During their first semester at Coker College, students this year will take a new required sequence designed to ease the transition from high school. But it’s not your typical orientation class.
Yes, it will involve advice on how to live independently, serve the community and engage with peers of differing opinions. But a major component of Coker College 101 compels students to do something they’re probably not used to being told to do: get fit.
All freshmen this year will take a mandatory “fitness assessment,” in which they will – among other things – receive their body mass index (BMI) score, which measures body fat; do a one-mile run/walk; and see how many push-ups and sit-ups they can do in a few minutes. If time permits, the students may also do curl-ups, trunk lifts, and beep tests, in which they run back and forth between two cones at increasingly quick speeds.
The timing is not coincidental. South Carolina this year climbed from number nine to number eight on the list of "Top Ten Fattest States ." Last year, 32 percent were obese and an additional 35 percent of its residents were overweight, and these facts are not lost on Coker administrators.
When Coker President Robert L. Wyatt gave his inauguration speech  in March 2010, he suggested it was time for the college to make some changes. “For more than a century now, Coker has prepared students for the next step in their lives,” Wyatt said. “Looking forward, Coker will greet students of a new century, and we must redefine what it means to prepare this generation.”
One way he wants to do that is by educating students on "fiscal and physical fitness" so they can live “long, happily and well.”
Noting the state’s obesity and diabetes rates, Wyatt said Coker must face the issue by teaching its students, faculty and staff how to lead healthy lives. In an e-mail exchange with Inside Higher Ed, Wyatt explained how his own experience shaped this mission: the president has lost 100 pounds since his own days as a college student. That seems to be one reason why people responded more to that part of his speech than any other.
“I was amazed by folks who knew my personal story of weight loss (and the struggles required to maintain it) and was reminded once again of how important it is to help all of our Coker community understand not only the importance of wellness but the tools and techniques that will help them to achieve this state of wellness,” Wyatt said. “My past serves to remind me of the challenges students face when growing up in a culture that presents them with daily temptations and distractions that may lead to unhealthy choices.”
(Brandon Fain, Coker’s intramurals and wellness coordinator, recalled in an interview how, in one freshman class last year, he held up a chicken nugget in one hand and a whole, cooked piece of the bird in another. One student could identify the former but not the latter. “There’s no such thing as the freshman 15 anymore,” Fain said. “It’s the freshman 25.”)
The ambition articulated in Wyatt’s speech laid the groundwork for a number of efforts now under way in student affairs, the fitness assessments among them. “The programs that we had been offering at the time were not really a whole lot,” Dean of Students Jason Umfress said. Oftentimes there were no healthy options in the dining halls, with high-calorie and fatty fried foods making up the bulk of the offerings, and while there were intramural sports, the staff was spread thin and participation was low.
While the fitness assessments will debut this year, Coker has already broadened its opportunities for healthy living. Students are guaranteed a nutritious plate option at every meal – on a given day, it might include a baked protein like fish, steamed vegetables, a side salad and an apple – and foods are accompanied by nutrition facts. Participation in intramural sports and wellness programs, like Zumba – classes in the dark with lasers and glow sticks are particularly popular – and kickboxing classes, or discussions with a dietician and strength training plans, meanwhile, skyrocketed from about 25 to 320 between fall 2010 and May of this year; that's about 30 percent of the 1,100 students who attend Coker. (All these options fall under what the college calls the COBRAFIT program .) As part of Coker College 101, students will be required to participate in at least four of these activities.
“As we looked at what the institution’s response was to [the obesity epidemic], we were ashamed that we didn’t really have one,” Umfress said. “Pulling something together like the COBRAFIT program was just natural, I think, to us. To do our part to help solve that problem.”
Margaret McCoy, who graduated last year after studying fitness programming, played Division II soccer at Coker, so she didn’t have as much time as she would have liked to participate in COBRAFIT activities. But she noticed that people of all fitness levels took part. “I think everybody was very driven,” McCoy said. “People wanting to get fit, that weren’t already, had the ability to do that and do it for free. And I think they really, really enjoyed that.”
