Prevention Profiles: Take Five - Dr. Katrin A. Wesner-Harts (University of North Carolina Wilmington)


Audio file

Dr. Katrin Wesner-Harts who heads the University of North Carolina Wilmington's Abrons Student Health Center joins us again for this month's podcast. During this episode, Katrin talks about the importance of properly engaging with students as they return to campus in the fall, the biggest impacts the pandemic has had on prevention efforts, and much more.
Rich Lucey: Hi, this is Rich Lucey with the Drug Enforcement Administration's Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section, and welcome to this episode of our podcast series Prevention Profiles: Take Five.

I'm especially excited about today's guest.

She is now a repeat.

I think this is her third time appearing on the show, her second full time as our guest.

But it is Dr. Katrin Wesner-Harts, and so let me tell you a little bit about Katrin before she joins us on the show.

Dr. Katrin Wesner-Harts is Director of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington's Student Health Center, and she recently served as the university's Interim Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs.

She has been active in the prevention field since she began her career in 1990.

Katrin has been a member of ACHA since 1995 serving as its president in 2019-2020.

Katrin received her bachelor's degree in psychology from Carnegie Mellon University, her master's degree in psychology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and her doctorate in educational leadership, higher education, from  UNCW where her research focused on the emergency preparedness of faculty.

And with that, Katrin, welcome to the podcast.

Katrin: Thank you, Rich.

As always it's fun to be here with you.

Lucey: Yeah, so, yeah, so I mentioned this is really kind of your third appearance.

This past January of course to kick off this season we did a retrospective and you were one of the five guests that we had on during that particular episode.

But this is your first time being with us as our only guest since three years ago.

It's hard to imagine it's been that long.

And before we get into the questions, let's do the full disclosure.

So you and I started our professional careers right around the same time.

We meet when I started my career working for the state of New York in 1991.

And you and I have been best friends ever since, embarking on a whole bunch of different professional endeavors, and it's been exciting the entire way.

And I think we'll probably just get into some of that with the interview so let's go ahead and get started.

Our first question, I mentioned in your introduction that you recently served as UNCW's Interim Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs.

So in that role how did your perspective change from your role as the university's Student Health Center Director if at all in looking at the school's efforts to prevent drug misuse among the students?

Katrin: Sure, great, thanks, Rich.

And it's amazing to think how long we've been doing this work and have enjoyed it the whole way which is great.

So as I think about my time at Interim Associate Vice Chancellor, I certainly am so grateful that I had that opportunity to serve in a different space.

Many in this audience would know our former Vice Chancellor Pat Laird, and sadly she passed away in June of '20, so last June.

And while I was so grateful for this opportunity, I also just wish it wasn't under those circumstances.

But she taught us a lot, taught me a lot in really how I framed all of our work around drug misuse.

One of the things that this last year sort of reinforced for me was the importance of telling our story, of getting buy-in from people all across campus, having leadership understand to the highest levels why the prevention work that we do is important.

And what I had the opportunity to do as Interim Associate Vice Chancellor was to interact with a different set of people on campus.

And certainly that COVID response at the same time afforded that as well.

But I had an opportunity to go to different meetings, to interact with different audiences, to spend time with people who we wouldn't normally spend time in from the health center's perspective, which was really important.

And I was certainly very luck that our former Vice Chancellor was a champion for these issues and as my current Associate Vice Chancellor is as well and luckily for us our new Vice Chancellor.

So I have always been fortunate here at UNCW that the people who I report to think these issues are important as well.

But now I got to be part of that group that spread the issue wider.

And so that was really important.

One of the things I learned is some of the challenges and priorities across campus that prevention folks may not always know and get a chance to engage with.

And so that really helped me understand what other folks were spending their time on and why maybe prevention wasn't at the forefront of their conversation.

But when we tie it into things like retention, graduation, student success, even employee retention in terms of, yes, we're obviously focused on the drug misuse of our students but we also have to be concerned about the alcohol and drug abuse of our staff and their families.

And how does this; you know, we are one big community and how does that all play together? 

So I always knew how important it was to include the prevention message all the time.

Certainly the prevention message about drug misuse, but also the other prevention messages that all tie together.

The importance of sleep hygiene, the importance of behavioral health services which we could all argue all impact that same set of behaviors and are intertwined.

