JanFeb2016 Cover
Volume 84 | Issue 1
January/February 2016

Mind, Body, & Soul: Creating Holistic Wellness Facilities

Christine A. Chergi and Paul Knell

Read the print version of this article.

Creating an effective educational environment that nurtures the individual learning experience is a basic mission for every academic institution. Complicating that endeavor is the reality that these days college life can come with a complement of complex issues such as drug and alcohol problems, sexual violence, social acceptance versus isolation, and identity development. Therefore, it is no surprise that the latest generation of students is stressed. According to a 2015 study from the American College Health Association, 57% of college students report feeling overwhelming anxiety, up from 46% in 2010.

However, arguably the most common sources of stress are not new. In 2014, the College Student Journal reported the most common sources of stress were tests (90.3%), text messaging (87.7%), procrastination (83.3%), pressure to do well in school (82.8%), and assignments/papers (79.2%).

So why is everyone so stressed? Many point to the lack of healthy coping mechanisms, so universal among college students that Psychology Today recently labeled it a “crisis.”

In the Psychology Today article, Elizabeth Gong-Guy, former head of campus counseling and new executive director of student resilience at the University of California–Los Angeles, said: “I see students increasingly struggle with getting through higher education. Many come from families where they have not been allowed to develop stress tolerance. Some of the coping with their own emotions is developmentally delayed. And now they’re having to focus on them while also functioning at a high level academically.”

The College Student Journal study indicated students most often cope with stress by listening to music, sleeping, drawing on feelings of being supported by friends/family/instructors, or browsing the Internet. However, as in previous studies, engaging in physical activity and social interaction were associated with higher stress tolerance.

Knowing this, how can college unions create spaces that help students cope? As a response to that question, the William Pitt Union at the University of Pittsburgh has committed an entire floor to holistically addressing the needs of students, “Mind, Body, & Soul.”

Responding to Students’ Needs

A few years ago, in response to student discussions about the stress that comes with today’s college lifestyle, the University of Pittsburgh took an innovative approach. The Office of Student Affairs initiated a new program for stress reduction by designating one room in the William Pitt Union as the “Stress-Free Zone.” The objective was to create a low-stress space where students could work with a program coordinator to learn and practice evidence-based mind/body stress-reduction skills. These skills are primarily taught through mindful meditation, a form of attention training that involves an intentional focus on the inner self. Over the next few years, this program became so popular it required more than a one-room operation.

Concurrently, the university began hearing requests from other members of its student population. Muslim student groups that were using offices and hallways for daily prayers wanted more appropriate facilities. Various religious groups were seeking meditational/reflection space on campus as well. Still other constituents called for improved spaces to offer stress-reduction programs such as aerobics and yoga. On the high-traffic urban campus of the University of Pittsburgh, all students were seeking quiet spaces for study.

“We responded to the needs and priorities of students,” noted Dr. Kathy Humphrey, former vice provost and dean of students. “They were seeking places to relax, study, reflect, and meditate. Our vision was to transform one floor of our facility into a unified stress-free environment for our students.”

The initiative was soon nicknamed, “Mind, Body, & Soul.”

Achieving a New Purpose

The entire third floor of the William Pitt Union, approximately 10,000 square feet, was designated for the Mind, Body, & Soul project. This was an ideal location and especially convenient for students because the union is centrally located on the Pitt campus. Other stress-related programs such as the health center, pharmacy, and counseling center are located next door in Nordenberg Hall.

The planning committee included representatives from student affairs, the counseling center, intramurals and recreation office, and facilities management. WTW Architects was selected to plan and design the new facility. Study spaces would include a collaborative area for small groups, a quiet room for individual study efforts, and a pocket lounge for casual study. The exercise center would feature several areas with different levels of fitness activity including cardio and strength training, spinning, aerobics, yoga, and other stress-reduction programs. Meditation spaces would include a center for coordinated stress-related activities as well as a quiet reflection space for up to 45 persons. The final concept would also contain a collaborative meeting space for group discussions and workshops. The combination of all these components would transform the third floor of the William Pitt Union into a new dimension for student life.

A big design challenge was working within a 100-year-old building, riddled with oversized columns and solid masonry walls. To maximize visual openness, all of the proposed spaces were strategically configured so that the solid structural elements would naturally fall within the new wall lines of the proposed space and thus be fully integrated and visually minimized. A new floor-to-ceiling, curving glass wall running through the length of the facility was planned to allow natural daylight into the lounges and central common spaces. The open visual transparency of this facility makes it more spacious and the occupants more connected.

