If the lights are softly dimmed and the air smells like eucalyptus — and if you happen to be somewhere inside DSHA — chances are good you’re in the Zen Den.
That’s the aptly ascribed moniker now bestowed on a former fourth-floor classroom, where plant-lined windowsills and faux fur-lined furniture offer a unique space for students to develop their overall wellbeing.
Most of the lighting that brightens the room pours in through windows; only a handful of floor and table lamps supply anything other than natural light. Assorted flora sprout from various-sized pots spread throughout the room, and a scented diffuser puffs plumes of freshening aroma into the air; today, it’s emitting a cloud of eucalyptus.
The person at the center of it all? She’s Rachel Uihlein, former health faculty at DSHA who’s now in her first year in a new role as Whole Person Education Specialist.The former teacher with nearly a decade of classroom experience has several specialties in student services, making her a natural fit for the job. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology, and is working toward her marriage and family therapy license and a post-graduate certificate in wellness and wellbeing coaching.
Her mission? To talk to and help coach students who want a comforting space designed largely around their own input. A lot of what’s in the Zen Den and what’s built into her programming, Uihlein said, “is a direct result of what students said they wanted.”
Supported by a $104,500 grant from the Arizona-based Robert and Marie Hansen Family Foundation, the Zen Den and Uihlein’s unique new position are the newest spokes in DSHA’s wheel of wellness offerings — all of them aimed at forming students academically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. Technically part of the school’s Student Services department, Uihlein is providing services aimed at complementing the bevy of counseling and other wellness initiatives already familiar to Dashers.
“Rachel’s position complements Student Services because she is providing social and emotional support to students through strategic small group offerings for needs and trends we see and address one-on-one in our offices,” Student Services Director Pat McAndrew said.
“Rachel’s teaching background is a complement because it positively contributes to our ongoing communication with teachers,” McAndrew added, “and, because of that, she can identify strategies that have both a positive effect on students and the classrooms as a whole.”
Uihlein may have a background in teaching, but she’s taken efforts to design a counseling space that looks anything but like a classroom. An always-warming tea kettle and a few jars of healthy snacks line a shelf along one wall, while used paintbrushes are left to dry on a table beside students’ craftwork — painting can be relaxing. Pens and stationery await students’ attention at another table, where Uihlein notes girls are encouraged to take up another stress-relieving activity: writing thank-you cards.
Even the furniture is designed with students in mind. A large, L-shaped couch is good for small-group discussions, while a few carefully placed chairs — some of them invitingly fluffy — help facilitate one-on-one counseling.
Her new position is an extension of targeted wellness efforts Uihlein had begun testing last year, when she discovered that students who got poor grades often had overlapping issues outside the classroom. “When I would sit down and work with them one-on-one,” she said, “we’d find out that they weren’t necessarily not succeeding academically because they didn’t have those academic skills; it was because of other things that were going on in their life.”
Students generally sign up online for wellness coaching sessions with Uihlein. Small groups congregate inside the Zen Den occasionally on Thursdays and Fridays, when students’ schedules allow for it. She’s also handled a few “one-on-one coaching” sessions, too.
McAndrew said he’s hoping Uihlein’s new role, coupled with wellness surveys all freshmen take, can help the school become more proactive in addressing student wellness needs — “with the hope of addressing student issues and concerns before they arise.”
“Through the survey,” he said, “students are identified earlier on, the assessment-to-program implementation is less than a week, needs are met sooner and that contributes to addressing the issues and concerns before they increase.”
Uihlein said it’s important to provide a breadth of service offerings to students, noting some girls respond better to some counseling environments than to others.
“Different students are going to want different things,” she said. “For some students, this (Zen Den) is way more approachable.
“The idea is that students are really getting what they need,” she added. “Instead of a one-sized-fits-all, it’s their-size-fits-all.”