So that idea of finding a place where it makes sense to infuse a prevention message.

Having enough things in your toolbox that you can just slide something in very inconspicuously into a conversation.

To find your allies and champions on campus.

They're everywhere.

We just have to, we just have to find them.

We hear a lot about being a squeaky wheel, and I recently heard actually another phrase to be more selectively squeaky.

But sometimes that has negative connotation, but that idea of being persistent, always present with the prevention message is really important.

And helping other people own that message because if they think it was their idea or that they have a tie to it, it's just going to make our work that much easier.

Lucey: Absolutely and so you mentioned Pat, and I was pretty sure her name would come up during this podcast.

And yeah, it was a tremendous loss when Pat passed away last year, and she really was a force of nature.

I mean such a strong individual.

And you said quite simply that she was quite supportive, very supportive of the work that was being done in the prevention space.

I mean she was part of an entire team of staff that would come from the campus to national conferences on this issue because that was how important that it was to her.

And so I'm glad that mentioned that.

So one thing I wanted to pick up on and at the risk of putting you on the spot with your answer, but so one of the things you mentioned in your previous role, temporary as it was as the Interim Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, what are some of the tips or tricks if you want to call them that that you used along the way during that short tenure with other senior administrators or others in that senior administrator space to talk about the importance of prevention and what this means to the university so that our listeners who also might be dealing with this very issue can pick up on something maybe they haven't tried yet with their senior administrators?

Katrin: Great, great question.

So I think one of the things is to really put yourself in someone else's shoes and realize what is their priority.

What are their challenges? 

What are they being faced with having to manage? 

And how does the impact of say a student either having a drug issue or leaving school because of drug misuse or causing vandalism or having other negative consequences?

What tie is there to what their role is?

So that they see why a comprehensive prevention message can benefit not only the campus but their piece of the response?

 And so I think it's a lot of again being that prevention voice and targeting the message to them and being a little bit like, okay, I've done my intel and I know that for this person they spend a lot of time focused on retention.

Okay, how can I tie that together?

They spend a lot of time getting faculty ready to be in the classroom.

Well, what could that look like in the classroom and why does primary prevention make a classroom a safer or more conducive space for learning?

This is a member of our facilities team and they have to clean up a lot.

Why is prevention important to them?

Well, it will give them more time to go do other facilities issues.

So really being targeted about how does my message affect you and if I engage you in that prevention work, how can we all benefit?

Lucey: So what I heard from your response is it's kind of a spin on inviting new members to the table to be part of a coalition or a task force because oftentimes they're asking, well, what's in it for me?

But the spin on that is not so much what's in it for them but it's helping them see where they fit.

How does their role or their discipline, like if it's academic affairs or if it's the theater arts program or if it's the communications program, where might they fit within the prevention space?

So that's what I heard from you.

Let me move onto the second formal question that I have.

So we actually talked about this three years ago and it actually was pretty timely because of the hurricane that actually hit Wilmington.

At the time that we're recording this we're coming off of the tail end of Hurricane Elsa which just happened to come on through.

So you work in a part of the country that is regularly affected by hurricanes, and so emergency preparedness is typically on the minds of individuals, schools and communities.

How did your background in emergency preparedness as I mentioned in your bio help you in your role as ACHA, the American College Health Association's president during the pandemic?

Because you could never have seen that coming.

Katrin: No, no, it was definitely a year we did not expect.

So as you know, I grew up in a scouting family and so I learned early that motto of Be Prepared and have been really interested in this since I was, you know, from an early age.

So that mindset of preparedness is that you built a toolbox with which you can draw on, right?

You have lots of different pieces that can respond to different crises, different challenges, different emergency issues.

And so ACHA has done work in this area for years, helping to build all of our toolboxes, thinking of guidelines going back on how to manage a meningitis outbreak.

Right after they published that, at a previous school we had a meningitis outbreak.

I was able to use that.

That document still lives on my shelf.

It's a little outdated now, but the concepts are still critical.

And I still can pull that out and say, okay, here's a great sort of roadmap of how I can respond to something.

We had a history of bringing in experts to speak on a current topic, whether that was going back HIV, SARS, measles.

Whatever the current issue was happening, we had the ability to bring someone from the CDC or to bring a campus who had been managing something to a space at the annual meeting and share those lessons learned.

