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Colleges try to ease finals stress

Meagan Flom holds one of 22 foster kittens brought to “paws for relaxation” Monday, Dec. 14, in the Concordia College library in Moorhead. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Michael Vosburg

Concordia College freshman Mike Miller has made trips to the Carl B. Ylvisaker Library routine as he tackles his first semester’s end finals.

On Monday night Miller wasn’t buried in note cards and lecture slides but playing with kittens brought specifically to the library for finals week stress relief.

Concordia’s kittens are just one example of the array of study breaks area colleges offer for students during end of semester finals. Between massages, games, coloring books, free food, meditation sessions and snuggle time with animals, study break programming is the norm at Concordia, Minnesota State University Moorhead and North Dakota State University.

“We’re recognizing that our students are more stressed than ever,” said Amber Bach-Gorman, a mental health counselor with NDSU’s Counseling Center.

The Counseling Center promotes student wellness – which means living a balanced lifestyle with room for relaxation and effectively managing stress, Bach-Gorman said.

“If students don’t manage their stress levels and maintain their well-being, they aren’t going to do as well academically,” she said.

Activities like therapy dogs in NDSU’s Main Library last week remind students that it’s OK to take a break for 30 minutes instead of nonstop studying, Bach-Gorman said.

Students have a lot on their plate today and different obligations than other generations, she said.

While part of the emphasis on programming is helping the students who have “less ability to handle negative emotions,” she said colleges are just learning about how simple events like dogs on campus can help students.

In addition to the therapy dogs, NDSU offered puzzles, coloring books and library hours extended to 24 hours a day with volunteers from the Blue Key Honor Society.

For MSUM’s Study Day, campus centers teamed up to provide study breaks in the Comstock Memorial Union and Wellness Center.

More than 300 students passed through the Wellness Center for fruit smoothies last week, said Charmaine English, coordinator of fitness and special programs.

Since it opened in 2009, English said the Wellness Center has provided events on Study Day like restorative yoga sessions, intramural sports, massages and snacks.

“We’re just offering something to get their mind off of what they’ve been doing,” she said.

Cuddle break

Research shows even a short time with animals decreases stress levels and boosts dopamine and endorphins for humans.

Wendy Spiesman, a Concordia reference librarian who fosters kittens through Minn-Kota PAAWS, brought about five cats into the library last fall during finals week on a whim because she thought students might enjoy it.

Since then, the event has “blossomed,” Spiesman said. This year, she brought in 22 kittens between 4 and 6 months old on Sunday and Monday night, rolling them into the library on book carts.

“It’s great for the students and great for the kittens,” Spiesman said.

Concordia offered two nights with the kittens and one night with dogs from Therapy Pets of the Red River Valley.

Library director Laura Probst said the animal events are the highlight of their finals week activities, but they also have Legos, puzzles, crafts and treats to “make the place a little more festive.”

At the end of the semester, everything “comes to a head” for students, Probst said.

“They’re really working hard and being pulled in lots of different directions. For a few minutes, they can set that aside for an animal that just wants to be cuddled,” she said.

Miller, who spent time with the kittens both nights, said his Sunday night break was “kind of necessary” before his religion final.

“They’re so adorable, but I need to get back to work,” he said.

All of the kittens from Concordia College’s “Paws for Relaxation” event are currently in a foster home and available for adoption. For more information, contact