncertainty, and fear. This too is a mental health and wellness issue, and it is one we’re committed to confronting to create a safe and truly healthy environment for all.

Jennifer Widom

Health and Wellness Resources

  • The Virtual Well-Being site offers a wide scope of resources available to you virtually, including coaching and counseling sessions. 

  • Well-Being at Stanford similarly provides a multitude of resources to keep you informed and empowered as you journey through the academic year. 

  • The Office for Religious Life can be a support when dealing with grief and loss — and it’s not just for students who identify as religious.