Again trying to help people on campus build that toolbox.

I knew we had experts in the field across the country.

So as a pandemic, we started to hear it was coming.

We were thinking, what would that look like?

We've prepared our whole lives for a pandemic.

I don't think any one of us would think it would've looked like this.

But it didn't mean we didn't have those tools.

And one of the things I'm actually most proud of in my time as president was pulling together our COVID-19 taskforce, and they worked tirelessly.

They created a whole bunch of guidelines.

They were put on webinars.

They worked with our, with other associations to help them again meet the needs of their association.

They answered media inquiries.

They provided FAQ lists, lots and lots of resources for people to use.

It's really important as we think of a national association and we think of emergency preparedness tied together that we have schools across the country who are very small and we have schools that are very large.

We have schools that are less resourced and schools that are very well resourced.

Urban schools, rural schools.

How do you prepare and provide resources that people in all of those groups can find helpful, right?

And so that was one of the things I thought that we did really well in that my background and the background served that philosophy of ACHA to help people be as prepared as possible really benefitted the field.

We're not done.

We still have work to do.

They're going to see us to the end, but I think we're seeing the light.

Lucey: I totally agree, and so a couple of immediate thoughts come to mind based on what you said.

So I thought of Peg Barr, and boy, we just are name dropping giants in the student affairs field.

And I remember one time Peggy and I were in a meeting together and I don't remember the exact topic, but what I remember Peggy distinctly saying was you cannot plan for every possible contingency.

And so what I wanted to follow up with you on this, along that vein was, was there anything that you weren't prepared for that took you by surprise?

Katrin: Yes, so again I sort of mentioned we've been planning this for our whole career.

It wasn't exactly like we expected.

I would say a surprise was how quickly things ramped up.

I think all of us; many schools sent their students away on spring break, and literally while spring break was happening we made a decision to close campus.

And we either extended spring break for a week.

We told them not to come back.

We had to figure out how to get them and their stuff together.

So just the speed of which we had to sort of manage something like that.

The breadth, that we're still 18 months, 15-18 months later still working on this.

I know we had been planning for if we had a pandemic that a third of our workforce wouldn't be available.

And how would you manage with that?

That was sort of the number that was thrown around for years.

We sent most of the workforces of college campuses home.

Maybe the health center stayed.

Maybe the counseling center had a little bit of a presence, our facilities and police.

But we had to carry on our work from afar, and most campuses did beautifully.

There definitely were challenges.

It is one thing.

I mean as I mentioned a meningitis case before.

We worked incredibly long hours for about a week and a half.

After that it tailed off and we were able to go back to a reasonably normal schedule.

The incredibly long hours that people across higher education worked for not a week and a half but for months to get us through that first few months and into the summer last year, I don't think people were prepared for or thought about.

And then how do you, how do you compensate people for that?

Do you compensate people for that?

How do you, how do you help them do their own self-care?

So I think the breadth and the scope I think were things we weren't, that were surprising.

Lucey: Yeah, so you know, I agree with you.

We're all hopeful that we see the light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic.

Of course we hear about the Delta variant, and there's concern about that and what that might mean in terms of further spread or outbreaks and things like that.

So with preparedness I think that we maybe need to shift away from the thinking that preparedness only happens at the beginning.

That preparedness can happen throughout.

And so preparedness for post-pandemic can be and should be happening now.

Would you agree?

Katrin: Yes, and I think one of the challenges is so we're all spending time thinking about, what is fall going to look like?

How do we return to the more familiar?

I hesitate to use normal.

I like more familiar, right?

So we're planning for that more familiar, but yet we have this Delta variant hovering over out there that may change all of that planning.

And what's the appetite or capacity for people who are planning six weeks from now to begin that more familiar fall to say, wait, we're going to have to do something else?

So that's always in the back of my mind that, you know, how do we keep people invested?

How do we keep people hopeful?

And you're right.

It is not.

Planning didn't end and preparedness didn't end.

We're still doing it.

And then we also have to be prepared for, what does the next step look like?

So yeah, it's an ever present job but this is why we're never bored.

Lucey: Yeah, exactly.

And so out of every one of this podcasts that I do I always learn something or I end up taking something.

