Profile: Amy Saunders

When Amy Saunders graduated from Marshall with two degrees in psychology, little did she dream that one day she’d return to her alma mater to help students develop and maintain more healthful lifestyles.

During her 10-year tenure, she’s been overseeing Student Health Education Programs, first as the coordinator and, in a change of title, now as the director. “The program oversees health and wellness issues that impact students.  The office focuses on public health issues that affect students, like  infectious disease, vaccine-preventable diseases, sexual health issues and substance and mental health issues as well. Our goal is really about prevention!”

The program sponsors numerous prevention and educational programs.   “We work closely with many community agencies, such as the Cabell Huntington Health Department.  Together we sponsor vaccination clinics at orientation and throughout the year to make sure students’ vaccines are up to date,” she says.   “The office does a great deal of substance abuse prevention programs as well.  Prevention programs are extremely important to help decrease substance abuse disorders for our students now and in the future. Unfortunately, some of our students come to campus with already established substance abuse disorders and sometimes students get in trouble with drugs or alcohol after they come to campus.  It is our job to provide assessment, brief intervention, treatment and referral when necessary.”

It’s a small office, just Saunders and three graduate students, but their work spreads across the Huntington campus and beyond.  Now conveniently located in the wellness suite on the first floor of the Marshall Recreation Center, Saunders is eager to spread the word about the wellness and prevention aspects of her program.  “The Rec Center staff members are wonderful to work with and we coordinate many programs together,” she says enthusiastically.  “We partner on the Student Fitness Challenge each semester, to increase exercise, and the Annual Alum Run.  Our goal is to prevent problems and keep students healthy.  We want them to start exercising early in their lives.  Decisions, habits and behaviors that students make now can have long-lasting effects down the road for them.”

Data gathering on health issues is an important part of her job, she says. “We conduct several surveys to assess students’ health behaviors.  We conduct the National College Health Assessment every two years, which gives information about fitness, nutrition, sleep, substance abuse, mental health and a host of other wellness areas.   Since we are a small office, we use data to target our educational and prevention efforts on trends that are affecting our students.”  Saunders also oversees the Marshall Wellness Coalition, which consists of students, staff members and community agencies.     The Wellness Coalitions uses Healthy Campuses 2020 to set goals and objectives.  This framework assists the members with selecting strategies in different health areas.  Saunders is also a member of several such community coalition groups and serves on their boards as well.

Her job requires a lot of networking both with campus and community groups.   She works closely with a number of community and state-wide partners including the Cabell County Substance Abuse Prevention Partnership, Governor’s Highway Safety Office, Cabell County Tobacco Prevention Partnership, WV Collegiate Initiative to Address High Risk Alcohol and particularly the Cabell Huntington Health Department, for which she has high praise.  “They are all wonderful people to work with and they have assisted in providing programs and services to our students.   We all work really well together.”  Her program also partners with several campus groups as well.  “We’re always looking for opportunities to partner with departments on campus.  For example, we’re currently working with the Geography department on a GIS mapping project.  We’re  mapping violent crime data in Huntington and alcohol outlets to see if there is a relationship.  We did a similar project a few years ago and the data showed a relationship between alcohol outlets and crime data in our community.”

Since her days as a student and even since she joined the MU staff, she’s seen many behavioral changes.   “Since I was an undergraduate, there’s been a big decrease in tobacco use.  People used to smoke in buildings on campus, in restaurants and bars and that’s been a very big change on campus and in the community.   Most of our students are tobacco free today.  Most have been happy with those changes and still want more changes in tobacco policy.”  She points out recent efforts to curtail tobacco on all Marshall’s campuses.  In October, she and other committee members met with the Student Government and presented data and listened as the pros and cons of a tobacco ban were discussed.  Student Government eventually voted to advocate a tobacco-free campus.

Right now she’s excited about an upcoming project.  “We received a grant to build a lactation room for students, staff and faculty.   We’re hoping it will be completed sometime this semester.”   The funding didn’t quite cover the entire cost so the university is assisting with additional funds for the project.  The space will be located on the second floor of the Memorial Student Center and will allow women to express milk or nurse their babies in private.  They’ve already had pumping equipment donated, and, Saunders says, “This is going to be a wonderful resource for our breast-feeding mothers and their babies.  We plan on partnering with campus departments to use this resource to promote breastfeeding and the benefits to our students, staff and faculty.”

And when it comes to wellness, Saunders aims to practice what she teaches.  She’s an avid walker. “I’m not a runner, I love to walk, it’s my favorite thing to do.”  She tries to get in at least 30 minutes a day when possible.  With three active boys (ages 7, 4 and 20 months) and their varied activities, staying busy is no problem at all.   The whole family, husband Kurt Geveke—a Marshall graduate — and the boys Noah, Carter and Will, love the outdoors.  During the school year they can be found at one of Noah and Carter’s sporting events.  The family loves traveling and visiting zoos, parks and museums.   They also enjoy weekend road trips to visit Amy’s siblings in Pittsburgh and Martinsburg.  In warmer weather, you can find them hanging out on the family boat at a local lake or at the beach.  “We love being outdoors!  We go to the playground, the park or just all hang out in the backyard.”

For several years Saunders worked at Prestera and eventually supervised therapists who were placed in middle schools to provide treatment for mental health disorders.   She is using her psychology skills today when counseling students on substance abuse disorders, so  “I feel like my education and job experience really prepared me for this job,” she says.  “We strive to prevent illnesses and substance abuse issues by trying to get students to reduce harmful behaviors.  Nationally there is a trend to look at mental health and substance abuse as public health issues.  I’ve also seen many great changes since I was here as a student and since I became an employee.  Every year we have a new student population and each year is a new beginning.  The students may think they’re invincible, but in fact the choices they make now can have long-term effects down the road.  That’s why we want to interact and intervene if necessary.  Our whole goal is to keep our students healthy.”