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Operation Cura Personalis: Georgetown McDonough Deploys One of its Central Tenets to Support its Students

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As a Jesuit institution, cura personalis is part of Georgetown University’s DNA. The Latin phrase translates to “care of the whole person,” which the university takes seriously. Students receive a holistic education through the curriculum, student programming, and community. Care for the whole person–and each unique person–means students walk away with both mind and spirit supported, cultivated, and grown.

The Georgetown McDonough School of Business prides itself on its community. While the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on MBAs across the globe, McDonough made preserving and enriching their community a priority. 

Kerry Pace is an associate dean of the MBA program, responsible for the whole of the student experience. She has worked at the university since 1997, focusing on graduate students for her entire career. 

“Our students quickly adapted to the virtual learning environment at the onset of the pandemic, yet they were missing the connections with one another,” said Pace. “Our MBA team sought out ways to create that sense of community and support in a virtual world.”

Pace felt the pandemic had escalated the need for mental health and well-being to a critical point, and the university’s overarching philosophy of cura personalis was the core value needed to help students cope. 

Operation: Cura Personalis

Once it became clear that the fall 2020 semester would have to be virtual at Georgetown McDonough, students and staff worked on activities to connect with incoming students like virtual scavenger hunts around DC, virtual exercise classes, and an online escape room challenge. 

Meanwhile, Dean Pace worked with her team to put together a call to action that was ready to roll out after Thanksgiving. The initiative, dubbed Operation: Cura Personalis, offered missions to conduct themed activities designed to build community. “These optional activities provided opportunities for connection and programming geared toward holistic support,” says Pace. 

The initiative’s first mission was Laugh & Learn, a cocktail class conducted by an internationally recognized hospitality professional featured in Forbes 30 Under 30. Next was the Black and Tan Comedy Show, whose theme was “Against the power of laughter, nothing can stand.” 

The next mission was designed to harness the power of gratitude. Emphasizing the positive benefits to both mind and body, Pace created a Gratitude Wall where students, faculty, and staff could post anything for which they were grateful. When individuals were highlighted by name, she would share those words of praise via email. 

Students are eager to assist in the effort to stay connected. David Shapiro, then a second-year MBA student, came to McDonough to hone his consumer analytics skills. Together with friends, he established the Georgetown Tabletop Games Club for boardgame enthusiasts, which has pivoted during the pandemic to cater to students looking to keep entertained through virtual interactions.

“The Program Office is used to clubs driving engagements and had to learn how to drive engagement in a virtual environment,” recalls Shapiro. “They sent out tons of surveys: weekly, monthly–they really were trying to understand how the students saw the situation and how everything was going.

The Tabletop Gaming Club took advantage of its existing technical prowess to keep students connected. In addition to hosting games using online platforms, the club utilized tools students were already using in the classroom for fun instead. Shapiro explains, “In Zoom, you have a whiteboard, and there is an option at the top to annotate…and so we had 20 people making combined drawings, and it was a lot of fun. It was a way to capture some sort of interaction with your classmates that is difficult to replicate in a virtual environment. We played a lot of games and worked a lot with other clubs to bring virtual events to more students.”

Karen Guggenheim, an alumna of the McDonough Executive MBA program who also holds a master’s in communication, is a writer, speaker, and the founder of World Happiness Summit. Her passion and life’s work is sharing the power of positive psychology, turning her personal experience with loss into a message of positive mindset and growth. 

“My way to happiness was through purpose and meaning,” she says about the journey that followed her husband’s death and her return to her educational goals. “My experience at McDonough was incredible. It was so welcoming: the cohort, the faculty, just lovely people, and all available. These people, who were complete strangers, helped me heal.”

When COVID hit the US, Guggenheim, who is from Miami, began speaking virtually at events and brought speakers to online events at Broward County Public Schools. She realized she could also aid the McDonough community by directly addressing students’ isolation and stress. 

Guggenheim approached Prashant Malaviya, the Senior Associate Dean of MBA Programs and her one-time marketing professor, about workshops for McDonough students. As part of the MBA program office’s Operation: Cura Personalis initiative, they organized the “Happiness Project,” a series of seminars Guggenheim held for the students. 

For the first seminar, Guggenheim shared her personal story. “It resonates with many people during this time of loss; it helps to find meaning and hope.” She included discussion about the science and research of happiness and what it means. For the second seminar, she brought in an expert speaker to discuss workplace wellbeing and how purpose, meaning, and values align to propel success. “I wanted to make a business case for happiness,” she explains. 

Mission Success!

Because the concepts of Operation: Cura Personalis are so inherent in the school’s ethos, Pace plans to continue the mission once classes are again in person. The Program Office is considering other interactive exercises such as posting journaling prompts and promoting positive reciprocity. After the initial launch of Operation: Cura Personalis in December 2020, the response was so positive that beginning in January 2021, Dean Almeida expanded Operation: Cura Personalis to include the entire McDonough community of faculty, staff, undergraduate, graduate, and executive students, and all 25,000 alumni. 

For David Shapiro, the experience reinforced the power of McDonough’s community. “The main thing is, the entire school–from the program office to your fellow students–is rooting for you. It feels at times that you’re alone, and your only interaction with anyone is through the lens of your webcam. But, even if you don’t see them, that network is still there. We all want to see each other succeed.”

For the spring semester, Operation: Cura Personalis continued the mission with programs that promoted well-being, connection, and positivity. In February, students were treated to Sleep 101: A Crash Course for Increasing Productivity, Health, and Well-Being, a seminar led by Kristen Rainey of the Northstar Sleep School. The sleep seminar focused on prioritizing sleep, which data shows can increase productivity and health, and maximize learning and processing of new information. “Given how busy MBA students are and how sleep is often neglected, this was a great reminder that sleep is one of the most critical tools in our wellness toolkit,” said Pace. 

In March, McDonough MBA alumna Wendi Norris and artist Maria Magdalena Compos-Pons presented the documentary film When We Gather: Healing, Unity, and Potential through Multifaceted Art at the school. Students had a unique chance to engage with professionals in the art world to discuss the relationship between art and wellness, celebrate the strength of women, the value of diversity, and the power of unity. 

April saw MBA alumna Shelia Walsh of Walsh, Wealth & Wellness come to McDonough to conduct A Rich Life Financial Workshop. Her approach to financial wellness is to encourage values-based decision-making, a reminder for future successful entrepreneurs and executives that values can and should guide decisions even in the realm of finance. 

The Mindful Cooking event, moderated by MBA student Morgan Maloney, had Melissa D’Arabian, an MBA alumna and Food Network star, teaching participants to cook a healthy and delicious meal, reinforcing that cooking is self-care and nourishes both body and spirit. 

Most recently, Inside Circle brought Eldra Jackson III to the campus for Loss, Resilience, and Personal Transformation, a deeply emotional event led by Jackson’s powerful story. Says Pace of the experience, “Even in a virtual setting, Eldra successfully led participants to share their vulnerabilities and also the personal qualities that each of us possess that allows us to push through and thrive.”

“I am proud of this work,” Pace says. “This past year has been full of challenges. My hope and belief is that Operation: Cura Personalis has also brought the McDonough community opportunities for reflection, innovation, resilience, and personal growth. I think it’s just one example of why McDonough is a special place.”

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Christina Griffith
Christina Griffith is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She specializes in covering education, science, and history, and has experience in research and interviews, magazine content, and web content writing.