I won't use the word steal.

That somebody uses.

I love what you just said about; you used the phrase the more familiar instead of the normal.

Because I think that that's what we're all looking forward to is getting back to our comfort zones and what feels familiar to us.

So I really like that a lot.

This actually is a good segue into the third question that I had for you which is, so this past April you wrote a View From the Field for our website,, and it was all based around some of the lessons learned from your time as ACHA's president.

And one of those lessons learned focused on engagement.

So can you talk about that a bit especially since it's so important as colleges and universities start to re-engage in person this fall?

Katrin: Yeah, sure.

So oh, gosh, I learned so many things through that year and will take them on for the rest of my life.

But engagement is so important.

Engagement not only on campus, in our community, in national associations, again keeping that prevention message ever forward.

So I think the things that I think about that as we work to re-engage in person this fall is who can we partner with for success?

How do we working all together continue to move the needle forward to get to that more familiar?

Recognizing we can't do our work alone and that we are, we're part of a big network.

And I think that's especially true in the prevention field.

Like I was reading one of our newer books, right, Leading Campus Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention by David Anderson and Thomas Hall.

And when I looked at the Table of Contents, even before I started reading, the experts in our field, the people who have done such great work and knowing that they are all part of the network we are in.

No matter whether you're a brand new prevention professional or you've been doing this for 30-plus years, there's a group of people who are all there working towards the same thing that we can call on at any time and learn from them.

So I think that's important.

We all have a lesson or a nugget or something that we can share.

And so we not only have to be equally willing to use those but also to share them.

Once we develop something or something works well for us or something doesn't work well for us, sharing that information and really being engaged with others.

I think one of the things that leadership many times say to me is, what are others doing?

So it helps when we have that network and we're engaged with others to be able to say, oh, other system schools are doing this.

Other schools in our state or our region are doing this.

In that View From the Field I talked about engagement beyond campus and the importance of volunteering because the other piece is the only way this information gets out is if we volunteer and we participate with others.

Taking a risk by trying something new not only will give us some new energy and involve us with new people and new ideas and new thoughts but give us a new lens to look at something through, right?

I'm always learning.

Just like you said, every podcast we learn something new.

But also those of us who have been doing this for a long time owe it to the field and to our newer colleagues to bring them along, right?

We need to mentor emerging leaders.

We need to mentor new professionals.

I think back to when I first started this work, when we first started this work.

And what would that be like today if we were just starting out fresh?

There's so much information.

How would I get that first step or start?

How would I feel comfortable talking to a Vice Chancellor if I was brand new?

Now it seems like nothing, but that took 30-plus years to get there.

So the importance of sharing our successes and failures as I talked about, but really looking at how we cultivate the next sort of group of people behind us, how we continue that message and how we role model.

Lucey: Yeah, so you know, talking to our colleagues and friends from around the country doing this work, we talk about this pandemic put us in an unprecedented time.

This was an unprecedented health issue that none of us ever could have expected to face on so many different levels.

And this fall I think folks like; people who are actually working on campuses are gearing up for what also will be another unprecedented time in that when I hear, for example, campuses are preparing (we'll use that word again) for what seems to be two sets of first-year students coming to campus.

So you obviously have the sophomores, but they missed out on an entire year of the in-person experience, good and bad of what that might mean for being in person on campus.

And then you have your typical incoming class of first-year students.

So there's just a lot of, you know, prep for that.

But engagement seems like it's going to be more important than ever because we're going to need to rely on each other at the federal, national, state and local levels to do everything that you just talked about.

 What are my go-to resources?

 Who can I connect with for more information or maybe to just help us out in our efforts?

Katrin: Yeah, absolutely.

And I do think that idea of having almost two sets of students that we need to think about as first year or needing really information about our resources.

I was just in a meeting a little while ago where we talked about how frustrating it is when you meet that senior who says, oh, we have a health center?

Oh, we have this service?

 And I'm like, ooh, we have to do that even better this year because we've got two groups who never sort of had our in person.

Let us tell you about services.

We also have two sets of brand new faculty and a ton of staff who have been on boarded during a pandemic so they also need to know what all the resources are, which is also a curious piece.

