Paula Fitzpatrick, who joined WPI in February as the university’s inaugural Director of the Center for Well-Being (CWB), has a passion for fostering an enhanced sense of well-being throughout a community. She believes that well-being is a holistic experience that encompasses vitality, meaning and purpose, enjoyment, relationships, and community. Her particular familiarity with mindfulness practices and research into the impact of mindfulness meditation on college students’ well-being uniquely qualifies her to help lead the WPI community in weaving wellness deeply into our culture.
We sat down with Paula to get an understanding of why she’s excited to join WPI, her background, passions, and the future of the CWB.
Q. Could you provide a brief description of your role as Director of the CWB?
A. As Director, I am responsible for developing a strategic vision to support the development, implementation, and growth of the CWB to strengthen the roots of well-being in the campus community. The underlying philosophy will be a holistic approach to well-being that empowers individuals to create their own well-being by fostering a sense of vitality, purpose, enjoyment, connection, and community. This involves recruiting, training, and supporting staff and students, enhancing collaborative relationships across campus, and raising awareness of and expanding programming related to well-being.
Q. Why were you interested in this role? Is there anything special about WPI that stood out to you?
A. The experiences of these many months as the pandemic continues to unfold have caused me to reconsider what constitutes a life well lived for myself. One important lesson the pandemic has reinforced for me is that life calls on us to discern what matters most and focus our time and energy there. In Kate Bowler’s memoir No Cure for Being Human, she observes, “It is much easier to count items than to know what counts.” The pandemic has reaffirmed for me the importance of crafting a life on a solid foundation of essential principles for supporting well-being. I was drawn to this position because of the bold vision laid out in the Lead with Purpose strategic plan; that the CWB will involve comprehensive and coordinated initiatives that encompass peer advocacy, academic initiatives, population-based interventions, individual and small group training, and culture change.
Q. What about your personal and professional background made this role a great fit for you?
A. My experiences as a faculty member, administrator, and meditation teacher made this a great opportunity for me to utilize the intersection of skills I have developed over the last twenty-five years in a new way. For example, my experience teaching evidence-based mindfulness meditation programs allows me to offer programming options to complement services provided by WPI’s mental health professionals. As a faculty member at Assumption, I taught a course in Positive Psychology: Neuroscience of Well-being and I look forward to developing a similar course at WPI. In my work as a faculty member and Dean, I forged campus-wide collaborations between many departments and strengthened the first-year program in my position as Dean of Arts and Sciences. I believe this experience will serve me well in ensuring that the CWB functions as a hub for cross-functional campus efforts to promote well-being.
Q. Can you tell us about some of the research you’ve done in mindfulness, meditation, and psychology and how it applies to a college community?
A. Most recently, my research has focused on the importance of grounding one’s experience in the physical body, highlighting the critical role of embodied and embedded interactions for fostering social connections. During the pandemic, feelings of isolation and loneliness have increased, and we have discovered in a very powerful way that Zoom is a poor substitute for face-to-face gatherings, hugs, handshakes, and unexpected chats with friends and colleagues. This is not surprising to me, having spent the last decade or so doing research on the importance of social synchronization and understanding the role the physical coordination between bodies plays in building social connection between people. The evidence of the work I have done together with my collaborators has been quite compelling in showing that the unintentional body coordination that arises during interactions with other people is critical for our lives and the physical sharing of space is special. Another project I conducted investigated the impact of mindfulness meditation on college students’ well-being as measured by mindfulness, meaning in life, perceived stress, self-compassion, flourishing and academic performance. Half of the participants received mindfulness training and the other half received training unrelated to mindfulness. Results revealed students in the meditation group experienced increased mindfulness after participating in meditation training while those in the non-meditation group experienced a decrease in mindfulness from pre-test to post-test. There were similar trends for mindfulness dimensions of nonjudgment of inner experience, nonreactivity, and awareness of action. Meaning in life, perceived stress, self-compassion, flourishing, and academic performance did not change significantly from pre-test to post-test. However, significant positive correlations were found between outside practice time and nonjudgment of inner experience and nonreactivity to inner experiencing.