Peer-to-peer coaching program with Dixie State roots helping college students statewide

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ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4) – The Atwood Innovation Plaza at Dixie State University was built with a goal in mind; to help students and community members learn all the skills needed to become successful entrepreneurs or business leaders.

Opened in Nov. 2019, the impressive repurposed facility boasts many resources to help future innovators build their futures, including a manufacturing center, a research and development area, and on-hand technical support for startup businesses.

It also features a space set aside for a foundation that has developed a clever approach to helping students throughout the entire state adjust to the challenges of entering adulthood and college life.

After all, college can be an extremely stressful time as Tasha McNamee, who has years of experience working in student programs, explains to ABC4.com.

“Life gets a lot more real,” she says of college years. “There’s less hand-holding, and the support system changes, students are becoming responsible at a higher level for their education and their life decisions.”

Not only are students making career and educational decisions, but they’re also dealing with the expanded roles of relations, finances, and other responsibilities, practically at the same time.

Burnout and poor mental health are often by-products of the college experience.

Helping students navigate the many challenges that can easily result in issues related to mental health was a key focus for the Plaza’s late namesake, Lindsay Atwood, a longtime Utah businessman, and university trustee.

As the story goes, Atwood was having lunch with the school’s president, Richard Williams, when Williams’ phone rang. After answering the call, Williams learned that one of the students at Dixie State had committed suicide. At that moment, Atwood became resolved to make improving the mental well-being of college students a priority.

Atwood passed away shortly before the Plaza’s opening, but his donations and commitment to Dixie State were honored in acknowledged in the building’s name. He also left behind another legacy with donations leading to the Trula Foundation, which has launched a creative and effective peer coaching system available statewide called TrulaCampus.

The program, which matches a more experienced college student with one who is seeking guidance, can be done via text, phone, or video call and comes at no cost due to funding from the Utah System of Higher Education.

For students like Killian Argentin, who receives and gives coaching on TrulaCampus, the program has been invaluable in helping him, a native of France, better understand the American college scene at Dixie State.

“It really helps with self-reflection by just having someone to talk to,” Argentin explains in perfect English with a slight French accent. “They’re basically in a similar situation, like same age, same academic situation, they’re all students going to college being alone, and you can feel like you can rely on them more than if it was your parents or someone older.”

Having someone to talk to who is in a relatable state is what makes the TrulaCampus program so successful, McNamee, the program’s director, explains. That, along with keeping it free of cost, are features that make the system preferable to college students although McNamee adds that professional help should always be a consideration for students in need.

Still, the coaches receive top-notch training from a mentor who has received a master’s degree in health education and wellness, in addition to certification from the National Board for Health Wellness Coaching. The method is best described as coaching from relatable peers, who ask open-ended questions that help the ‘coachee’ better realize the solutions they may already have.

“We want to try to catch those students in those moments where they’re having stress and increase the resilience through a coaching relationship,” McNamee says. “Let’s work through it, let’s talk through it, let’s work on some goals and develop confidence.”

While the program’s roots are in Southern Utah, the footprint extends across the entire state. Utah State University senior and TrulaCampus coach Annie Buxton has found gratification in helping her peers work through their problems in a weekly Zoom call.

She says what they talk about can vary from person to person.

“They want to just have a safe place to work through it and get encouragement,” the 22-year-old communication major says. “Through our training, we learned how to just help them find their own answers. They have their own answers and they’re inside them, sometimes just takes a second to figure them out.”

As of now, TrulaCampus has the infrastructure to provide weekly service to up to 150 students in the entire state, but thanks to an increase in funding and a pending stamp of approval from the Utah System of Higher Education, McNamee expects it to scale quickly in the coming semesters.

The hope is that by providing free peer-to-peer coaching, the stress of college life can be managed, and strength with confidence can be built before it escalates into a problem that feels unmanageable.

“We want to catch a student who’s been experiencing stress or loneliness or panic attacks, any of those types of emotions before they start to cascade into something that could become mental illness for them in the future,” McNamee states. “Loneliness, stress, those are normal feelings, but what can we do about them, how can we turn them into resilience.”

TrulaCampus believes it can begin with a bit of technology and a trusted personal connection.

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