But yeah, it's definitely going to require some really intentional outreach and engagement of our students and then thinking about what it's going to look like, what they bring to us with having not had those traditional experiences, having possibly had to live at home when they didn't expect to, not having sort of developing that autonomy.

It's going to be really interesting.

Lucey: So I'll move onto the fourth question which now really puts the pandemic lens on prevention.

So what do you see as the biggest impacts the pandemic has had on efforts to prevent drug misuse among college students, and how do those impacts inform our efforts going forward?

Katrin: Yeah, so I have always worked on traditional residential campuses so this may not be as true for those that are listening who have worked in more commuter or distance, fully online colleges.

But especially for those of us who work on a campus that either mainly residential or largely residential, our students were always present.

They were here.

We had easy access to them, whether that was in person or by putting up messages, signs, you know, electronic messages, all kinds of different things.

Yes, there were competing priorities on campus but they were here.

And so if we think about what the pandemic did is it took our students away from us.

So the ones who had been here suddenly now were potentially brought back into a family situation, what they didn't expect.

There were definitely different stressors on the students.

The ones who had never got here didn't have all that beginning.

Let us tell you about all our services.

Here's all the things we can do.

RA's looking after them, especially their first year, if you have a residential requirement.

With our students far away it was harder to know what was happening.

So we didn't have sort of as simple a pulse on the misuse that was happening.

All of our normal sort of indicators that we had.

It was harder to do surveys.

Does the NCHA for example make as much sense when people are spread all over the country and it's not a similar experience they're having?

 And some schools chose to do it and have gotten some fabulous data.

Some schools chose not to do it till their students return.

I think it will be really interesting to look at the differences.

Not all students were okay with online education.

Some flocked to it like it was a duck in water and others were like, ooh, this is harder.

Similar for our faculty who had to teach.

I talked about living with family.

Sometimes we had students who now were put back in a situation where they had family members who were struggling with addiction, and what does that look like?

 Or not being a safe space for a variety of reasons.

Not able to develop that autonomy or having developed it and then having to go back to that environment.

Now what do I do?

 They want to know when I'm coming home.

I never had to tell anyone that when I was at school.

Less in-person support for our students, especially those in recovery.

We had to learn how to do that support in a different way, which is one of those things I think will be helpful going forward.

For some students they had increased access to alcohol and other drugs.

For some they had decreased access.

Depending on where you were in your use, that could cause greater use or for maybe some less use which would be good.

We saw students lose their employment, especially if they were employed on campus or locally for us.

We have a huge hospitality industry.

We're located at the beach.

All of that shut down so that wasn't available.

Plus we had students who moved home, maybe to a more rural area and didn't have as many places to work.

So so many stressors that could affect use I think was a part of it.

So we needed really creative ways to provide that education and support.

And how did Tele-Health or Tele-Behavior-Health play out?

 What did we learn from that that we could use for educational programs?

 How did we conduct groups online in a secure and safe way?

  Zoom programming.

I was so impressed by our colleagues in campus activities and campus life who came up with all kinds of ways to do online programming using different technologies for engagement.

We had a time where you stopped and picked up a crafting kit and then hopped on Zoom and all were doing it together virtually.

You were doing it in your own home but with others.

So sort of recreating what it would be like to do something in a room together.

Oh, my gosh, thinking of the past, curriculum infusion, right?

 We talked about that in the nineties.

Oh, my gosh, returning to the old.

How did we get maybe faculty or our staff who were teaching classes online to infuse some prevention messages and the importance of the work we do and the importance of finding support while you're at home?

 So I think when we think of some of the things, how it's going to inform our prevention efforts going forward, is this a way that we now reach our distance ed students or our students, those students who leave campus at the end of the day because they have family commitments or other commitments?

 Now can we use some of that technology and blend in person virtual to maybe still provide support for them?

 Let's build on what worked.

Interestingly for us, our CRC thrived.

This was their best year that we've had.

And I think that was a surprise to us.

They built online connections.

There was less opportunity to have those connections in town and with others in person so we were able to build an online community that supported them.

They were able to creatively think of outdoor activities they could do.

So for example, they did a great paddle boarding, stand up paddle boarding event which was outdoors.

It was safer.

They could be socially distanced but yet they were together doing a common activity.

When it was safe, they started to have small group gatherings.

So we're looking at a community that we didn't expect to do as well as they did.