Wyatt described similar feedback he got from one student, calling it generally representative of the student body: some students were nervous at first to have a curriculum including fitness, but seeing immediate results from personal goals is rewarding – and the activities are fun.
But during the course of all this, it’s been important to staff to not make students feel threatened or judged. That’s why its intramural options include activities such as inner tubing and yoga – they’re less competitive than, say, basketball or flag football. At one point officials considered installing scales in the dorms or setting up weigh stations elsewhere on campus, but, with eating disorders becoming an ever-increasing health issue among students, they nixed that idea. “We’re not exactly sold on the fact that that would bring more benefit than it would harm,” Umfress said. “We’re sensitive to the fact that we do have students who have body image problems.”
McCoy sympathized with students who might feel bombarded or singled out, but said it’s good that the university is requiring the entire freshman class to take the fitness assessment. “From a woman’s standpoint, some people might not have been brought up thinking that weight should be an issue, or that they’re unhealthy,” she said. “I think [assessments are] a great idea. I do feel, though, that maybe some people might be offended.”
The Fallout at Lincoln
One institution learned that the hard way.
In 2009 , Lincoln University, a historically black institution in Pennsylvania, came under fire for its requirement that students either have a BMI score under 30 or take a one-semester “Fitness for Life” class that, like the course at Coker, mixed exercise, nutritional instruction and education on the health risks of obesity. But the university modified the requirement following the considerable outcry at widespread news that it threatened 25 students’ graduation eligibility.
The well-meaning effort (50 percent of black women age 20 or older are obese) and subsequent “international furor” (critics accused the university of racial abuse) were recounted in a spring article  in the American Journal of Health Sciences by James L. DeBoy, chair of Lincoln’s Health, Physical Education and Recreation Department, and Sally B. Monsilovich, an associate professor in the department. They stood by the ends – if not entirely the means – of the program.
“[Faculty] had routinely witnessed many students, initially skeptical and resistant to the intervention, change their attitudes and behaviors regarding physical activity and the progress that these students could, and did, make in achieving a healthier lifestyle,” they wrote. “When we identify any factor that we believe to be detrimental to a person’s well-being, we must substantiate those adverse effects and provide resources for addressing them. Will that notification be uncomfortable, awkward, or unsettling for both student and educator? Probably. However, to deny its existence or to minimize its impact is a dereliction of duty.”
Now, all students must take a “Dimensions of Wellness” class. After a series of health risk appraisals that address fitness, nutrition, alcohol and drugs and other topics, faculty may recommend that a student enroll in Fitness for Life. But opting out won’t threaten a student’s ability to graduate. DeBoy said that only about 20 to 25 percent of students thus far have followed through on their plans to enroll in the second class, but noted that first-year students have six to seven semesters to do so.
Coker's program is similar in some ways. Once the students get their test results back, Fain will break down the results and help the students analyze them. The goal is to educate the students on what the results mean in the big picture of a healthy life, not to make the students feel fat or unfit. The students are not required to follow up on their health assessments in any way, but, if they do decide they want to lose some weight or start eating better, they can pay a visit to Fain, who is also residence life coordinator.
Fain will work with those students to develop personal exercise or nutrition plans, as he did with one female student last year who decided she wanted to lose 17 pounds. She only lost 15 – but she wasn’t disappointed.
Fain hasn’t forgotten about faculty and staff, either – they’re welcome to participate in “COBRAFIT Plus” activities like walking clubs, fitness classes or intramural sports. Or, if they really want to take it to the next level, they can join in on the “Biggest Loser” competition Fain is planning. But again, it won’t all be about weight – contestants will also focus on building endurance, speed and strength.
“If they get discouraged right off the bat, they’ll quit,” Fain said. “And we don’t want them to quit.”