Brave Zone: A Safe Space for Students

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Monday, January 25, 2021
By Arijit Sengupta
Photo by iStock/Maksym Belchenko
Florida International University gives students an online forum where they can address issues of mental health and well-being.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many students to study remotely, isolated from their professors and classmates. This lack of social interaction has led to a decrease in motivation and happiness and an increase in depression. At Florida International University in Miami, we wanted to create a space where students from the College of Business could experience some normalcy during the stressful months of the pandemic. We have named that space The Brave Zone.

The Brave Zone includes a series of professionally moderated Zoom sessions that cover a wide range of issues pertaining to mental health and well-being. Students who participate in the sessions can speak freely and share their concerns without fear that their private conversations will be overheard by anyone outside the call.

The impact of these Brave Zone sessions has been overwhelmingly positive. Most students report having been given new perspectives on how to approach challenges in life. They also say they are using what they have learned to help others close to them.

How It Started

The Brave Zone came about in the spring of 2020 after our dean, Joanne Li, contacted David Garcia, who is president of both the Dean’s Student Advisory Board and the FIU student chapter of the Beta Gamma Sigma honor society. Li wanted to know if BGS members could help other business students connect and thrive during the pandemic.

It was a perfect fit. The BGS leadership had been seeking ways to engage its membership virtually while also helping fellow students cope with the personal upheaval and stress caused by the virus. In addition, the BGS mission—which includes cultivating and celebrating leadership—blended well with the purpose of The Brave Zone.

We wanted to create a space where students from the College of Business could experience some normalcy during the stressful months of the pandemic.

The BGS students proposed bringing in professors from FIU’s Stempel School of Public Health and Social Work to facilitate sessions on The Brave Zone, and Li reached out to the Stempel School dean to create the partnership. Sofia Fernandez, a post-doctoral associate at Stempel, became the lead facilitator of the project.

To plan sessions, Fernandez began working closely with BGS’ team of officers, which included Garcia and four students from the Chapman Graduate School of Business—Selina Sutherland, Veronica Fernandez-Barquin, Sara Sweeney, and Monica Cepeda. To date, session topics have included serving the community, practicing self-care, being mindful, managing stress, managing social distancing, building time-management skills, learning online, and being productive during a crisis.

How It Works

The Brave Zone launched near the end of May 2020 and continued through the summer. We paused the sessions for the winter break, but we anticipate continuing through the spring of 2021.

Sessions are held every other Monday from 6 to 7 p.m. Students are informed about upcoming meetings through social media, email messaging, and student town halls. BGS officers also utilize the WhatsApp group chat function to promote the sessions.

Students pre-register for the events through a Zoom link that is made available in the FIU digital calendar and FIU Business social media channels. In addition, professors often share the link, as some of them give students extra credit for attending. Typically, between 10 and 15 students join each meeting, though sometimes the number is as high as 20.

While Fernandez has handled most of the presentations, one of the sessions was delivered by Ellen Campos Sousa, a marketing PhD candidate. At every meeting, participating students have a chance to share their own personal stories.

Even after the pandemic ends, students will need to learn practices that support their mental health and well-being.

Each meeting begins with a greeting from the facilitator and is followed by meditation and mindfulness exercises. The facilitator then gives a short presentation on the day’s topic before opening up the floor to questions. Because everything students are sharing is confidential, each meeting is closed and nothing is recorded. However, after the sessions end, Fernandez summarizes and shares details of the presentation with students who attend. She also gives her email address to participants and makes herself available to any attendees who want one-on-one conversations.

The students and faculty who run these sessions understand that self-care and well-being practices are crucial to lasting success. They realize that by taking care of themselves, they will be better prepared to take care of others.

What Happens Next

The success of initiatives like The Brave Zone come down to a few basic principles: Be open-minded. Listen intently. Create partnerships. Be there for the students. Fernandez says that while it’s important to plan ahead, it’s also essential to let the conversation flow, and take notes on what students consider to be hot topics.

We’ve found that some of the issues that come up in The Brave Zone also need to be addressed by the business school in other ways. For instance, while diversity and inclusion were being discussed in a few Brave Zone meetings, the college simultaneously formed a group called Diversity and Inclusion Student Ambassadors. So far, this group has developed podcasts, held workshops, and built connections with corporate partners to create opportunities for minority students. Our college is now having ongoing conversations about diversity and inclusion, and our student ambassadors are playing key roles in these conversations.

While we plan to continue The Brave Zone through the end of the spring semester, it could extend beyond that if there is high enough demand. We know that even after the pandemic ends and some of its effects dissipate, students will need to learn practices that support their mental health and well-being. In fact, we believe such practices should be incorporated into all business environments.

We also believe that the students who have attended these sessions are better prepared to tackle the challenges of everyday life. We hope that the impact of these sessions carries on long after students graduate. We want to inspire the leaders of tomorrow to lift each other up, even in the most troubling and uncertain times.

Arijit Sengupta
Associate Dean, Accreditation and Technology Systems, College of Business, Florida International University
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