When Jenna Christianson came to South Dakota State University four years ago, she was intending to major in pharmacy. “I was looking at integrative and functional medicine,” said the Hendricks, Minnesota, native. It took only two weeks for her to realize that her calling was in nutrition.

Now the dietetics major, a member of the Van D. and Barbara B. Fishback Honors College, is helping improve college wellness programming across the nation through her senior research project.

Christianson analyzed qualitative data gathered through Get Fruved, a U.S. Department of Agriculture research project that seeks to create positive campus climates in which students develop behaviors that will help prevent obesity. The five-year, multistate community-based participatory research project emphasizes student involvement in creating ideas on how to change the campus environment and motivate students through social media and marketing.

Distinguished Professor Kendra Kattelmann, head of the Department of Health and Nutritional Sciences and the lead researcher for Get Fruved in South Dakota, is Christianson’s research adviser. “People have to make mindful choices to prevent obesity-related illnesses,” Kattelmann said. “We want to create a campus environment in which the healthy choice is the easy choice.”

Christianson said, “If college wellness programs adopt some of these changes, it will affect student lifestyles and create some good wellness habits as they move forward in life.”

Analyzing student discussions

Christianson analyzed the transcripts from six focused class discussions in a one-credit hybrid class taught at South Dakota State University and three other land-grant universities designated as intervention campuses—University of Tennessee, University of Florida and West Virginia University. The 102 students interacted with one another through video conferencing.

“These students were interested in promoting healthful behavior and making changes in policy and the campus environment to support healthful behaviors,” Kattelmann explained.

Christianson continued, “We explored the health-related knowledge, beliefs and attitudes of a group of college students … to understand what approaches college wellness program should use to address students’ needs.” She began her analyses in spring of her sophomore year and finished the final revisions on the manuscript she submitted for publication in December.

“Jenna did a great job of analyzing the discussion content and writing the manuscript,” Kattelmann said.

Improving wellness

The participants described being physically healthy as exercising regularly, limiting sedentary time, eating nutrient-rich foods and getting enough sleep, Christianson said. Managing stress and emotions, being happy and practicing self-confidence were characteristics of good mental health.

In terms of nutrition, Christianson said, “Students wanted an increase in healthy food options and in health education.” They noted the higher cost of fruits and vegetables for students on a tight budget. For instance, they cited a salad as costing about $7, while chips and soda were $3.50. In addition to decreasing greasy foods, the students wanted healthier juices and smoothies on campus food service menus and a ranking system for foods based on their nutritional value.

In terms of changing behaviors, students suggested having a college dining program app or using My Fitness Pal. Similarly, students recommended using technology to promote wellness events, such as speakers, cooking classes and farmers’ markets; however, they wanted these events to be free and emphasized convenience as a key selling point.

 “They wanted more encouragement through support systems, including those addressing mental health, health-related student organizations and more truthful marketing of products,” Christianson said. However, the students acknowledged that establishing a routine helps them reduce stress and balance their lives.