Originally published in the Fall 2020 print issue.

By Dana Cadey
Photos by John Woodall

Principians have long advocated for an on-campus resource where they can receive tangible life counseling, services, and advice that reach beyond the scope of what is usually discussed in a Christian Science context. Now, thanks largely to the efforts of the Student Life Department, this vision is a reality. The center offers mental health assistance, addiction support, and conflict resolution: Principia’s Wholeness Center is an ambitious step toward creating a more receptive campus environment for all. 

This institution is headed by a brand-new staff member: Principia College alum Becky Coles (C’91). Coles is the program manager, meaning that she is in charge of overseeing the Wholeness Center’s various program branches as well as being the point of contact for anyone interested in its services.

Students began reaching out to Coles shortly after she arrived on campus last semester, expressing gratitude for her presence and asking to meet with her one-on-one. Coles says that her primary objective for this semester is to build trust among the students and increase the Wholeness Center’s approachability. 

“I don’t see my role as a therapist,” said Coles. “I see it more as providing guidance in all different areas.”

Buck House – the temporary home of the Wholeness Center – is where students can find Coles’ office; in addition, spaces designated for relaxation and private discussions. The long-term goal is to permanently establish the center in Hitchcock House, which has been used for abroad and non-traditional student housing in the past. Students can also choose to meet with Coles in a space of their own choosing, whether in-person or virtual.

“It’s wherever individuals feel most comfortable,” says Coles. “That’s where I want to meet them.”

Coles says that she wants the Wholeness Center to facilitate “student connection, support, and empowerment,” an objective that she believes will develop as she talks to more Principians and learns about the needs of the community. 

Coles has fond memories of her time as a college student, especially of the connections she was able to build outside of the Principia community in places like Alton and St. Louis. Coles even stayed in the area after graduating and received her master’s degree in social work at St. Louis University.

“If you tap into it, you have an amazing support system here,” says Coles. “I would hate for someone to not have an awesome, incredible experience at Principia.”

The concept for the Wholeness Center was presented in a proposal from the Office of Student Life earlier this year. This proposal outlined the center’s mission, ideal outcomes, and potential programs; including the plan for the center to be a “controlled and safe” environment for students to talk about a variety of issues. Many higher education institutions have similar resources that are meant to further the wellbeing of their students. Principia’s Wholeness Center is unique because it will be driven by Christian Science values, while not necessarily incorporating religious ideals into each of its programs.

“Whether you’re a Christian Scientist or not, you might be dealing with substance abuse, mental health issues…whatever it might be,” says Coles. “You can either choose to address these issues by using prayer, or you can deal with it without Christian Science. But you have to do something. Doing nothing is not an alternative.”

Coles says that she wants to help students advocate for themselves, a desire that she attributes to her time as a social worker, as well as her familiarity with the special education system. If a student feels like the Wholeness Center itself cannot adequately meet their needs, the next step is to reach out to people nearby and online that can provide the necessary type of assistance. This might involve connecting students with therapists in the area or providing transportation to appointments.

“You have to have an ambitious goal at the end, and you figure out the little ins-and-outs to get where you’re going,” says Coles.

Since the Wholeness Center plans to include multiple services that fall into a variety of categories, Coles plans to call on the expertise of Principia community members. For instance, if multiple students approach the Wholeness Center with an interest in swim lessons, Coles would talk to any lifeguards or pool personnel on campus and find out who could help lead that.

“As a social worker, [I’m] used to having to create something out of nothing,” says Coles. “But I think that here, I’m going to have a whole lot of something. It’s just a matter of pulling everyone together.”

For anyone wanting to set up a meeting with Coles or ask a question about the Wholeness Center, she can be reached at becky.coles@principia.edu.