A Q&A with Paula Fitzpatrick, Director, WPI Center for Well-Being
This article is one in an occasional series about the people, offices, and services dedicated to supporting WPI students and our community.
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.
Q. What does well-being mean to you?
A. Well-being is a holistic experience that encompasses vitality (managing our physical, cognitive, and emotional energy and health), meaning and purpose, enjoyment, relationships, and community. My understanding is informed by research and theory—Martin Seligman’s theory of flourishing (PERMA, which includes positive emotion, engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments/achievements), the six dimensions of wellness (occupational, physical, social, intellectual, spiritual, emotional) developed by the National Wellness Institute, longitudinal research on health and aging (such as the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which began in 1938), learning science, and research on student success.
Q. Can you tell us about Koru Mindfulness and the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program course that you’re piloting this term?
A. I am teaching a new healthy alternatives PE course during D-term: Koru Mindfulness Meditation. Koru Mindfulness is an evidence-based mindfulness curriculum designed for college-aged adults. As a certified Koru instructor, I teach students practical tools to help manage stress and increase self-compassion. Students are introduced to a variety of meditation skills, engage with the Koru mobile app, read the companion book, and participate in class discussion while earning PE credit. This course will also be offered each term in the coming academic year, and I hope to expand this offering in the coming years.
Q. Can you offer a brief description of what you feel the CWB will offer the WPI community?
A. I envision the CWB as an indoor, outdoor, and virtual space that focuses on strengthening the roots of well-being in the campus community. The indoor space will be an oasis of calm and peace with community spaces for popping in for a wellness break and cup of tea, quiet spaces for meditation or reflection, and gathering spaces for group programming. We hope to incorporate a water feature, plants, and environmentally sustainable materials and furnishings so that the space is green and fosters health. The CWB will be a place for engaging in conversations about what it means to slow down and focus on prioritizing what matters most. The virtual nature of the Center will involve considering how best to leverage technology to support wellness initiatives, such as providing easy access to information about wellness programs, offering online assessments, or promoting cultural change to rethink our conceptions of productivity. The CWB will also extend outdoors, and the design of some of these outdoor spaces will be fabulous projects for students. These spaces can be both physical reminders of wellness as folks walk by them as well as destinations for wellness breaks.
Q. What excites you most about the CWB’s development and its launch?
A. I am excited about being a part of all aspects of the CWB development—designing the space, hiring the staff, and developing and implementing our programming model. Plans are underway for the opening of the CWB in Fall 2022. I’ve partnered with departments across campus, including student life, residential life, advising, multicultural affairs, international student life, physical education, recreation and athletics, dining services, the Morgan Center for Teaching and Learning, undergraduate studies, graduate studies, and communications to ensure the CWB will be a hub for cross-functional campus efforts related to well-being. The CWB will be co-located with Student Health Services, some counseling rooms for clinicians from the SDCC, and WPI’s registered dietician in a renovated “Wedge” in Morgan and the first floor of Daniels. The CWB Space Planning Committee has been meeting weekly with the architectural design firm, Lamoureux Pagano Associates, to develop a programming model which will be shared with students, faculty, and staff for input in the coming weeks. I look forward to welcoming the WPI community to the CWB in the fall of 2022!
Q. Is there anything else we should know about you?
A. As a first-generation college student, I learned very early on that education was my gateway to creating the life I dreamed of. I stand here today because education transformed my own life, and I am passionate about sharing that transformative opportunity with others. Along the way, I have also discovered some foundational elements that are essential for me to maintain balance during the ups and downs of life, and I make time for them every day. First, books transport me in time and place, move me out of the confines of my own life, and connect me with universal themes, optimism, and hope. Second, spending time with exercise and nature is a top priority for me. I am lucky to have a beautiful farm and hiking trails near my house. Finally, meditation. Every day when I get up, the first thing I do is plop down on my cushion. The power of the breath to ground us in the present moment is profound. When life feels overwhelming, I bring my attention to the breath, coming in and out of the body, grounding me, moment to moment, breath to breath, with nowhere to go, nothing to do and continuing to choose life, one breath at a time.