As visitors enter the Tower Building at Palo Alto High School, the unexpected soothing sound of flowing water and the warm, familiar smell of herbal tea entices them into the new Wellness Centerdirectly across from the main office. Upon a first glance to the left, students catch sight of a smile from Julia Chang, the wellness outreach coordinator. To the right, next to a small table offering up a variety of healthy snacks and colorfully packaged tea bags, sits a tranquil fountain, the source of the calming background noise. If that isn’t enough to lull any high schooler into a calm state, a small enclosure of tension-relieving kinetic sand sits right between the smooth-surfaced, squishy leather chairs that beckon invitingly.

The wellness center, which resides where the former health office was, promotes a broader conception of health.

“[It] is not only a space for students when they need to decompress or to seek out services, but it’s also a place for health education,” Chang says. “By health, we don’t just mean somatic symptoms like a headache or a cold. We’re also really focused on wellness as a whole, taking into account both your mental and physical health.”

Chang also encourages students to utilize the center for educational purposes.

“Students can come here if they’re seeking out other information pertaining to …  a wide range of concerns, including sexual health, nutrition, [and] fitness.”

Even though the center has only been open for a few weeks, students have already begun to utilize the available resources.

“So far we’ve had students come in to seek out a variety of services, and I’m really glad that they know that we’re here.”

The steady stream of students means that Chang has already developed a routine.

“A typical day consists of students coming in during our drop-in hours,” Chang says. “For students that maybe need more support, we’re usually the first point of contact.”

Across the Bay to Paly

Chang, who holds a degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley, beams with enthusiasm as she describes her path to Paly.

“I was passionate about student health and when I heard that Paly was looking for a wellness outreach worker, I thought, ‘Wow, what a perfect fit’,” Chang says. “I’ve always loved working in schools and with youth.”

Throughout her childhood and college years in the East Bay, Chang says she has always been devoted to health and wellness. Chang describes herself as an avid reader and tennis player.

“I read all of the time,” Chang says. “You know those Scholastic book orders? I would get so excited every time. I loved to get those books. I also liked to play sports like tennis and badminton.”

While Chang served as part of the student government at her high school, she led global health and social justice initiatives like a partnership with Free the Children, an organization focused on achieving the U.N.’s millennium goals, and Halloween canned food drives. This desire to improve the world around her only grew stronger, and by the time she was in college, Chang had decided on a career path.

“I knew I wanted to study public health because it impacts so many people’s lives, even the smallest thing,” Chang says. “I joined the … university health services and took a [leadership] role at the program there that focused on student health.”

She also possesses ample experience when it comes to working with younger students.

“I also taught sexual health workshops to high schoolers and helped with disaster response in  elementary schools.”

In addition to enjoying the tangible impacts stemming from her work, Chang describes the interpersonal interactions as highly fulfilling.

“I think my favorite part is the relationships that you build with students,” Chang says. “There have already been students that come in and feel really comfortable in the space.”

Nowadays, even though Chang’s schedule has changed and she has acquired new hobbies, she retains her love of reading.

“I’ve been trying to read more because I have been very busy,” Chang says. “I also like to garden … There is just something nice about growing a plant, or taking care of a living thing that isn’t an animal.”

Chang’s gardening passion becomes apparent when one considers the amount of flora scattered around the room.

“I really like greenery … which is why I try to incorporate it into this space too,” Chang says. “It makes a world of a difference when you have a plant in the room.”

Julia Chang sifts through papers on her desk in the Paly Wellness Center. Photo by James Poe.

Julia Chang sifts through papers on her desk in the Paly Wellness Center. Photo by James Poe.

Viking pride

While Chang seeks to transformPaly’s culture by broadening students’ conceptions of health, she praises the overall school environment for being so supportive.

“We already have so much parent support for our event … and I think that just speaks to how supportive the [parent and staff] communities are,” Chang says. “We’re all here working towards the same goal of trying to ensure that the students here are healthy and feeling well.”