Bridging Personal Experience and Professional Training
Gina Heinsohn (they/them) started as the assistant director of the Center for Well-Being in November 2023. A native of the Chicago area, Heinsohn has a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, as well as a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs leadership from the University of Northern Colorado and a certification in public health science from the Colorado School of Public Health. Before joining the WPI community, they served as the University of Cincinnati’s mental health program manager.
The Center for Well-Being opened in January 2023 as part of WPI’s holistic approach to wellness, with programming and support available to all members of the campus community. In addition to the workshops, drop-in activities, and wellness and physical education classes offered by professional staff, the Center runs a successful peer ambassador program—which Heinsohn oversees—that trains students to provide meaningful support and connection to other members of the student body.
Q: What attracted you to this position at WPI?
A: The big thing that interested me is that the Center for Well-Being is brand new, so there’s a lot of room to tailor it to what students need and want. The other thing that really attracted me specifically to WPI is the STEM focus. I also went to a small, rigorous STEM-focused institution and my bachelor’s degree is in engineering. I get the vibe at WPI and I know from personal experience that it can be hard for STEM students to talk about wellness in certain ways. I like to say that I can speak STEM, but I can speak health, too. So I’m looking forward to being a bridge or translator for the WPI community.
Q: What have your impressions been so far about wellness and well-being at WPI?
A: First things first: Everyone is super friendly. I’ve lived all over the country, and New Englanders get a bad rap for not being the most friendly people, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised here, even just with how many people take the time to say, “Good morning.”
Beyond that, though, it’s clear to me that WPI students want wellness. The Reiki sessions that we offer are booked out, people are taking the wellness and physical education courses, and students are signing up for peer coaching. I thought I’d have to work more to get students engaged, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how receptive they’ve been and how much they clearly want to focus on health and well-being.
Q: What are the most pressing issues related to well-being that you’ll be working on?
A: Three things come to mind right away: sexual and reproductive health education; education around alcohol and substances; and mental health.
There was a session of Sex in the Dark just before I started at WPI in November, and I’d like to build on that in a joint session with the Center for Well-Being and Health Services. Their staff can answer some of the more medical questions, things that I’m clearly not qualified to answer. And then I can bring in more of the public health side of the discussion. We could talk about everything from healthy relationships and consent to more intimate things like, “How do I avoid getting an STI?” or “Should having sex hurt?”—the kinds of questions people are usually afraid to ask. Because if you didn’t have a comprehensive program in high school, when else are you going to be in a safe environment to learn these things?
With regard to alcohol and substances, the Center for Well-Being isn’t here to say, “Never drink.” But we should be having more conversations with students about how to stay safe. And then mental health is always a concern. Specifically, anxiety, depression, burnout, imposter syndrome, and, of course, sleep.
Q: How do you plan to address those issues?
A: Programming and peer coaching are two big areas that fall under my purview as the Center’s assistant director, and I think we can use both to address these specific issues.
In terms of peer coaching, we’re working to build out our program with the Peer Well-Being Ambassadors. My vision is for students to be able to say, “Hey, I’m trying to work on X, Y, Z.” And then they could meet with another student who has been trained to help guide them—not as a therapist or a medical provider, but with coping strategies for things like academic struggles, time management, and feeling overwhelmed.
I also plan to develop more educational events, including one signature event every term that will focus on those core areas I mentioned earlier—sex, alcohol, sleep, and mental health, specifically anxiety and depression. These would be bigger than just tabling at the Campus Center. Each session will be a time where students can get some education and break down some of the stigma around that issue.
Q: For many people, college is a time of significant personal growth and development, and it can be fraught with ups and downs. As you settle into your new role, are you seeing particular benefits or challenges to working on wellness issues with STEM students specifically?
A: Anyone in college is going to tell you that there’s a lot going on. I think STEM students in general, and definitely the ones who come to WPI, are very high achievers who go into situations thinking, “I have to get out of this the most that I can.” They also tend to be involved in a lot of projects and clubs and other activities and think, “I can’t not do that.” That combination means our students are probably putting way too much on themselves. And I’m not going to lie, I did that as an undergrad, too. At one point I worked three jobs, ran two clubs, and had all my classes. So I know from personal experience that pushing yourself to that extent is not good for your health.
Fortunately, there are lots of effective ways we can work with students on overall time management and resiliency skills. So even if the timing of certain things like classes and club meetings change each term, we can help students be aware of always building in time for things like lunch and taking care of themselves. We can encourage them to always build in time to be social and to be in a non-academic setting. Intentionally building in specific self-care pieces can help us stay grounded, even if we have to change the times when those things happen.
Q: Why are you passionate about this work?
A: I went to college to be an engineer, and I still would love to be an engineer down the line, maybe 20 or 30 years from now. A second career. But for many people, myself included, college is the time when mental health issues can hit. That’s when my panic and depression hit. Toward the end of my first year and into my sophomore year, I became suicidal. I got amazing, amazing support from the staff at my school and from my parents. As I began managing my own struggles better, I said, “Wow. That sucked. No one else should have to go through that.” So I started talking with some of the people on campus who had helped me about how the school could help more students.
And then my college went through a situation very similar to what WPI experienced a few years ago and I saw firsthand how that affected the campus. I saw how the staff took care of themselves while also helping students feel safe and connected. That’s when I decided that working with students in that way was not only something I wanted to do but something I needed to do.