In search of mindfulness, students receive ‘a truly life-changing experience’ through Study USA program

Led by Associate Professor Julie Lellis, nine students in the “Mindful America, Mindful Elon” course traveled to Massachusetts during Winter Term to study how mindfulness is practiced and then bring those experiences back to campus.

With a few weeks to reflect on their “Mindful America, Mindful Elon” course and their exploration of how mindfulness is practiced in America, the Elon University students enrolled in the class share a common refrain when discussing the experience.

As part of their “Mindful America, Mindful Elon” course, nine Elon students participated in a four-day retreat at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. During their visit, the students engaged in several activities, including a half-day spent in silence, basic meditation classes, a labyrinth walk, partner yoga and mindful hiking. Photos courtesy of Julie Lellis
“Best decision I’ve made at Elon,” said Hayden Zavareei ’20, one of nine students who participated in the Winter Term course offered through the Study USA program.

Fellow classmate Sydney DeCaro ’20 went a step further and called the class “a truly life-changing experience.”

Both Britt Lyons ’17 and Betsey McCarthy ’18 noted how the course changed their perspectives while also enhancing their empathy for others. “I gained a deeper understanding and sense of compassion for myself and those around me,” explained Lyons.

Those are strong recommendations, to say the least. 

As part of the January program, the students and instructor Julie Lellis, associate professor and associate department chair in the School of Communications, traveled to Massachusetts for a week, seeking out opportunities to explore the history and development of mindfulness in America. A highlight video of the trip is available on the school’s Vimeo page.

Following its Jan. 3 arrival in New England, the group traveled to the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to begin a four-day retreat. The center was the backdrop of the students’ self-exploration into mindfulness, which included a half-day spent in silence, basic meditation classes, a labyrinth walk, partner yoga and reflective journaling, among other activities. They also read about and discussed the Buddhist principles that have shaped so many contemporary practices.

Hanna Kraus ’19 didn’t hold back when explaining the retreat’s impact, noting that she had “a transformative experience that I am forever grateful for.” She added, “it helped me learn more about myself and others and the true importance of being in the moment.”

During their trip to Boston, the students visited the Cambridge Zen Center to participate in a meditation group for young people.
​At the conclusion of the retreat, the class returned to Boston, a well-known location for mindfulness research and training. Over the next two days, the students visited the Cambridge Zen Center to participate in a meditation group for young people, met with Professor Lu Ann Reeb of Emerson College to discuss persuasive communication strategies, and attended a yoga class.

The Northeast trip concluded with a visit to the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and a full-day training on the Relaxation Response. While at the institute, the students gained a better understanding of the science of meditation and the specific health benefits of mindfulness.

Fortuitously, the group had an unexpected meeting with Dr. Herbert Benson, a pioneer of mind-body medicine and founder of the institute, and he led the students in an impromptu meditation exercise. “The students were so excited because they read his book as part of the class,” said Lellis.

Upon their return to North Carolina, the students considered how they could bring their experiences back to campus to make a more “mindful” Elon. The result was the coordination of a Jan. 22 event to introduce the Elon community to yoga nidra, a guided meditation exercise that the class enjoyed. With support from a Winter Term Engagement Grant, which Lellis applied for and secured, the students planned and promoted the hourlong program, drawing nearly 50 faculty, staff and students.

Elon students and Associate Professor Julie Lellis visited with Dr. Herbert Benson (back row, center), founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, on Jan. 10. Benson is considered a pioneer of mind-body medicine.
​“Because I’m a strategic communications professor, my goal was to help them look at how we spread mindfulness in America, so they had to return to campus and get some perspective about how mindfulness could benefit Elon,” said Lellis.

Part of the goals of the course was to consider the influence of mindfulness practices on trends in higher education. So students met with a variety of faculty, staff and students who host or participate in mindfulness-based on-campus programs at Elon. They also learned about contemplative pedagogy, or the use of mindfulness to benefit student learning. With a better understanding of what might enhance programs already existing on campus, they prepared ideas to take mindfulness at Elon to the next level. The students then pitched their ideas to Jon Dooley, assistant vice president and dean of campus life, Joel Harter, associate chaplain, and Becca Bishopric Patterson, coordinator for health promotion. This panel evaluated the students’ ideas and offered funding to support a few of the proposed initiatives.

“At the end of the course, the students pitched several outstanding ideas to enhance mindfulness at Elon,” said Dooley. “They will have some financial support to move the ideas forward and Dr. Lellis’ design for the course – and the students’ response to it – provided an excellent example of engaged learning.”

Lellis also applauded her students for their efforts to spread the benefits of mindfulness and share the insight they obtained through their coursework and travels.

“I think the students got a glimpse into how mindfulness is being used in so many positive ways, and then they brought it back to campus,” she said.