Professor Christopher Baker: Merging Psychology with Student Health
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Professor Christopher Baker, Senior Lecturer, Honors College Fellow, and 2019 Silver Circle Teaching Award Recipient, supports and advocates for the well-being of UIC students by initiating student-led campaigns that address predominant health concerns on-campus. Baker approaches his Psychology 231: Community Psychology course through a unique strategy that allows students to apply psychological concepts to community health concerns. He referred to his “hybrid course” as an integration between a traditional lecture and an applied course that helps students thoroughly grasp and engage with the study of psychology. By merging data and observation to identify the leading health concerns at UIC, Baker says he helps his students “fully understand” the psychological principles he teaches by applying them to real-life situations.
To initiate change, Baker’s undergraduates interview around one thousand students per semester, collecting data and insight on improvements that surveyees find beneficial to their well-being. After identifying prevalent issues among the UIC student body, Baker and his class collaborate with the university to enforce and establish policy. Overall, Baker says he aims to make “incremental change in a positive direction,” allowing his students the opportunity to create large-scale improvement over time.
Baker states that his students have observed a striking phenomenon over the past five years in which food is consistently number one on the list of UIC health concerns. To address this issue, Baker said his students worked on a campaign that aimed to increase access to information about the food at UIC. This campaign notified the university about a significant lack of food information available to students and faculty, prompting the university to increase food ingredient information online. In addition, Baker says that his students conducted a campaign In the Fall of 2019 to provide “food accessibility for those that have religious, cultural or dietary restrictions.” Given UIC’s national recognition as one of the most ethnically diverse schools, this campaign is essential in providing the university with information and ideas that embrace cultural differences by meeting each student’s dietary needs. Besides the university’s moral obligation to provide students of different religions, cultures, and diets access to food, Baker and his students also found a “long-term financial incentive” in doing so, discovering that students who were unable to find food on campus “rated themselves the least likely” to donate to UIC after graduation. Baker and his students plan on sharing this information with the university soon, believing their observations “could move the university forward” and create a space that recognizes diversity among students. In addition to food, Baker says that students also express concerns regarding mental health resources, campus safety, and issues with how the campus looks and feels.
In addition to improving the well-being of UIC students, Baker notes that his courses have inspired student-generated organizations that continue to work on campaigns. When students are provided with an opportunity to initiate community change, “positive results can be really exciting,” says Baker, encouraging students to stay involved and work toward their goals. One of the most successful student-led organizations that came from Baker’s community psychology course is the Student Wellness Collective, which he refers to as an “umbrella student organization” that includes multiple initiatives that aim to improve student wellness on campus. For example, Baker stated that the Student Wellness Collective launched The Care Currency Project, an approach to improve the wellness of students by “break[ing] down the invisible barriers” between individuals and allowing students to share their experience with the next generation. The Care Currency Project uses monopoly money to distribute facts about student wellness to strangers on campus, encouraging interaction and the spread of helpful information. The Student Wellness Collective also hosts events, such as the all-campus C.O.L.O.R carnival last spring, allowing students to interact and learn about wellness activities such as yoga, meditation, and community art. In addition to on-campus approaches that educate students on health, the Student Wellness Collective has an online student-led podcast called “Feels Trip” that provides information on wellness resources and discusses health-related topics with UIC students. To access these podcasts and find additional information on the Student Wellness Collective, you can visit studentwellnesscollective.weebly.com.
Student involvement is an important way to engage with the UIC community, develop connections, and participate in shared learning experiences. Baker says that when his students work together to focus on shared interests, it “fostered relationships between people that might otherwise not have that opportunity.” When students become involved in university organizations and leadership positions, it creates “a stronger sense of connection to the university,” precipitating bonds with other students that are based on shared interests and goals. Since the majority of the UIC student body lives off-campus, students often face the challenge of making new friends. Baker notes that his student organizations make an explicit effort to embrace diversity, recognizing that students have different experiences on campus. When students engage with individuals coming from different backgrounds, it gives them greater insight on other’s experiences, ultimately creating diverse relationships and enriching the UIC environment. This is the inspiration behind Baker’s prevailing ethos: “evidence and facts don’t change people’s lives, it’s the relationships that do.”