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Sac State's new student health director, who has dedicated her life to caring for others, seeks to expand services

Jeanne Harris Van Dahlen, Sacramento State's new senior associate vice president for Student Health, Counseling, and Wellness Services, who has years of experience in nursing and administration, aims to expand access to care and introduce new services to campus. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

From the time she was 5, Jeanne Harris Van Dahlen knew that nursing was her destiny.

On the soybean farm in Ohio where she grew up, “I brought in and treated every wounded animal,” she said. “I used popsicle sticks and gauze to mend birds’ broken wings. I just knew that nursing was my calling.”

Van Dahlen earned a bachelor’s of science degree in Nursing as well as a master’s degree and a doctorate in Education. She worked in trauma rooms, flew on medical transport helicopters, ran nursing units, and worked in hospital administration before switching to higher education.

For 17 years, before coming to Sac State, she served as dean of Wellness, Social Services, and Child Development at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. Among other things, she created programs for students who struggled with food insecurity and homelessness, and strived to create an environment where all students received access to quality care.

Now, as Sac State’s new senior associate vice president for Student Health, Counseling, and Wellness Services (SHCWS), she is charged with supporting the health of Sac State’s 31,000 students.

“My whole being is about taking care of our students,” said Van Dahlen, who serves as a vice president of the Pacific Coast College Health Association, which gathers data and studies trends in student health.

Sac State boasts an integrated student health system, offering primary health care, mental health counseling, pharmacy services, nutritional programs, cooking demonstrations, housing help, and more inside the building known as The WELL, near Hornet Stadium.

“We want students to know that we are accessible. We want them to be able to see someone who looks like them. We want to break down barriers that might prevent them from using our services.”

-- Jeanne Harris Van Dahlen, senior associate vice president for Student Health, Counseling, and Wellness Services

In 2022-23, the student health center saw nearly 15,000 students for primary care appointments. More than 8,000 students took part in psychological counseling sessions.

Van Dahlen replaces Joy Stewart James, who retired in December 2022 after 15 years at Sac State.

“She had great vision for this place, and I feel very blessed in that manner,” Van Dahlen said. “But I see an opportunity to reach even more students.”

Toward that end, the University has expanded its use of video appointments, which became critical during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to seeing a counselor or nurse face to face, Sac State health students now have the opportunity to schedule online appointments for medical and psychological services.

The University also is adding seven counselors this year, in an effort to reduce wait times for appointments. The new hires will reflect Sac State’s cultural and ethnic diversity, Van Dahlen said.

“We want students to know that we are accessible,” she said. “We want them to be able to see someone who looks like them. We want to break down barriers that might prevent them from using our services.”

The Sac State CARES office, which helps students connect with community resources including CalFresh, emergency housing and transportation, and health and wellness services, among other things, soon will be housed inside The WELL.

As winter approaches, Van Dahlen and her staff are preparing for a bump in flu and COVID cases, as well as other respiratory ailments. The University will offer free flu vaccinations to students, and referrals for COVID vaccinations.

“We’re seeing a gentle rise in COVID cases, so we want to make sure everyone is aware of the signs and symptoms, and how to protect themselves from illness,” Van Dahlen said. Face masks no longer are required on campus but are recommended at large gatherings or for people who have compromised immune systems or serious health issues.

Van Dahlen encouraged all students to take advantage of the variety of resources available at the health center.

“We are here to make a difference in the lives of all of the students we serve,” she said.

Aniesha Mitchell, Sac State’s interim vice president for Student Affairs, said she is thrilled to welcome Van Dahlen to the University.

“Sac State is extremely fortunate to have her,” Mitchell said. “Jeanne brings with her a wealth of experience in supporting students, is student centered, and has already made significant contributions to the overall community in a short amount of time. I look forward to all the wonderful things she will accomplish.”

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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