Jill Gurtatowski: Rowing the Stream of Health and Wellness

Beza Moges, ’16Leave a Comment

Jill Gurtatowski isn’t just an expert in the subject of wellness; it is something she infuses into her life and community. One way she has achieved this in her own life is by setting difficult athletic goals for herself. For example, she has competed in the Marathon Rowing Championship three times, completing the 26.2-mile course on the Cane River Lake in Natchitoches, Louisiana, once in a double scull and twice in a quad scull. Jill also knows that having a goal can be more important than achieving it: “My goal was to complete one in a single before I turned forty, but drought conditions in Louisiana, where the rowing championships are held, have caused me to miss that goal,” she noted with some regret. As Berea College’s new Director of Health and Wellness, Jill draws on both types of experience as she helps Bereans set wellness goals for themselves and the community.

Jill can trace her interest in wellness to her childhood up in Maple Heights, Ohio, southeast of Cleveland. As the youngest of three children, sports were always part of her life. “I grew up being dragged to the baseball fields, since my brothers and my father were very active in Little League. Then when I got old enough, I became involved in gymnastics and softball and, later, in swimming, which I really fell in love with.” Without the ability to row here in Berea, Jill returned to her love of swimming and joined the Masters Swim Team at UK.

For her undergraduate studies she went to Ithaca College in New York. Though she started as a physical therapy major, she graduated with a degree in exercise science with a focus on adult fitness and cardiac rehabilitation. “I knew I wanted to work with people since I had always enjoyed volunteering, and I was always interested in the body from a physiological standpoint and what it is capable of doing. Moreover, I had a friend who lived in my hall who was in the major and told me that it would fit me very well.” At Ithaca, Jill practiced wellness inside the classroom and outside as well. “I rowed one year of crew during my sophomore year and returned to it as an adult nearly a decade later as a sculler in the Fort Worth Rowing Club,” she says.

After graduation, she moved back to Ohio and began working in the fitness industry with the Jewish Community Center. Later, she was promoted to their renovated facility in Dallas, Texas. In Texas, Jill also began working on her master’s degree. “For my master’s I wanted to follow a health education angle. I liked the fitness industry but I knew that my passion was with teaching and helping people outside fitness since I believe that there is so much more to health than the physical component.” In 2003, she graduated from the University of North Texas with a master’s in health promotion.

Shortly after she graduated, she joined Cook Children’s Health Care Systems to work with their Safe Kids Coalition, an injury-prevention program for children until she shifted to the newly created employee wellness program. “In the employee wellness program, I had administrative responsibilities such as designing and implementing the overall program, creating different challenges, working with different departments of the hospital and supervising the wellness champions in our thirty off-site locations.”

In addition to her duties at Cook Children’s, Jill also worked as an adjunct instructor at Texas Christian University where she taught stress management, an area that continues to exert a strong influence on her understanding of wellness. “I think stress is becoming a big topic these days because we are realizing the impact it has on our body and how it physically affects us. So in this class, I was able to have students think about stress more and learn the physiology behind it as well as the different ways they can prevent or manage it. It was a wonderful challenge, and I am glad I had the opportunity to do it.”

The decision to come to Berea was a combination of fulfilling a professional aspiration and finding the right community. “Basically, when you see a health education position in academia, it is like the holy grail of health promotion jobs. As I looked further, I fell in love with the college’s mission, which aligns well to my personal values,” she says.

At Berea, she primarily works with faculty, staff, and students to create a comprehensive wellness program for the college community. According to Jill, the program seeks to infuse a culture of wellness into the college. “I use an eight-dimension model here because I want people to know that wellness is more than just the physical component. There are many areas that contribute to your overall wellness such as intellectual, social, emotional, occupational, financial, spiritual, and sustainability. All of those areas affect us and make us a well person. My office works on how we can accomplish that mission by educating students, faculty and staff on the eight dimensions of wellness. And, we make it fun.”

In order to achieve this goal, Jill, in collaboration with the Wellness Board, examines data collected by the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment. This data includes the American College Health Assessment, National College Health Assessment, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program surveys, as well as various Berea-specific surveys to see how Berea College’s responses compare with other colleges. Based on these responses, they have selected four wellness areas at the college that need more attention: sleep, stress, nutrition, and physical activity. This spring, Jill offered biometric screenings and an online health assessment to college employees to gather aggregate data to serve as a snapshot of employee health and to see what kind of interventions need to be developed based on the data gathered.

“Wellness is a personal thing,” Jill says, and she advises people to be comfortable in their own skin and be proactive in their health in however they can. “I want wellness to be the stream that runs through campus, from which you can always come and take a drink.”

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