November 04, 2021 | Shelly DeJong

A few students standing on a deck looking out with fall trees in background.

Calvin University has officially joined the Campus Nature Rx Network.

The Campus Nature Rx Network began in 2019 to connect educational institutions striving to help college students with their mental health. This group of 24 American and Canadian Institutions provides tools and resources on how best to do that through equitable engagement with nature.

“Nature is medicine,” said Jeanette Henderson, program manager for Calvin University's 104-acre Ecosystem Preserve and Native Gardens. “We need to incorporate nature more into our lives. Research tells us that 15 minutes outside a day can help us decrease our anxiety and depression.”

After first hearing about the Campus Nature Rx Network at a conference in 2019, Henderson knew that this was something that could thrive at Calvin. She approached the Ecosystem Preserve director and environmental studies professor Jamie Skillen about Calvin joining the Campus Nature Rx Network, and he was interested right away.

“In one of my classes, we read Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park. He wrote in the late 19th century that experiences of natural beauty are essential to our capacity for happiness, and he argued that want of such experiences led to mental health problems,” said Skillen. “In the midst of our hectic lives, we need time and space for experiences with nature.”

Why now?

Data shows that university campuses across the U.S. are facing a mental health crisis. A study conducted by the American College Health Association in 2017 indicates that 67% of students felt more than average or tremendous stress, 61% felt overwhelming anxiety, and 51% felt hopelessness. In March of 2021, a Pew Research report showed that 32% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 are experiencing high levels of distress and 31% are experiencing medium distress. 

“In this age of anxiety where screens and busy schedules tempt us into chronic disconnection, nature invites us to slow down and experience our senses—to connect with our Creator and with ourselves as created beings within God’s universe,” said Irene Kraegel, director of the Center for Counseling and Wellness. “We all do better work and feel healthier (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) when we are taking time to care for ourselves in this way.”  

“Calvin is rated among the top 20 best health services and counseling centers in the country by the Princeton Review,” pointed out Henderson. “But we’ll be even stronger with the addition of the Nature Rx resource.”

With the devastation of COVID-19 and the mental health struggles that continue to affect many people, NatureRx@Calvin offers the Calvin community a meaningful way to connect with nature physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Bringing campus together

Henderson and Skillen organized a cross-divisional steering committee that includes representatives from the Ecosystem Preserve, Outdoor Recreation, the Center for Counseling Wellness, Student Life, Service Learning, and the Academic Division.

“Because we’re a small school, we can bring multiple groups together across campus to the benefit of Calvin. This is for students but also just as much for staff and faculty,” said Henderson. “Let’s go outside. Let’s push our thinking about how we can make this space more accessible to everyone.”

NatureRx@Calvin’s vision statement states that Calvin will strive to “improve the holistic well-being of students, staff, and faculty. Calvin Nature Rx will invite departments, campus programs, community partners, and alumni to collectively enhance and enrich campus life, create a more desirable university experience, and aid in attracting and retaining an engaged, active, and healthy campus community.”

What will this look like at Calvin?

The Nature Rx team at Calvin is working to design and implement programming that will engage faculty, staff, and students in nature.

First, they will make the available greenspaces known to everyone. This past summer, student cartographer, Natalie Vredevoogd, was hired to create a map showing the available greenspaces on campus and in West Michigan. This map will soon be available to the greater community on a NatureRx@Calvin website and social media. It will also offer annual recommendations for how to use these greenspaces to promote rest, fitness, community, and worship.

The team also prioritized improvements to the available greenspaces on campus.

“I am most excited about rethinking the outdoor spaces at Calvin and working to provide more outdoor tables and chairs that will lure us out of our buildings,” said Skillen. “One of the projects we are eyeing right now is redesigning the Hiemenga Hall courtyard. We hope to redesign it with a mix of native plants and hardscape that includes tables, benches, and chairs.”

With this new membership in Campus Nature Rx Network and the dynamic work of a cross-divisional team, the Calvin community may soon find themselves breathing fresh air more often and feeling a little bit lighter.     

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