If you wake up because your body had enough rest, and not because you heard the alarm clock, you are doing it right. That’s the message that two sleep evangelists at the University of St. Thomas are bringing not only to students and athletes on their St. Paul campus, but to college students across the country and to pretty much anyone who will listen.

The two are J. Roxanne Prichard, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, and Birdie Cunningham, MA, associate director of health and wellness. Together they have created and just launched the University of St. Thomas Center for College Sleep.

The center brings together two strengths found on a college campus: serious academic research and the programming skills of student-affairs administrators.

The academic research is Prichard’s department. She has been studying human (and rat) sleep since her doctoral research days at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned her PhD in neuroscience in 2004.

Cunningham, meanwhile, is the programming whiz. She is the Center for College Sleep’s director of operations and programming and for the past 13 years has been developing and evaluating programs in the areas of sleep along with others dealing with stress, exercise, nutrition, violence, and alcohol and tobacco.

Cunningham and Prichard say the mission of their recently launched Center for College Sleep is to improve students’ sleep habits by providing “rigorous research, educational outreach and innovative programming.”

They have created two tools designed for a national audience:

  • Their College Sleep Questionnaire is a 15-minute, web-based assessment tool that will tell students how their sleep habits compare to national norms in nine areas. It also provides practical advice and can tell students where to go for more help on their campus.
  • Their College Sleep Environmental Scan is designed to help college and university administrators see if they are promoting a healthy sleep culture on their campuses. While environmental scans exist for other campus issues, like alcohol safety and openness to GLBT students, this will be the first scan available to assess how campus environmental factors impact students’ sleep.

While Prichard and Cunningham are helping other campuses assess their environments for heathy sleep habits, they’ve been busy doing just that on their own campus in St. Paul.

With the help of a grant from United Healthcare, they created a personalized sleep-health program called the Sleep Squad. They also give presentations to classes, student clubs and to St. Thomas’ football, softball, basketball, and hockey teams.

Meanwhile, their Sleep Challenge (officially named the “Get More ZZZs to Get More A’s Sleep Challenge) is now offered to St. Thomas students each semester and awards prizes for healthy sleep habits.

Participants are given sleep advice, a sleep mask, chamomile tea, and a sleep app they use with their smartphones to track the quality of their sleep. After last fall’s challenge, participants showed a 23% improvement in sleep quality and 94% of them said it took less time to fall asleep.

Prichard also is involved with off-campus efforts dealing with sleep. She’s on the advisory board of Start School Later, a national organization that has been advocating for later start times for high schools. A study found a range of benefits when several Twin Cities-area high schools moved their morning start times 30 to 60 minutes later. It found that more students slept at least eight hours a night, attendance rates and ACT scores rose and tardiness and car accidents declined.

And 17 members of Prichard’s neuroscience capstone Sleep and Circadian Rhythms class this spring are bringing Sweet Dreamzzz educational materials to more than 200 preschoolers who attend Head Start programs located at two St. Paul public-housing neighborhoods.

Sweet Dreamzzz is a Michigan-based nonprofit organization that provides sleep education and bedtime-related products to disadvantaged children and their families. The St. Thomas students will be handing out sleep kits that include a bedtime book, Goodnight Moon, dental items, and information for parents.