Inaugural Fresh Check Day to Shed Light, Spark Action Around Student Mental Health

Laura Sherbondy and Paul Furtaw coordinated Drexel's first Fresh Check Day

Paul Furtaw and Laura Sherbondy coordinated the inaugural Fresh Check Day event, set for April 19. Photo by Jordan Stein.

There’s a tongue-in-cheek message that the staff coordinators of Drexel University’s inaugural Fresh Check Day event want to get across to students.

“Ambition can wait,” said Laura Sherbondy, coordinator of fitness and wellness for the Recreation Department of Athletics, with a joking reference to Drexel’s full-throttle “Ambition Can’t Wait” enrollment messages.

“Ambition needs to be balanced with self-care,” added Paul Furtaw, PsyD, associate director of the Counseling Center.

At Drexel, a driven culture and demanding class schedules make it doubly important for students to take care of themselves on an individual level, as well as take care of each other. That’s why Sherbondy and Furtaw teamed up to put on Fresh Check Day — a mental health promotion and suicide prevention event geared toward students, with interactive booths, peer-to-peer messaging, food, entertainment, prizes and more. Already a feature on dozens of college campuses across the country, the inaugural event at Drexel will be held from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on April 19 on Lancaster Walk behind the Recreation Center.

“[Drexel students] perform and perform, but they don’t refuel. They don’t sharpen the saw,” says Furtaw. “The focus [of the event] is on information, but it’s a spoon full of medicine with the sweetness to take it down without choking or gagging. That’s the activity, the peer-to-peer [interaction] — it’s the energy of the event. Each booth has a message that it’s trying to get across.”

The event came about when Sherbondy started researching last summer about what other universities were doing to promote wellness on campus. The Fresh Check Day website grabbed her, and when she came to learn that Furtaw had reached out to the organization in the past but wasn’t able to get planning for the event off the ground, they decided to move forward together in earnest to make it happen.

“We definitely, as a university, need to do more awareness [and] preventative stuff,” Sherbondy said, adding that more and more students are coming into college with mental health diagnoses. Plus, she said, Drexel students are adjusting to a high-intensity academic environment, as well as living away from home and in a major city.

“That’s where it was a matter of me exploring and figuring things out and just wanting and knowing that wellness needs to be more of a focus here,” she added.

Fresh Check Day is the signature program of the Jordan Porco Foundation, which was founded in 2011 by Ernie and Marisa Porco after losing their son to suicide when he was a freshman in college.

Alex Katz, outreach coordinator for the Foundation, said that Fresh Check Day aims to be a different approach to suicide prevention by doing it in a way that is uplifting, hopeful and positive for students, as well as relatable.

“The biggest thing that we aim to do is decrease stigma,” she said, “and allow students to feel more comfortable asking for help whether it’s for themselves or others.”

The foundation provides many of the materials needed for a college or university to put on Fresh Check Day, including a manual, a variety of different booth possibilities and suggested activities, talking points for student volunteers and marketing materials. Katz said they make it easy in order to reach as many students as possible.

“That’s really important, keeping the messaging consistent when you’re talking about mental health and suicide,” she said. “We take the guess work out for [organizers] to make it a lot more comfortable.”

At Drexel’s Fresh Check Day, there will be seven interactive booths hosted by a variety of campus entities, including Active Minds, Undergraduate Peer Mentors, the Office of Equality and Diversity and the Counseling Center. Students will be incentivized to visit the booths and complete the activities in order to receive food and prizes.

Rachel Bomysoad, a senior psychology major in the College of Arts and Sciences and a former treasurer of student organization Active Minds, said her organization will man a booth called “100 Reasons” where participants will be invited to help create a “caring tree.” Whether a moment of reflection or artistic expression, students will write down and contribute the reasons that they keep on living to the tree, which Bomysoad hopes will instill a sense of hope for students who see it.

“I think that it will be a really powerful image for people,” she said.

Because the topic of mental health as a whole, especially including suicide prevention, can be intimidating and intense for students to discuss, Bomysoad said the fact that this event is primarily peer-to-peer is super helpful.

“It’s helpful to approach this event from the standpoint that everyone has mental health and their mental health to consider,” she said.

Sherbondy and Furtaw hope Fresh Check Day is an event students come to look forward to year after year. It’s also apt that the event is hosted through the Rec Center, which Furtaw called a “defacto student center.”

“This has always been a place where people make Drexel more manageable in size, less anonymous and less stressful,” he said. “[Sherbondy and her staff are] engaging with students and literally, physically bringing them together and looking after students who have been slower to connect socially. You can’t do Drexel if you don’t have somebody having your back.”

Furtaw said that the University has showcased how it also has students’ backs by their support of Fresh Check Day. The office of Student Life, specifically Vice President and Dean of Student Life Subir Sahu, PhD, secured what was needed to fully fund the event after Recreational Athletics had already footed more than half of the costs.

Katz said that Fresh Check Day aims to showcase that mental health is a campus-wide responsibility.

“I think that sometimes it can kind of fall on counseling centers, which can be understaffed and students may not want to go there for help. They would rather go to a friend, or a teacher, or a coach,” she said. “By getting the entire campus involved, you show students that their mental health is a priority across campus.”

The future success of Fresh Check Day, and the effectiveness of its aim to promote mental health and prevent suicide, will lie with students following their participation in the event, Sherbondy and Furtaw concurred.

“It depends on students carrying that message further,” Furtaw said. “So that’s the whole recipe here, getting students to not just buy into the message but spread the message to their peers.”