Jessica Matthis & Catie Byrne
Staff Writer Features Editor
Derek Plumb, entrepreneur and founder of Sweet Spot Hammock Hangers, aims to create a better atmosphere on campus for student health with unconventional means. Plumb has spent the past year enthusiastically developing a product that he describes as, “A multi-faceted solution to everyday things that most college students deal with.”
Plumb wishes for his product to “bring a more creative and critical space to reading, writing, thinking and napping, [and to] help with stress.” Plumb’s product offers students the nontraditional option of hanging a hammock from their dorm room lofted bed, with safety-tested, 100 percent steel hangers, specially designed to fit certain lofted beds like those found in many of UNCG’s residence halls.
This is especially relevant to mental health, academic performance and relative satisfaction with on-campus environments. Plumb emphasizes this sentiment and believes his product can assist students struggling to relax because a hammock can be hung anywhere and that people perform better when they are able to make any environment function as a place to rest.
“When you’re more comfortable, your stress and anxiety levels go down… It’s obvious that when students are better rested you’re going to get better performance out of them,” said Plumb.
While Plumb’s focus is targeted towards on-campus students, data from UNCG’s Office of Institutional Research webpage proves that much needs to be done about improving academic performance for on-campus students. According to their Student Data Profile, the mean cumulative GPA of UNCG on-campus students is 2.59, while the mean GPA of off-campus students is 2.98. However surprising, it raises many questions and indicates the extent to which living and studying environments play a role in academic success as well as what initiatives are needed to improve this and promote healthy residence life.
Plumb however, is undeterred, “I’m an optimist and I really do think that many universities are [addressing issues of stress and fatigue]. Any school that is actively concerned with how students are doing academically and even personally too should have this [fatigue and stress] on their shortlist of issues that they’re trying to resolve.”
In fact, there are several initiatives in place at UNCG in order to promote overall student health in the residence halls. According to Timothy Johnson, the director of Housing and Residence Life, HRL staff actively works to ensure that community health and wellness is cultivated within residence halls.
“For a large number of students, the residence hall experience is that quintessential ‘college’ experience,” Johnson explained, describing the necessity of Resident Advisors and other staff to ensure that a community is built.
“For the past few years,” Johnson continued, “the RA’s have been engaged with an initiative called ‘Connections,’ where they engage in specific one-on-one outreach to their residents… HRL also does regular assessments of student satisfaction… We use surveys and focus groups and collect feedback from students on a regular basis to seek ways to improve.”
In addition to Housing and Residence Life, UNCG’s Student Health Center also advocates for the wellness of students. According to Dr. Alice E. Franks, staff psychologist at UNCG’s counseling center, the Wellness Center organizes UNCG’s mental health month, which is the month of September.
The counseling center collaborates with the other departments of the Student Health Center in order to educate students about mental health and provide resources like mental wellness assessments and motivational speakers.
Franks said, “[The counseling center] helps [students] answer questions about concerns… and really flourish here and find ways to cope with challenges around stress and other issues.” Franks agreed that living in residence halls can have benefits, but also that adjusting to this change can be overwhelming for some students.
The efforts of innovators like Plumb, and professionals like Franks and Johnson who have made strides to improve the wellbeing of students, are not misguided. Dr. Rosemary Nelson-Gray, clinical psychologist and professor in the psychology department at UNCG, detailed the scientific effects that erratic sleeping can have in relation to inaccessibility of on-campus resting places.
“The human body is built to follow set circadian rhythms. For example, there is a burst of cortisol in the morning, which energizes the body and activates its functioning. It is best if students maintain a regular schedule of awake hours and sleep hours to go with the natural flow of circadian rhythms… Having irregular sleep patterns has similar effects on the body as does jet lag. A person can function minimally, but certainly not to optimal capacity,” Nelson-Gray explained.
Nelson-Gray also described why sleep dysfunctions can antagonize pre-existing mood disorders and mental illness, saying, “Disruptions in circadian rhythm play even more havoc with people with mood disorders, either depression or bipolar disorder. These disruptions can set off or exacerbate a mood episode.”
Clearly, sleep and mental health share a close relationship, and both are factors in a student’s ability to succeed in their personal, academic and professional lives. Moreover, unconventional products like Plumb’s aimed at improving spaces on campus for sleeping and relieving stress may do more than improve a residence hall’s visual appeal.
“When you think about who’s using [residence halls], it’s students— it’s who you’re trying to give four years worth of creative critical experience to really have profound thought,” Plumb explained. “Is this the best space that you could possibly give a student to do their best work in? Every time I think about it, it’s a resounding ‘no.’”
Plumb emphasized that the future is bright for the universities that continue to enable innovative solutions to address student health concerns, and hinted that he had a few other ideas about non-traditional academic settings up his sleeve.
“I think that when you really break down the end result of what we want education to be, I don’t feel like [our] settings are very supportive of what we’re trying to get students to be… We talk about creativity all the time and I couldn’t think of a less creative space that we put students in. Both in typical classroom spaces, and also dorms, it’s the same as how classrooms are built: white cinderblock walls,” Plumb argued.
“There are a lot of solutions that haven’t been created yet to make the college experience better,” Plumb said, encouraging people who have ideas to improve the college experience and make their ideas happen.
“I haven’t met a single student yet that hasn’t been stressed out at some point during their college career,” Plumb said. “We’ve asked a lot of questions [about college] and come up with a lot of solutions and data to support those conclusions about making college better or more comfortable… So I would like to see us starting to implement some of [these] ideas.”
From Plumb’s perspective, as well as the perspectives of many professionals at UNCG, the benefits of addressing student health issues are numerous and essential to the success of college students, especially those pertaining to the living and working conditions found in residence halls.