How do we carry that momentum forward?

But really spending some time to think about, what were the stressors of our students?

How will that change or grow when they get back?

And then how do we build on what worked?

Lucey: So the bottom line is there were lots of impacts obviously on our work, and we can learn from those impacts going forward.

And you've given some great examples of how that can be done.

So as I move to the fifth question and the end of our interview which is the standard question that I ask of all of the guests and that's to give you the opportunity to; what do you want to say to your peers, the professionals who are working to prevent drug misuse among college students who are listening to the podcast?

Katrin: Sure.

I always enjoy this question and I love when I listen to this question on the other podcasts that you've done.

So first I just want to thank people who are listening for being part of my network, right?

The way that I get to do this work is that there are so many people that I can draw on and get inspiration from.

So that would be my first thing to encourage people.

One, to not give up.

Our work is not done yet.

But we have and continue to make an impact.

If you look back over time, there has been so much good work done.

We've move the policy needle forward.

We've positively impacted students and families.

And I always say it's important to find those few stories, that student that you interacted with that wrote you a thank you letter or that you know went on.

When you saw them graduate, you were so proud of where they've come.

Keep a few of those stories in a file, under your blotter, whatever you have on your phone so that when maybe you're feeling like, oh, my gosh, this is a lot of work, pull out those reminders of what we've done and know that this work happens one at a time and that's okay.

I think it's important to find ways to fuel our passion, right?

 Why do we do this work?

 What motivates us to do that?

 Again finding examples, thinking of places where you get that one nugget of information that you're like, oh, that's brilliant.

That's going to help me in the future.

Think about the time where you were the person who said that and someone else got that from you.

That's also kind of a cool moment in time.

I always am encouraged because I have a list of go-to people, and it's important to create that list of go-to people.

When I need inspiration or I need problem solving or a reality check or maybe just a caring ear, because sometimes we feel like we're doing this work alone.

So that's really important.

I think what's given me some encouragement over time is a commitment to give more than I get.

I know that I've gotten a lot and have been very blessed over my career, so how do I pay that forward?

 We're never done learning.

So being a good role model I think is important.

But really finding our joy in every day.

If we love our work, it will show.

And it is an amazing gift to be able to do this work with students.

It's challenging.

That's why we're never bored.

But as long as we have joy, it will be okay.

Lucey: So thank you for all of those takeaway messages.

I guess it would not be surprise with somebody who has such a deep background in the emergency preparedness as you do to have, instead of a go bag, having your go people.

Who are your go-to people?

 And I think that's a great idea of, you know, who are your top three to five people that you can pretty much rely on, you know, unconditionally for support and for resources?

 And I also liked your other piece.

The thing I've learned in this field over the last three decades, prevention comes with incredible highs and some incredible lows.

And your notion of keeping a file of the success stories or the moments you've helped someone or had an interaction with a student and to be able to go back to that file so to speak and just remind yourself every now and again of why you're doing the work that you're doing because I think sometimes we do need that reminder, especially if you're in a particularly low week or weeks or what have you and it just seems like it's one bad event or sad event, one on top of the other, that we are making a difference in our work.

So thank you for those reminders and again thank you for the work that you do.

As I said it's been my three decades too, but you've shared those three decades with me.

And so, and we're not done yet.

I mean I know that there's still years in front of me, or I'm not finished with what I hope to achieve in my career and such.

So that's something to look forward to.

So as we wrap up the interview, again I learned a lot from you.

I mean I've known you like I said for 30 years and I learn more each time that you and I do these types of things or we get together for dinner or whatever.

So thank you for everything that you've shared during this podcast episode because I think it's some great information for all of our peers going forward.

Katrin: Thank you.

I think one of the things that the field really has you to thank and the DEA for the work that you guys are doing to keep all of us informed and engaged and so I really do think it's a great network and a great community to belong to, and we're blessed every day to be part of it.

Lucey: Well, DEA is pleased and proud to provide the resources that we have, and we're not done yet.

Trust me that we've got more resources that we're looking forward to have them come out in the future to help all of you in the work that you're doing.

So with that, Katrin, thank you so much.

And to our listeners, again thank you for listening to this episode as well as all previous episodes of Prevention Profiles Take Five.

And with that I'm going to wish all of you to have a great day.