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Alexis Travis setting a culture of health and wellbeing at Michigan State University

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Russ White | MSU Today
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Dr. Alexis Travis

Dr. Alexis Travis is assistant provost and executive director overseeing Michigan State University's new University Health and Wellbeing division that brings together 11 departments focused on supporting faculty, staff, and student health and wellbeing.

In leading the new division, Dr. Travis will provide strategic vision and leadership for a comprehensive health and wellness approach that meets the diverse needs of students, staff, and faculty.

“I'm originally from the United Kingdom, born and raised in England, and I've lived in the U.S. for 16 years. I moved here with my husband, who's an American. And most recently I've been at the state of Michigan working in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. I've led the Public Health Administration there. Before that, I led the Aging and Adult Services Agency and was the bureau director for health and wellness. Prior to that, my family and I lived in Massachusetts where I was chief of Community Health for the city of Worcester, which is the second largest city in New England. I focus on how to improve population health, whether at the local level or state level. And then through my time working in public health, the common thread has really been working on health equity, so figuring out what communities need and meeting them where they are to get the best and optimal health outcomes.”

What attracted you to this position at MSU?

“I was really excited about this opportunity to set a culture of health and wellbeing and create something new, building on a very strong foundation of these 11 units, but really having the opportunity to look at assessment and planning and work with the Spartan community to reach optimal health and wellbeing here. I really enjoy engaging with communities directly. Working with faculty, students, and staff directly is something that I'm really looking forward to, and I want to look at opportunities to fill gaps and build on the amazing services we're already offering.”

Why are you passionate about this work?

“Both of my parents were African immigrants. They came to the UK to attend university. Understanding the differences between different groups and their different needs and how that impacts health has really been a passion of mine, working towards leveling the playing field and figuring out how we can better meet the needs culturally, for example, or in terms of language. Here at MSU, I'm really excited about this diverse, huge community that we get to serve. There are many opportunities for us to look to make sure that health and wellbeing are integrated into all aspects of campus life and think about the different backgrounds people come here with and how we can listen and develop more programming and initiatives to meet those needs. My vision is to make sure that each Spartan has access to the resources and education, information, and services they need to be able to meet their full potential here.”

How do you define health and wellbeing? And what do you see as the mission of University Health and Wellbeing?

“Diversity in our community at MSU is one of our strengths. People are coming here from all over the world with different understandings about health and wellbeing, which can be considered subjective in some ways. It's important for us as we do this work to really have some shared definitions. The World Health Organization outlines health as an optimal state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, not just the absence of disease or infirmity.

“Universities across the U.S. have adopted an inter-association definition of wellbeing, which is an optimal and dynamic state where people are able to fulfill their full potential. So when we think about that in the MSU community, it's looking at what is academic success. How do we achieve that? If people are not healthy or not feeling their best selves, then it's going to be more difficult for them to reach their academic goals, whether it's graduation or something else. For our faculty and staff, it's equally as important as we facilitate that academic journey for others to make sure we're also looking after ourselves during that process.”

How would you describe your relationship with the University Physician's Office?

“There has been some restructuring. Previously there was integration of what now is University Health and Wellbeing and the University Physician's Office. Now we're two distinct units, although we do work closely together. The University Physician is a cabinet member. He's advising the president and guiding senior leadership within the university on all things related to health and safety, including how we respond to COVID and other major threats as well as making sure we're also meeting statutory responsibilities in terms of state and federal statutes that we're responsible to adhere to.

“University Health and Wellness is on more of the programmatic side. My role as an administrator is overseeing all the programs and the array of services that we provide in those 11 units. It brings together units that were formally in the University Physician office. It's the Employee Assistance Program, the Healthy U program, which is health promotion for our staff and our faculty. It also brings together Occupational Health and Travel. And then we have other units like Student Health Services, which is housed in the Olin Health Clinic. We also have CAPS, which is Counseling and Psychiatric Services, and the Center for Survivors, which provides support to people who have experienced relationship violence or sexual misconduct. We have Safe Place, which is the only on-campus shelter for people who have experienced relationship violence or stalking and other forms of harassment. And then we have the Resource Center for Persons Living with Disabilities. That's a program area that's seeing a lot of demand right now as we're admitting more students who are living with disabilities and making sure that they have an equitable experience here as well. And then we also have the Work Life Office, making sure that employees have the best possible experience here and that we are forming and following best practices for that supervisor-employee relationship and beyond.”

What are some of your short- and long-term goals?

“In the short term, what we're looking at is bringing together those 11 units. It's always difficult when you go through organizational change. And when we look at those 11 units, they've all been following different practices. We are looking at policies, practices, and processes. With that challenge comes the opportunity to make it more efficient, really leveraging the data from each of those program areas to make sure that we have a full picture of what the needs are of the Spartan community. In the short term, I’m also looking at how we educate the university community about the services that we offer, making sure that we're making those connections as tightly as possible so people know from the beginning of their journey with MSU all the way through the end of their journey that we're here to support them and we have resources, information, and other support that they can take advantage of.

“In the longer term, we are looking at how to measure outcomes. How can we move the needle on health and wellbeing outcomes and reach that optimal state of health? In public health, it takes a little bit longer to see those in terms of our metrics, but we can track things incrementally. When we are looking at that data and we are assessing health and wellbeing, we need to make sure that we have strong campaigns and accurate information and are leveraging and highlighting the fact that a lot of the time, students have healthier behaviors than are relayed in the stereotypes about students. We are the home to the National Social Norms Center. A big part of our responsibility is to do those social norm campaigns and share what most students are doing and the healthful behaviors that we see here on the MSU campus.”

As you pursue these goals, are there any challenges and opportunities you see?

“There are always challenges when you bring together new organizations. We're looking at how to get on to shared data systems. But I think the biggest opportunities are really to be a convener, bringing together so many different areas across the university all focused on health. And outside of our team, also convening others who have programs and initiatives supporting health and wellbeing so that we're collectively making a bigger impact. And that's a lot of what we'll be doing moving forward as well as assessment.”

I imagine you're pleased to see how society is seeing mental health as an important factor in our overall health and wellbeing.

“Yes. One of the things that I think about is this period that we're coming out of with COVID and the impact it's had on folks' mental health. We can't deny that. And we're seeing more and more demand for mental health services. That's a challenge in and of itself, and we have limited resources. It's going to take all of us, faculty, students, and staff to address the current mental health crisis and to really support each other as we come out of this. Over the next few years, we're going to see a lot of students admitted who were in high school earlier on in the pandemic in the most critical times. We anticipate seeing more of those mental health challenges, but we also will be ready to receive those students and to support them every step of the way.

“The bottom line here is we're here for you. We have an array of services. Our health changes at different times; it's really a spectrum. Sometimes people will feel healthier, and then other times people will feel some sense of illness, maybe mental health issues. Our goal is to try to work with Spartans to keep them at the healthier end of that spectrum and to be there with services when there are fluctuations. I am so thrilled to be working with such a talented team of individuals who really stay up on best practices and are ready to provide services year-round to our Spartan community. There are some exciting things coming ahead and things to look forward to.”

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