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Spotlight Q/A with Barbara Pearson: Redesign of the University Life Café

The University Life Café originated at K-State to support the mental well-being of K-State students. It was launched in February 2009. Eight months after its launch, it went through a redesign based on user needs — to make the contents more accessible and engaging. The layout of the site changed along with the navigational structure. The site was also re-branded for more of a K-State “look-and-feel.”

PreULC

Original design of UniversityLifeCafe.org

PostULC

New design of UniversityLifeCafe.org

Question: What is the purpose of the University Life Cafe? For students and for faculty/staff?

Barbara Pearson: The University Life Café is a Web 2.0-based site created by and for K-State students to promote emotional wellness, and academic success leading to increased academic retention. Primary goals of the website are raising awareness of personal well-being as a factor of academic success and de-stigmatizing help-seeking.

UniversityLifeCafe.org is a K-State virtual community where all students can connect and contribute by posting photos, pictures, artwork, articles, and information, and interacting with peers and K-State Counseling Services professionals through the online discussion board.

Engaging students through the Web, in ways they are familiar, is likely to help the busy student contribute to the campus community and find information that can be helpful. Faculty will benefit by referring students to post-class work that would be beneficial to others as well as educate the general campus population about the many learning possibilities at K-State.

Q: Now that you’ve gone through the eighth-month redesign (last semester), what additional features are you planning for this site?

Pearson: The site features a new look with an easily accessible format. A packaging capability allows similar videos and articles to be viewed in one area. We are planning more videos featuring problems faced by K-State students and featuring K-State actors. We would like to see more departments and campus groups represented on the website.

Q: What sorts of user participation are you hoping to see with this redesigned website?

Pearson: The website has a large capacity to include student-made videos, campus interest group representation, and general student work. The website is password-protected for the K-State community, meaning that only those with a K-State electronic ID (eID) can contribute; however, the site is public and can be read by the general public.

Question: What is your role as the principal investigator of the federal grant that funded the creation of the University Life Café?

Pearson: My role is multifaceted, reflecting the multiple dimensions of the website. I often feel like a conductor of an orchestra coordinating technical expertise, educational instruction, student content creation, faculty content creation, local events listings, art contests, live events around campus and the community, site evaluations, and interactions with departments. In the case of University Life Café, the orchestra is the K-State community. And, it takes the community to create and make the site successful.

The  most enjoyable part of my role is meeting and interacting with students and faculty to develop partnerships to deepen the success of the website. For example, a Student Advisory Board meets monthly to review and brainstorm ideas for the site. We partner with departments such as Drama Therapy to engage students to act in the videos created for the website. This past semester, a Video Marketing class used the website as a class project to develop a marketing plan. The Technical Writing class has also created several class projects to promote the website providing students with real-life experience while contributing to the K-State community.

My role also includes interacting monthly with the main federal grant office of SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) to coordinate efforts with the national grant goals, oversee the budget, apply for continuation of the grant, and multiple other administrative functions.

Q: What is the history of the University Life Café?

Pearson: The Counseling Center received the Garrett Lee Memorial Suicide Prevention Grant in the Fall of 2007. The first-year focus groups were held with faculty and students to decide what should be included on the website. Students had major input throughout the development process. An advisory board was formed including faculty, students, and staff, to oversee the process and generate creative ideas. A team from the Office of Mediated Education created the overall design, and the Information Technology Assistance Center created much of the content of the website based on the needs that evolved from the focus groups.

The website was launched in February 2009. During the debut semester, people from 74 foreign countries and 50 states visited, with Student Brew as the most-viewed page on UniversityLifeCafe.org. Articles in the Kansas State University Collegian and in the Division of Continuing Education’s Distance Learning Newsletter spiked site use on campus and abroad.

Q: What were some of the main functions designed into the first iteration of the University Life Café?

Pearson: In addition to student contributions in Student Brew, professional articles in the bookshelf contain information and downloadable tips related to personal well-being and general situations such as stress, problem-solving, general anxiety, test anxiety, test-taking tips, depression, eating disorders, and suicide prevention, just to name a few.

Discover Yourself contains links to self-assessments that are confidential for students. Each assessment has information to help students balance both personal life and academic life. Students can review results with advisors, faculty, or Counseling Services to gain strategies for success. Events contain campus and the surrounding community events that would interest students and faculty.

Q: What is your vision for the near-term future of the University Life Café?

Pearson: The vision for UniversityLifeCafe.org is to be a virtual community for the K-State community. Promoting connectedness is a way to promote a healthy campus. Meeting students where they are using multimedia, a Web 2.0 approach, and some back-end “artificial intelligence” is a cutting-edge project for a college campus.

I hope you would all check out this resource and participate in ways that are positive for you.

Note: A recent article in Educause Quarterly featured “The University Life Cafe:  Promoting Students’ Emotional Health” as the lead article. It also featured a sidebar by Brent A. Anders about a creative webisode series created for the cafe, Suzy’s Strategies.