A few years ago, a couple faculty members in the University of Minnesota Duluth's public health program took note of a booming market.

Demand for health and wellness coaches was growing, and assistant professor Marzell Gray and associate professor Helen Mitzi Doane knew they wanted to give students an opportunity to pursue that form of coaching further.

"People are really becoming more aware of their own health and they're understanding that their own health and well-being helps them function better on a day-to-day basis," Gray said. "(Health coaches) are there to help you learn what is best for you based on your needs, and to help you apply that on your own."

So Gray and Doane developed a minor called health and wellness coaching, offered for the first time at UMD this fall.

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The minor gives students two options, Gray said. They can either apply the knowledge and skills it teaches to whatever field they plan to go into — such as public health, psychology, nursing, social work and exercise science — or they can use it as a launching pad to pursue certification in health and wellness coaching.

Haleigh Reindl, left, of Waterford, Wisconsin, chats about a weekend trip with Gabby Napper, of Cloquet, while the students work on peer-to-peer coaching in Marzell Gray’s class Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, at the Sports and Health Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Haleigh Reindl, left, of Waterford, Wisconsin, chats about a weekend trip with Gabby Napper, of Cloquet, while the students work on peer-to-peer coaching in Marzell Gray’s class Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, at the Sports and Health Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Senior public health student Ailee Leppi chose to enroll in an extra semester this fall, largely so she could graduate with the new minor and apply it to the area of public health she wants to work in.

"I'm very passionate about Native health and I want to go into health communication," said Leppi, who's also minoring in American Indian studies and is an undergraduate research assistant for Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health.

She wants to serve as a link between complex research on health-related topics and the public, specifically Native communities.

Health and wellness coaching focuses on many more dimensions of wellness than just the obvious physical aspects of health, like nutrition and exercise. Occupational, environmental, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and social well-being all have a place in coaching.

University of Minnesota Duluth assistant professor Marzell Gray works on his computer as his students check in with each other and do peer-to-peer coaching Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, at the Sports and Health Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
University of Minnesota Duluth assistant professor Marzell Gray works on his computer as his students check in with each other and do peer-to-peer coaching Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, at the Sports and Health Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Coaching, Gray said, involves empowering clients by helping them focus on what's going well in their lives. Students in the program learn how behaviors are learned, how to modify behaviors, how to create self awareness around mental health and much more.

Peer-to-peer coaching is one way students learn how to put what they learn to use. This is Leppi's third year conducting peer-to-peer health coaching, something she first started doing for internship credits and quickly took a strong liking to.

"We're students so we're learning right alongside our clients," she said. "We're applying the skills that we have and we're trying to help the people we're in classes with."

The pandemic, Leppi said, has played a role in shining a light through the cracks and gaps in knowledge in peoples' understanding of their own health. She thinks the world needs more people who can support and help others achieve the goals they set for themselves.

"I think that the health coaching minor provides that space for students to learn how to be someone to lean on," Leppi said.

University of Minnesota Duluth students Brianna Weyenberg, left, of Appleton, Wisconsin, and Alyssa Hunter, of Barnum, work on their peer-to-peer coaching in Marzell Gray’s class Monday, Nov. 15, 2021.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
University of Minnesota Duluth students Brianna Weyenberg, left, of Appleton, Wisconsin, and Alyssa Hunter, of Barnum, work on their peer-to-peer coaching in Marzell Gray’s class Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram