TigerWell’s innovative projects can show us the way

Discussions about mental health at Princeton often center on how many counselors and sessions the counseling center offers, but the conversation has to go further. We have to wrestle with the ways that excellence, ambition, and rigor are comingled with toxic culture, rampant loneliness, and mental illness. Professor Ruha Benjamin said in a recent talk, “We give so much space to what we don’t want. What about making space for what we do want?” What about it, indeed. 

To think outside the box, we do best when we listen to students. One place that’s happening is TigerWell, an office at University Health Services established in 2021 with a grant from the Elcan Family Fund for Wellness Innovation. Think of it as Princeton’s incubator for the “culture of connection” that the surgeon general has prescribed as the antidote to loneliness. 

A watercolor painting of flowers reaching in from the edges of the paper.
A painting created at “Relaxing with Watercolors.”
Ask students or staff what they associate with TigerWell, and you will hear words like flourishing, connectedness, mindfulness, belonging, and self-compassion. Among other things, the office offers grant funding for projects or research that promote well-being.

One TigerWell grant-funded project grew out of conversations graduate student Natalie Miller had with music students she says wanted “to foster departmental community, increase transparency about resources, recognize existing informal mentoring relationships, and support professional development.” Student leaders in the Music Mentoring Project matched more than 50 undergrads with more than 30 trained graduate student mentors in the first two years. Happily, participants report feeling more connected to the department, their peers, and their Princeton communities.

Another grant-funded project, The Greenhouse Initiative, started with graduate student Kimmie Sabsay, who volunteered at a garden in nearby Lawrenceville for three years. “A garden is a much-needed haven from the stress of graduate school and fosters a beautiful community of diverse individuals,” Sabsay says. Feeling “extra-blue” during the cold winter months when she could not escape into the garden, she wished there was a way to extend the gardening season and realized that many grad students do not have easy access to plants or transportation. The Greenhouse Initiative is now building a permanent greenhouse in the Lawrence Community Garden that will provide seeds, seedlings, and more. 

With TigerWell’s projects as inspiration, other students and staff are also creating simple, nourishing spaces that add to a culture of connection, like Marguerite Vera ’79’s “Relaxing with Watercolors.”  

A watercolor painting of flowers with text reading "Thank you."
Another painting from “Relaxing with Watercolors.”
Vera, Princeton’s senior associate director for venue services, began painting every morning to relax before work during COVID — first acrylics and then watercolors. During Wintersession 2021, she offered “Relaxing with Watercolors” as an open space to bring any level of talent. Peer health adviser Chioma Ugwonali ’24 asked if Vera might continue the offering on Thursday evenings as an alternative to studying or going out, especially for introverts who appreciate calm, comforting spaces. The group now meets bimonthly, sometimes with as many as 25 students. “I am happy to stay up late because the students inspire me,” Vera says. “I feel their enthusiasm and their need for nurturing.”  

Lora Kwon ’27, who’s part of the student art club Sketchbook, said joining the Watercolors sessions with her group gets her socializing with new, interesting people, and she summed up the benefits like this: “Painting puts me in a meditative state that tends to decrease my stress and increase my mood.” With so much of her time devoted to “resume” activities, painting together “just makes me happy.”

“It’s a reminder that we should take some time off to slow down and engage in hobbies and interests, seeing people of all grades, majors, and skill levels,” Kwon says. “It shows that we can and should make time for relaxing the way we make time for studying or working.”

Kwon’s line bears repeating. TigerWell-supported projects, and other organic creative connections should be amplified, celebrated, and normalized in the Princeton experience. Imagine if, in addition to reflexively stating, “This paper was written in accordance with University regulations,” Princeton students also learned that, “We can and should make time for relaxing the way we make time for studying or working.” Could we be on the verge of a new honor code for the “whole student?”