A room for students to find relief

Take a peacock feather out of a tall glass vase. Balance the feather, by the point of its shaft, on your finger— one finger. You can move, but try to stay steady, just keeping the long, curving feather vertical.

Good luck.

Now try again, but instead of looking at your finger or even at the surrounding comfy furniture you’re trying not to trample, look at the eye of the feather. Within seconds you’re doing the preposterous: keeping a two-foot feather, with a curving shaft and downy barbs that sway in the lightest of breaths, vertical on the end of a finger you’re not even looking at.

“Sometimes,” says Associate Dean Tom Szigethy, director of DuWell, a solution comes from “just reframing the way I think about the problem.” Don’t think you’re done with plumage-based insights, though. “Peacocks get color,” Szigethy goes on, “by eating poisonous plants,” and within the Buddhist tradition, peacocks thus symbolize the capacity to live through challenge and turn difficulty into beauty. “We try to pull from as many cultures as possible.”

He pulled from all those cultures to create the Oasis, quiet rooms in three Duke locations: one in the Wellness Center, one in Bell Tower dorm on East Campus, and one in Perkins Library. The rooms provide resources to help students balance more than just peacock feathers. The goal of the Oasis, like DuWell—Duke Wellness—itself, is to help students balance their lives, to help them reduce stress and anxiety, and to keep them healthy and successful both as students and as people.

“Stress and anxiety are the two top factors for over a decade” in the biennial National College Health Assessment surveys taken by the American College Health Association, Szigethy says. In the 2018 survey, 35.3 percent of students listed stress and 28.1 listed anxiety as having adversely affected their academic performance. Sleep difficulties—likely caused by stress and anxiety—came in at 23.5 percent; no other factor even broke 20 percent. Students are stressing.

So they step into the Oasis West, a room on the ground floor of the Student Wellness Center. First, it’s peaceful in there. The burble of a waist-high stoneware fountain is the only sound, unless someone is creating a throbbing, metallic hum using one of the Tibetan singing bowls or jingling in their hands a pair of Chinese Baoding balls. Students sit on the gray sectional couch across from the wall of windows or in the few armchairs arranged around a central freeform ottoman, either listening to headphones or enjoying the quiet.

Several stations offer opportunities for relaxation or stress relief, from artwork from various spiritual traditions to a spot where you can use essential oils to create aromatherapy spray bottles to a box of coloring books and pencils and markers. A massage chair never seems to lack for business. A bowl of condoms and a bookshelf full of works on alcohol safety betray the origin story of the Oasis.

“My position was created as a result of the lacrosse incident” in 2006, Szigethy says. It became clear that Duke needed to help its students make better decisions regarding alcohol and sex, and the increased focus on wellness has grown from that. The original wellness center was in Crowell, where Szigethy’s office was, and he had a few tables with books and comfortable chairs. “People would all say, ‘It feels so good in here. It feels like I can breathe in here.’ ” When his office moved into Bell Tower, he noticed that people were coming in not necessarily to seek a particular wellness service. “They were coming in to hang out.” That spurred the development of what is now Oasis East, in Bell Tower, and when the Student Wellness Center opened in 2017, it included Oasis West, a room designed to fill students’ needs to hang out and receive help regarding wellness in several areas: spiritual, intellectual, social, and on and on. Research supports the elements the center brings in, but the important point is that the students use it.

“I was studying and my back hurt,” said sophomore Annika Hsu late in the fall semester as she got up from the massage chair. “It’s finals week, so everyone is high stress.” She remembers using the essential oils and coloring to soothe her nerves, but “I’ve probably used almost every resource in this building.”

Hsu went off to her next final, and another student took the chair. Typing while she vibrated, to be sure, but she took the chair.

Small steps.

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