Another design objective was to control noise and vibration related to the fitness programs. The potential noise from spinning and cardio-aerobics classes could not interfere with the quiet focus required in the study lounge. During the early planning of the project, the design team conducted vibration and acoustical testing on the building structure using the specific exercise equipment proposed for the facility. The tests also checked for noise migration to the counseling center on the floor below. A special acoustical platform was constructed in the treadmill area to reduce sound and vibration transfer. Enhanced acoustical wall partitions also were installed to mitigate sound transmittance.

The reflection space was created to be a nondenominational room for use by any group on campus. The style was envisioned as simple and universally welcoming, as well as adaptable for various types of reflection and meditation. With input from student constituent groups, the design team developed a series of ideas, precedent images, and sketch options. The perimeter of the room was planned to include a series of matching benches with lockable storage for the specific items required by each campus group. Muslim students suggested shoe storage racks and gender separate ablution stations for foot washing. The experience of arrival and preparation was also important, so the theme of the floor pattern in the entry vestibule depicts the river of life flowing into the reflection room.

With a design objective to keep the mediation space modest and natural, the interior of the room is detailed with a series of native wood panels and an organic carpet pattern. Natural lighting is muted with translucent shoji screens at each window. While the space is denominationally neutral and devoid of any religious symbolism, a simple geometric labyrinth was selected as a universal focal point.

A Year Later

After nearly a year of operation, the Mind, Body, & Soul floor has become a destination for Pitt students. The combination of reflection, study, stress-reduction programming, and fitness makes this a new operational model that is redefining the role of the William Pitt Union at the University of Pittsburgh. Its positive results show in the traffic counts: the floor receives an average of 2,230 users during a typical mid-semester week, and usage is fairly balanced across multiple programs:
  • 900 fitness center walk-ins to work out
  • 280 attending fitness classes in the fitness center
  • 76 attending sessions in the Stress-Free Zone
  • 450 studying in the lounge areas 
  • 350 attending meetings in the meeting room
  • 245 meditating in the reflection room
As expected, the fitness center has become the most popular draw for students. According to Student Government Board President Nasreen Harun, “The fitness center is great for a healthy cardio workout. With the additions of the new aerobics studio and spinning room, more classes have been offered to the Pitt Community, getting people out of the typical gym routine and making wellness more fun. The installation of the showers on this floor makes this an easy midday workout spot too.” Women, in particular, have indicated they prefer to work out at the union because it does not include weight training, eliminating much of the social pressure that comes with the more male-oriented fitness facilities located elsewhere on campus.

The meditation and study lounge areas are also well trafficked. Muslim students appreciate that it fulfills a meditational need. “The reflection room provides the Pitt community with a safe place to be in tune with their spiritual side,” Harun said. “With the room’s central location on campus, it makes it easy for people to stop in between their daily commitments and have some time to embrace their spirituality. With the new ablution stations in the restrooms on the floor, everyone’s needs are met.”

Campus departmental collaborations also have continued since the facility opened, with several entities sharing operational oversight of the third floor. Union administrators manage the building and take care of meeting space, the reflection room, study spaces, and all maintenance and repair issues. The intramurals office manages the fitness center, and health services personnel manage the Stress-Free Zone. Programs offered in these two areas conform to building hours. This all requires a coordinated management effort. “We are in touch with the Stress-Free Zone manager and with the intramurals and recreation staff on a regular basis to coordinate new program ideas and to make sure the student experience is running smoothly,” said Allie Chornick, assistant manager of the William Pitt Union.

The success of the Mind, Body, & Soul project is grounded in listening to individual students while also reinforcing the core mission of the college union. The University of Pittsburgh clearly identified multiple student priorities and responded with a dynamic multiuse facility to better serve the specific needs of its students psychologically, emotionally, physically, culturally, and socially. By creating a new place for quiet study, stress-reduction programs, fitness, reflection, and meditation, the facility has drawn together diverse groups of students into a single unified environment as part of the ever-evolving, well-considered plan for the community life of the university.


Christine A. ChergiChristine A. Chergi, chergi@pitt.edu

Christine A. Chergi is the manager of the William Pitt Union at the University of Pittsburgh. Her career in higher education spans 44 years of service to the University of Pittsburgh in the Division of Student Affairs. She has been involved with ACUI regionally and internationally for the past 35 years. She takes great pride in mentoring, motivating, inspiring, and teaching new members about ACUI.


Paul KnellPaul Knell, pknell@wtwarch.com

Paul Knell is the executive vice president and senior principal at WTW Architects. He has more than 30 years experience in architectural design and project management for educational clients, specializing in needs assessment and programming of campus activity centers, university unions, food service facilities, etc.  His firm is a member of ACUI, and he has conducted numerous sessions on college union programming, planning, and design of university activity centers at regional and annual conferences.