Student, Professor’s collaborative research on Mindfulness helps new students adapt

It’s not unusual to find communication professor Karla Jensen leading a yoga class on a campus lawn. This semester, the activity has provided a much-needed and safe refuge to students dealing with the uncertainties of a pandemic.

Beyond relaxing on the lawn, Jensen has continued to infuse the importance of yoga and mindfulness into her courses including her Archways Seminar, “Be. Here. Now: Mindfulness Theory and Practice.”

Last February when Jensen was thinking about the course, she was approached by Morgan Dondlinger, a junior communication studies major from Lincoln, who planned to be Jensen’s student instructor. Together, they applied for a Student Faculty Collaborative Research Grant, which supports collaborative research and creative projects between students and their professors.

The grant would send them both to Oregon for a five-day mindfulness pedagogy training to better prepare them for their Archway Seminar. Unfortunately, COVID-19 stopped their travel. Instead, they spent six weeks attending a virtual training with well-known mindfulness scholar and author Oren Jay Sofer. The training included 1,000 other mindfulness practitioners from across the world.

“Although I was disappointed that we could not experience the retreat in Oregon,” said Dondlinger, “when Karla approached me with this new, virtual idea, I couldn’t have been more excited.”

Dondlinger said combining their interest in mindfulness and nonviolent communication into a virtual course, would allow them to adapt their upcoming Archway Seminar for first-year students.

“The reason mindfulness is vital to nonviolent communication is because when we can cultivate awareness of ourselves and thoughts, emotions manifest themselves in our bodies, and we are better able to respond instead of react,” said Dondlinger. “This awareness allows us to better connect with our conversational partner.”

The online course emphasized foundations of presence, intention, attention, listening, and reflecting. This style of conversation creates a safe, dialogic environment where participants may get to the root of a belief rather than relying solely on the initial words on their position. Finding a balance between communication and mindfulness is more vital now than ever, Dondlinger said, especially in times of crisis and national discourse.

“Our [communication studies] department is rooted in the social interactionism theory that we create relationships in community, and that we should speak so others may listen, and listen so others may speak,” said Dondlinger. “It’s not just choosing our words with care but listening open-heartedly and with awareness to better know the other person rather than gathering ammunition to change someone’s mind.”

Customizing the course to address the unique challenges for this year’s first-year students, Jensen and Dondlinger focused on helping students navigate issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, national political unease and transitioning to college students.

“We want students to recognize — especially now — their own needs for connection, self-care, and to communicate with professors or roommates, and this training is going to help them,” Dondlinger said. “A core component of this Archway Seminar revolves around giving students the tools they need to combat stress through contemplative practice.”

Jensen said her students have shared that they feel better equipped to persist and practice patience when they encounter their new obstacles.

“Over the past several years, I have seen the compelling benefits of mindfulness in the lives of my students,” said Jensen. “Mindfulness cultivates discernment, patience, and calm in all storms – even the sometimes choppy waters of college, even in a pandemic.”

“I am honored to share the scholarship and practice of this lifelong skill with Morgan and our first-year students,” she added.

Each year, Jensen wants each student instructor to be deeply involved in the planning and delivery of the course. She takes enormous care in choosing and mentoring every student instructor and together choosing the content for the course.

“From my perspective, our summer training resulted in an even more fulfilling teaching-learning relationship for us, and it enhanced the classroom experience for our Archway Seminar students.”

Dondlinger, who plans to graduate in May 2022, said the experience has her considering a career as a professor.

“I couldn’t be more grateful to Karla for the experience she has given me throughout the summer and this semester, and I look forward to her guidance as I begin this new exploratory journey,” she said. “A relationship like the one I have with Karla is what excites me about the potential of becoming a professor myself.”