The University of Minnesota School of Public Health (SPH) is known as one of the best schools of public health in the nation due to the quality of its graduate education and its involvement with the community.
But what many people don’t know is that the school’s most far-reaching program when it comes to student engagement — the Rothenberger Institute — serves undergraduates with one-credit, online wellness courses. Since its first offering in 2002, the still-popular Alcohol & College Life, more than 50,000 students have taken its courses and those courses have played a significant role in undergraduate retention at the University of Minnesota.
According to the Office of Institutional Research, the odds of a first-year student on the Twin Cities campus returning for a second year of study increased 10.9 times if they took a Rothenberger Institute (RI) course, compared to those who didn’t take a course. Data from multiple graduation cohorts also showed that RI students on the Twin Cities campus are more likely to graduate in four years, compared to non-RI students. And based on numbers from the 2016–17 academic year, a greater proportion of students in the institute’s courses are students of color, first-generation, and Pell-grant recipients, compared to students who didn’t take an RI course.
The vision of the Rothenberger Institute is to equip all college students — at the University of Minnesota and beyond — with the knowledge and skills to live healthy lives and enhance their well-being through an evidence-based, inclusive, and engaging online health and wellness curriculum.
“Unlike a short class presentation or a workshop, our courses put students into an environment where they have to think about, practice, and reflect on the subject matter week by week,” says instructor Emily Matson.
It’s clear that the institute, with its online classes that urge young people toward healthier lives, is having an impact and fulfilling the hopes of the man it’s named for, former SPH instructor Jim Rothenberger.
Leading by example
Rothenberger, who died in 2008 at age 61, met life with unflagging resilience, optimism, and humor. The word “beloved” is often linked to his name and his colleagues can get tears in their eyes when talking about him more than 10 years after his death. He was a recognized national expert in a half-dozen fields, such as HIV/AIDS prevention, death and dying education and counseling, and alcohol and substance misuse prevention.
“Students have said, in one way or another over the years, that by offering the courses we do shows that the University cares about and is invested in student wellbeing.”
Rothenberger taught 100,000 students over his 35 years at the school and, despite chronic health challenges, he averaged 15 courses a year. When asked what he did at the University, Rothenberger replied, “I teach about sex, drugs, and death;” his class on HIV/AIDS was one of the first on campus. Along the way, he garnered every major teaching and service award at the University as he helped students navigate college life.
According to RI Director Jerri Kjolhaug, Rothenberger wanted to foster more collaboration between the student affairs side of an institution and the academic side. He felt that developing wellness courses for students gave the University more opportunity to address some of the important issues that affect students’ learning and their lives. “Students have said in one way or another over the years that by offering the courses we do shows that the University cares about and is invested in student wellbeing,” says Kjolhaug.
Rothenberger’s accepting approach and dedication to his students led one to write that he “saved hundreds of lives just by being himself.” His easy, yet profound approach to death and dying led Program of Mortuary Science students to twice ask him to give their commencement address. Perhaps because of his own illness, Rothenberger urged people to embrace their lives and make the most of them. A video shown at his memorial includes footage of him filmed shortly before his death. He asked, “If this is your last day [on earth], what would you do differently? And if it’s radically different from what you’re doing now, ask yourself why.”
Breaking new ground
In the 1990s, college campuses began paying attention to student drinking, including potentially lethal binge drinking. Rothenberger saw the need for and developed a health promotion campaign called Freshman Survival Skills. It was delivered via floppy disk and gave students a consistent message about how alcohol and other substances affect college life. In 2002, he realized that he could reach even more students by putting the curriculum online and making it a formal credit-bearing course. Renamed Alcohol & College Life, it was one of the first online courses at the University and was an immediate success. Alcohol & College Life continues to be a highly popular offering. It has reached about 25,000 students and teaches them how to play a part in preventing the fallout of alcohol and substance misuse, regardless of whether or not they themselves choose to drink or use other substances. They learn how to keep themselves safe in troubling situations, and also when and how to step in to help others as an “active bystander.”
Rothenberger envisioned a series of more online courses that would address a variety of relevant public health topics and prepare students to thrive in college and in later life. The institute now offers Sleep, Eat & Exercise; Success Over Stress; and Sexuality Matters in addition to Alcohol & College Life. “College is such an important transitional time for students and they have an opportunity to really reflect on how they want to live their lives and what’s important to them,” says Kjolhaug. “It’s a good time for them to figure out how to build healthy habits.”
Rothenberger also pioneered a partnership model that allowed thousands of students to benefit from the courses who are enrolled at multiple Minnesota state colleges and universities (the Minnesota State system, formerly MnSCU). True to public health’s focus on engagement and community, in 2006 his Alcohol & College Life course became the first at the University to be shared with Minnesota State. The Rothenberger Institute continues to innovate and today sells its online courses through the University’s Office of External Sales and CogBooks, an adaptive learning courseware company.
Designed for everyone
About 4,000 University of Minnesota students take RI classes each year. Course work is 100 percent online, but about 30 teaching assistants serve as peer educators working closely with students. Students say this enriches their course experience. Learning from peers makes the curriculum more relatable, encourages honest reflection and disclosure, and reduces potential resistance to feedback and behavior change.
“Our peer educators are trained in listening and responding, and are the students’ non-judgmental support system. We couldn’t have the reach we have without them,” says instructor Emily Matson.
Jess James is an RI peer educator and first learned about the institute as a sophomore in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences. She had to drop a class halfway through the fall semester, but needed three credits to keep full-time financial aid. RI courses were perfect for her.
“I took three classes at once and I found that they helped me know myself on a different level,” says James. “I had to sit down with myself and reflect on what I really wanted for my life. RI classes help you change your habits and develop new skill sets, while feeling supported the whole time.”
Now as a peer educator guiding students through the courses, James appreciates not only the institute’s accessible and inclusive curriculum, but also its prevailing philosophy that every student comes from a different place and that it is up to them to make changes in their lives, when, how, and if they see fit. It is exactly what Jim Rothenberger would have wanted.