Making Connections in Unlikely Places
How the Learning Enrichment Team is Bringing Wellness to the Libraries Through “Exploration and Serendipity”
It’s October, and that means that students from across the University of Pennsylvania are deep in their books. They’re brushing up on problem sets for their midterms, looking ahead to end-of-semester projects, reading and re-reading textbooks in anticipation of tests to come. Many undergraduates, particularly those in their first two years, might even find themselves making a second home in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. So what if, while they were visiting the library, students could discover ways to not only advance academically, but also discover additional ways to grow and learn as complex, multi-faceted people? What if, along with studying, they could join fellow students in the library for a board game night, or learn meditative writing techniques, or make a Halloween costume, or find a running buddy?
Cultivating spaces and creating programming that address the needs of the whole student is the aim of the Penn Libraries Learning Enrichment team. Led by Steve Scaduto, Assistant Director of Learning Enrichment; Christine Kemp, Program Coordinator of Technology and Play; and Jade E. Davis, Director of Educational Technology and Learning Management, they are using some of the Libraries’ most versatile spaces, like the Weigle Information Commons in Van Pelt and the Education Commons near the Franklin Field, to encourage students to see themselves, the library collections, and the collegiate experience itself in a whole new way.
“We use these spaces to meet students where they are,” says Davis. “Our goal is to bring them things they know that they need and things they might not know that they need by creating spaces designed for exploration and serendipity.”
In order to make this happen, Kemp, Scaduto, and Davis draw on wellness principles to craft their ever-growing slate of events and activities. While, at heart, “wellness” is meant to signal that health is not just about the absence of disease, but is instead a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, many critics note that the concept has been co-opted in recent years. They accuse companies of using wellness culture to sell suspect products and employers of gesturing towards wellness when responding to staff burnout by offering yoga classes and nutrition counseling instead of better pay or flexible work options. These approaches to wellness often place the burden of becoming a fuller, healthier, happier person on an individual. “The self-betterment movement puts the onus on individuals to push against things that they have no control over,” said social psychologist Tom Curran in a 2021 interview. “But what good is self-betterment if at the end of all that effort to improve ourselves it's still a hostile, competitive, individualistic, pressurized, insecure, precarious world outside, just waiting there when we've finished!"
In sharp contrast, the Learning Enrichment team sees wellness as something that happens within a community. “It’s about meeting people where they are, as opposed to saying ‘go home and do some meditation for 20 minutes and report back to me,’” says Scaduto. To emphasize the difference, he will sometimes use the phrase “community care” to describe the ethos of the activities he has developed, like the weekly Meditative Expressions sessions, which invite students to come together to write, draw, reflect, and share their creations in a supportive space.
This wellness programming is also about passing on techniques that have helped team members get through difficult times. Kemp, a trained artist, has built a whole slate of activities that encourage students to stretch their creative muscles. “I approach art as a therapeutic way of coping with day-to-day life,” she says. While she had not previously considered her art practice a form of wellness, she is now creating wellness activities for students inspired by these methods. “I can provide something to others that I know helps me. It’s about putting yourself in the same shoes as someone else who might benefit from wellness.”
“For me, wellness means creating the space to cultivate joy,” Davis adds. “We have to create moments for people to take a step back from their obligations, slow down, and figure out what they enjoy,” This approach to wellness isn’t just for students, either. “I want my staff to do things that bring them joy when they can, so the wellness events are ways for people on my team to have programming that they are going to enjoy. I tell them ‘use this to cultivate joy for yourself.’”
Why does this approach to wellness belong in the library? The team is quick to point out that first and foremost, students are already in library spaces. And unlike many spaces on campus, students don’t need to be part of a particular school or a certain major to use the Penn Libraries; they don’t need to sign a form or make a long-term volunteer commitment. They can visit the library at all hours—even in the middle of the night in some instances. They can grab a snack, or find a quiet study space, or talk with friends.
Making the Libraries a place to explore wellness is also about shining a light on library collections. “A lot of times, collections and research seem like really heavy things, and people feel bad if they can’t engage with them in the same way other people can,” Davis notes. With this in mind, many of this fall’s art-making programs encourage participants to explore the collections in ways that feel low-stakes, creative, and surprising. Upcoming activities invite members of the Penn community to make plushies, buttons, and even holiday gifts based on medieval illustrations, 19th century trade cards, historical photographs, and more.
Kemp, who developed many of these collections-based maker activities, sees herself in students who might not think of the collections as being for them. Reflecting on her art practice she says, “I didn’t know I was doing research this whole time, just in a completely different way. And that makes me wonder what else I can do with these things that I never would have been interested in prior to this. Being able to bring that to our students is a really exciting challenge.”
At heart, the Learning Enrichment team is building spaces and programs that get students out of their bubbles and allow them to wander off the academic path to see what they might discover. Davis says, “Things at Penn are very structured for students. They have to think about their majors and getting into their schools, and they don't have a lot of opportunities to meet people from other areas or explore other interests. We give students a chance to be serendipitous, to meet people they might not talk to otherwise, or to remember, ‘Oh, I can do this thing!’
“It prevents some students from falling through the cracks,” says Scaduto. “Programs like these allow students to find ‘their person,’ whether it be a faculty member, an administrator, a library worker, or another student. They allow students to find a connection that might not have happened otherwise.”
Particularly coming out of the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, students at Penn—and across the world—may be struggling to make connections and care for themselves as whole people. Others may already have begun a journey of self-discovery and are seeking a community to support them. With the help of the Learning Enrichment team, they can now find ways to do so at the Penn Libraries.