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Living with Intention … (VIDEO)

Wellness coordinator Satya Nelms counsels students to live in the moment and breathe deeply …

By Carrie Compton


A monthly bedtime series, featuring faculty and staff reading children’s books to students and discussing good sleep practices, is just one of Nelms’ contributions to campus. “Students drink tea, eat healthy snacks, and listen to a story,” she says. “It gets them to take a break.” Photo by Laurence Kesterson

Still sparse enough that it echoes, Satya Nelms’ newly renovated office is the polar opposite of its inhabitant who is warm, inviting, and given to bubbly, infectious bursts of laughter. Nelms, the College’s first wellness coordinator, emits a glow from within that makes even the most hugging averse shrug and go with it when she greets you, arms outstretched. Put plainly: She radiates wellness.

Nelms’ previous experience includes teaching yoga to preschoolers and teenage mothers as well as serving as a labor doula (a supportive coach for women giving birth). Her ability to collaborate with students warmly and encouragingly bears out that past experience, but it’s the Wesleyan University graduate’s inner well-being that really makes her shine in this role.

An avid practitioner of meditation and yoga, Nelms helps students manage the stress of hectic schedules and sleep deprivation by acknowledging the intertwining of mind, body, and spirit. She coordinates various wellness initiatives on campus such as meditation groups, yoga, and one-on-one sessions with students. She also oversees the student wellness group and serves as the adviser for the chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, which will return to campus this spring. (See more about the sorority on Page 8.)

Recently, Nelms brought some inner peace to staff writer Carrie Compton while discussing everything from mindfulness to McDonald’s.

Wellness is one of those terms that means a lot of different things to different people … what does it mean to you?

People often associate wellness with being about one part of themselves: either a mental thing, or a physical thing. When you ask people what their wellness goals are, lots of times it’s to go running, or to go for a walk, or to swim more—various physical goals. But I like to think of wellness as proactively taking care of your mind, body, and spirit. I think that those three things really accurately cover all of the different parts of your being. In being proactive, rather than reactive about those different parts, you can keep yourself in optimal health. When students come in to see me, I tell them, “You say you feel fine, but let’s see what we can do to help you feel great, so that if something goes awry you’re not automatically in crisis. We can make sure that you’re doing great all the time so when you have a stressful week, you’ll just be doing fine.”

As wellness coordinator, what is the No. 1 thing you see Swarthmore students struggling with?

One of the most challenging things that Swarthmore students deal with is feeling they can legitimately take time for self-care. Students often say, “I’ve told myself that I need to take some down time, but I feel like I can’t do it. I need you to tell me that I need to do this.”

A lot of it is self-imposed stress. Some of it is institutional. We have really passionate faculty members, and the students strive to meet the level of excellence being asked of them, which creates this amazing academic environment, but then the students create self-imposed stress on top of that. Sometimes they feed into each other’s stress, saying things like, “I have five papers due and an exam, and I’m president of such-and-such club.”

And someone else will say, “Oh, that’s nothing: I have six papers due and two exams, and I’m the president of two clubs.” So when students do take time for themselves, they are sometimes concerned that it is abnormal to do so. I tell them they’ll have fewer instances of crashing and ending up in crisis if they take time for themselves on the front end. They’ll also end up getting sick less often.

For every one student who visits you, there are probably several more who think that being perpetually exhausted and worn down is just a part of the college experience. What do you say to those students?

Part of college is being in this amazing academic environment, but it’s also about helping you to prepare for life after college. It’s about setting up good habits while you’re in college so you can translate them into the real world. When you don’t know how to take care of yourself here, you’re not going to magically know how when you leave. Burning the candle at both ends, the way a lot of students do here, is just not sustainable in the real world. I tell them, “You can survive this way in college—barely, but you can survive. It’s important to learn the different skills and practices that are going to serve you best now before you’re out in the real world.”

What would you say is the most challenging part of your job?

Getting students to prioritize their health and wellness. A student once told me, “There are four different aspects to life at Swarthmore College: there’s your academic, there’s social, there’s sleep, and there’s your self-care.” She said it’s very rare to have all four of those at one time at Swarthmore. She said, “You’d be very hard pressed to find a Swarthmore student who would want to sacrifice the academics, and you’d be hard pressed to find one who wants to sacrifice the social.” So the two you’re left with to sacrifice are self-care and sleep. Each of those things takes care of different parts of who you are as a student: You need the academic. You need the social. But you also need the sleep and the self-care. So a lot is about getting them to see those pieces as necessary, valid, and legitimate parts of their lives.

Can you define what you mean by self-care?

Taking care of your mind, body, and soul. I tell the students to take a few minutes each day and check in with the different parts of themselves—physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and academically—and be honest about how they’re doing. We pass one another on the campus, and we get into this rhetorical call and response with people, “How are you doing?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“I’m fine,” and everybody keeps going. It doesn’t matter if you’re having a horrible day. Most of the time people will just say, “I’m fine. How are you?” because that’s what you’re supposed to say. People can start doing that with themselves: They’ll ask, “How am I doing? Oh, I’m fine.” But that’s not really what the answer is.

What kind of wellness tips do you like to give people who say they don’t have time to take care of themselves?

I tell all of my students, especially the busiest ones, to live with intention. For instance, I have a student who takes piano lessons 15 minutes from his dorm room. So I said, “Take that time to completely experience that walk from your dorm to where your lesson is. Take in how the air feels on your skin and how the ground sounds under your feet, and really be present in that moment.” That’s a way to have wellness in your life without having to schedule it. Just have intention in your life. Also, breathing: When students come in to see me, the first thing I tell them to do is to take a deep breath. If you just change your [breathing], be more intentional, and take slow deep breaths from your stomach, it will change the way you feel almost instantaneously. Again, that’s something that doesn’t take any time. Breathing is something you have to do.

Let’s talk about your involvement with the effort to bring sororities to campus: Do you think that there’s a wellness factor that goes along with belonging to an organization like a sorority?

Some of the women who started the group [Not Yet Sisters] went to all-girls’ schools, and they said there was something about that camaraderie with other women that they missed and that they really wanted to experience that sense of sisterhood. I always tell the students: Find something that makes you feel good. Find something that you do just for you—not because it’s going to make you look great on your grad-school applications. The women who started the effort to bring a sorority to this campus, this felt like their “something.” One of the great things about Swarthmore is that we are so open to helping people find their niche. There are tons of clubs on campus, and we’re always telling students, ”There’s a club for you and if there’s not, you can start it.” I think that’s how it is for [Not Yet Sisters]: There’s something for everyone, and for them that “something” needed to be a sorority, so they’re starting it. I think that’s very Swarthmore of them.

OK, final question. I have to know: How many times a year do you break down and eat at Mickey D’s?

I don’t!

How is that even possible? You have kids!

My kids have never had McDonald’s! It’s crazy! Well, it’s crazy for me, because I grew up as a super, super fast-food kid. I had McDonald’s and Taco Bell and KFC and Pizza Hut and all that. We’d go on Sunday mornings and have the McDonald’s breakfast value meals with hotcakes and the McMuffins, so it is crazy to me that my [two] kids have never had that. A breakdown for me these days is ordering a pizza. Honestly, I’m really proud that it’s been years and years and years since I’ve had McDonald’s. It helps that my husband was raised vegan, and we’re vegetarian now and have been for seven years. That’s another reason why it’s been so easy—there’s so little I can eat there anyway. If there was a vegetarian Mickey D’s, it’d be much harder!

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