Everyone's an Educator is a series of articles highlighting campus community members' unique contributions to the education, well-being, experience, and personal growth of students.

With Hokies consistently ranked as some of the nation’s happiest students and Virginia Tech often at the top of the list for best quality of life outside the classroom, one might wonder about the need for a program that teaches students how to be happier.

Recreational Sports offers Happiness Groups each semester as a wellness initiative. New changes to the groups make them a more immersive learning experience guided solely by students.

That’s where seniors Samantha Hart and Kristine Gouin shine.

They are passionate about wellness strategies and creating a safe place for their peers. As the first students to step into this unique leadership role, they speak openly about challenges students encounter and how Hokies can benefit from joining and practicing strategies to be happier.

“It can be hard to cope with the stress and emotions of being a college student. Learning specific strategies empowers us to have the best possible experience now and after we graduate,” said Hart, a double major in communication studies and political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

“Happiness is an essential part of our well-being but something we all struggle with sometimes,” said Gouin, a human nutrition, foods, and exercise major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “It feels invigorating to begin to recognize where you can maximize your happiness.”

Each group moves through an eight-week program that challenges assumptions about happiness and offers concrete strategies backed by scientific research to help students alleviate stress and change their perspective. The groups provide a safe and supportive space to share experiences and meet others who want to focus on well-being.

The program fits with the university’s mission.

“We want our students to be holistically healthy,” said Chris Wise, assistant vice president for student affairs. “That means providing opportunities for students to focus on well-being in every aspect of their life to help enhance their emotional well-being. We also want to give students experiential learning opportunities, and having students lead groups like these is an example of providing those opportunities in a way that builds community.”

The groups practice curiosity, gratitude, meditation, self-compassion, setting goals, finding purpose, kindness, self-care, and building resiliency. They also explore such topics as the role social media plays in well-being and why students should discover their strengths through an assessment tool the university offers.

Leading the groups plays to the strengths of Hart and Gouin. Hart’s top strength is Empathy while Gouin’s is Communication. Positivity is a strength for both students.

They plan lessons with a mentor each week and think about ways they can be better educators such as by letting others do more of the talking.

“My role as a facilitator is to create an inclusive community where individuals feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and are given time to process information,” said Gouin. “But I also gain new perspectives and approaches to challenge my mindset.”

Among those perspectives? That people tend to be more critical of themselves than of others.

During a recent session, Hart poses two questions to the group gathered in a cozy room: How do you respond to someone who is upset about failing a test? How do you respond to yourself in the same situation?

“The answers tend to be wildly different,” said Hart. “We are often very negative with ourselves in a way that we aren’t with others. Negative self-talk can lead to not being as happy.”

Around the room, heads nod in agreement.

As they facilitate, Hart and Gouin find favorite strategies and redefine what happiness means to them.

“Happiness to me is being comfortable expressing your true self to others and participating in activities that contribute to your purpose and fuel your passion,” said Gouin, a former resident advisor whose other roles include being an aide for the men’s and women’s tennis teams, wellness assistant with Recreational Sports, and teaching assistant.

Hart’s other roles include tour guide with Hokie ambassadors, president of the a cappella group Sensations, personal trainer, and peer educator in the Honors College.

Happiness Groups resume Feb. 13 and are open to students who register to attend.

Students who feel they need more support have a range of options that include scheduling an appointment with Cook Counseling Center, accessing emergency services, or connecting with the dean of students.

Freshman Maggie-Jo Zeeman said she looks forward to getting together with the group each week and that it is helping her transition into college life. She also raves about Hart and Gouin.

“At first I was nervous that they would act like they had it all figured out, but they don’t do that,” she said. “They talk with us, not to us. They want us to know that they have experienced the same things we are experiencing.”

Photo by Christina Franusich

Written by Tammy Tripp