"In an age of students being online and using this social technology more and more, we see them using it to interact and find information on their own and reach students who would not necessarily come to Counseling Services in person," said Barbara Pearson, assistant director of Counseling Services and director of University Life Café. "We want this to be a way for students and even faculty to find information, interact with one-another and break down social stigmas of mental illness by promoting help-seeking behaviors."
Through the help of an advisory board consisting of K-State students, faculty and staff and a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in February 2009 the University Life Café was born.
The development team visited students in marketing, journalism, writing, art and drama classes. They participated in health fairs, spoke with media representatives for area television and radio stations, wrote academic articles and started Facebook and Twitter presences to share information about this global community resource, said Shalin Hai-Jew, instructional designer for University Life Café, in an article she wrote for Educause Quarterly in November 2009.
"I often feel like a conductor of an orchestra," Pearson said. "In the case of University Life Café, the orchestra is the K-State community. And it takes the community to create and make the site successful."
Pearson coordinates technical expertise, educational instruction, student content creation, faculty content creation, local event listings, art contests, live events around campus and the community, performs site evaluations and mediates interactions with departments.
The design team brainstormed the general contents and functionalities of the site. Joshua Works, user interface designer, led the information technology and Web design team. They conducted basic research on suicide and website resources to lower risk factors of suicide and to strengthen protective factors against it.
The formal contents, approved by Pearson, are made to appeal to a wide range of populations including those former and current military personnel, commuter students, older students, LGBT students and international students – many of whom are represented in the advisory committee, Hai-Jew said. The formal content can be accessed in the section referred to as "Bookshelf."
"Professional articles in the bookshelf contain information and downloadable tips related to personal well-being and general situations such as stress, problem-solving, general anxiety, text anxiety, test-taking tips, depression, eating disorders and suicide prevention, just to name a few," Pearson said.
K-State students, faculty, staff and administrators may upload informal content in a way that is identifiable on the back end, Hai-Jew said. Garrett Pennington, senior Web developer, supported the back-end design. The back-end design enables the staff and Counseling Center to identify those submitting informal works to the site enhancing management.
K-Staters may upload digital content including audio, video, art and photos or embed links to videos hosted on other servers. They may also post stories, experiences and comments in a supportive and positive environment.
Ongoing contests in art, photography, poetry and music also bring students to the site, Pearson said.
"The website has a large capacity to include student-made videos, campus interest group representation and general student work," Pearson said. "The website is password-protected, meaning only those with K-State eIDs can contribute; however, the site is public and can be read by the general public."
This participatory aspect encourages student voices and self-expression. It also encourages a sense of community around shared, co-created knowledge, Hai-Jew said.A student advisory board meets monthly with Pearson to work on ways to add more informational and functional value to the site. They discuss offering regular information releases, hosting other online events and design group plans in hopes to attract more "celebrities" in the field of mental health and wellness to draw interest and add value for visitors.
"We're constantly collaborating with departments, particularly English and marketing," Pearson said. "Other universities are amazed that we've been able to do all of this – that we are able to get a committee together and have instructors do an overnight retreat so this could all be made possible."
The drama department engaged students to act in videos created for the site. A video marketing class used the site as a class project to develop a marketing plan and a technical writing class also created several class projects that provide students with real-life experiences, Pearson said.
Brent A. Anders, media coordinator, served as the main videographer, with Evan Reser, and film director on various video projects. One such project, "Suzie's Strategies, are webisodes for students designed to entertain and educate visitors.
Another feature specific to K-State students called "Discover Yourself" contains links to self-assessments that are confidential for students.
"Each assessment has information to help students balance both personal life and academic life," Pearson said. "Students can review results with advisers, faculty or Counseling Services to gain strategies for success."
Andrea Mendoza, graphic artist, designed the logo, look and feel of the site. Legal advice from Pete Paukstelis, advocate general counsel, helped create a policy that would protect the university and the site users.
The website was recently named by the American College Personnel Association as one of the Top 10 Innovations in College Counseling for the 2009-2010 academic year.
It can be found online at http://www.universitylifecafe.org