BURLINGTON, Vt. — The University of Vermont has long had a reputation as a party school, perhaps the legacy of work-hard, play-hard students who liked to hit the slopes as well as the books.
But now, led by a medical school professor who totes a brain-shaped football to class, the university is expanding a dormitory program where drugs and alcohol are out and round-the-clock incentives for healthy living are in.
The first-year project, called the Wellness Environment, includes 120 freshmen chosen from three times that number of applicants. Because of its popularity, the program will nearly quadruple next academic year and move to a second residence hall.
“If they can get really good health habits now, we’ve done our job,” said Annie Stevens, vice provost for student affairs.
Substance-free dorms have existed for decades, but the UVM project targets more than the dangers and distractions of binge drinking and excess partying. It’s a pioneering approach, which the university believes is the first in the nation, that includes a mandatory neuroscience class, meditation, nutrition coaches, and personal trainers to steer students toward a lifetime of healthy choices.
The force behind the Wellness Environment is Dr. James Hudziak, who put theory into practice when his daughter, now a sophomore, enrolled at the university.
“As I was doing all this health promotion work for children, in some ways I was duty-bound to test these ideas,” said Hudziak, an affable bear of a man who is chief of child psychiatry at the College of Medicine and the UVM Medical Center.
Those ideas led him to propose a university community where a simple mantra of “no alcohol, no drugs” would be supplemented by four pillars of the Wellness project — exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, and mentorship.
Mindfulness includes yoga and meditation, for example. The mentoring portion, which Hudziak calls “paying back,” will match Wellness students with Burlington youths.
Taken together, the plan uses healthy habits to build healthy brains, which should lead to healthier decisions. Officials say the concept already is drawing attention from Georgetown, Tulane, and Virginia Commonwealth universities.
The concept is admittedly simple — preparing students to be more than learners — but it’s one that has lagged in application, Hudziak said. Traditionally, parents have sent their children off to college with the confidence that they possessed enough judgment, after a bit of trial and error, to make the right decisions.
“We’ve thought they would make the best decisions themselves, and that’s not enough,” Stevens said. “You add alcohol and drugs to that mix, and it means they are not going to be successful.” So far, two students in the program have been removed from the substance-free dorm for violating the rules.
But that’s the rare exception. Overwhelmingly, students have bought into the Wellness effort.
Allen Vance, 18, of Hadley, Mass., said Hudziak’s off-beat recruitment pitch helped steer him to the program.
“He threw a football at me, basically, and handed me a flier,” Vance, a varsity runner, said in the dorm. “I can come back here and know there won’t be a distraction.”
Minutes later, Vance was off to the dorm’s gym, where trainers were available to coach students in the program. As he lifted weights, Vance joked with Caroline Duksta, a 19-year-old freshman from Rhode Island who is on the sailing team.
“I needed to be here, and I was aggressive about it,” said Duksta, who cherishes the comfort of a like-minded community. In some other residence halls, she said, “I hear the stories: Oh, my roommate was up playing beer-bong until 3 in the morning on a Tuesday.”
In Hudziak’s world — one of complex and arcane brain science — most college students are comparable to “supercharged race cars with no brakes.” Because the brain at that age has not developed fully, Hudziak said, students are vulnerable to making bad choices — over and over and over.
The result is often a recipe for trouble. “You’re sending someone off to college, and his regulatory system is not yet organized,” Hudziak said.
Hudziak approaches his job with the zeal of an evangelist. Before his class on “Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies,” required for all Wellness students, he loosens up his acolytes by tossing a small football molded to look like a brain.
The class begins and ends with short meditation sessions — “How else do you get 100-plus kids to close their eyes on purpose?” Hudziak asked.
Leading researchers, shown on a large screen, often speak directly to the students through Skype. Hudziak displays scans of brains that have benefited from exercise and nutrition, and brains that have been damaged by drugs and alcohol. He also brings students to the neuroanatomy lab -- the class has access to the medical school’s facilities — and lets them see and handle human brains.
Over time, Hudziak said, the paradigm might mean fewer dropouts and fewer troubled students who need services.
“If I can have these college kids be in better emotional and behavioral health, that should result in a return on investment,” Hudziak said. In the fall, most of the Wellness freshmen will continue as sophomores.
Stevens, the vice provost, said the university has seen an 11 percent decline in self-reported drinking in the last four years, but that marijuana continues to be a challenge. With Vermont legislators considering whether to legalize the drug, the need for responsible marijauna use becomes more important for university leaders.
This spring, the Wellness group plans to make a statement about alternatives to alcohol and drugs, said Breanna Pletnick, the program coordinator and a 2015 graduate.
On April 20, an annual date when large numbers of UVM students gather to smoke marijuana, the Wellness Environment is sponsoring a 5-kilometer run and walk.
The run will start within yards of where many smokers are expected, Pletnick said, and will be a statement as well as an alternative.
“Students will see that, and realize there are students who are making other choices.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org