Cassandra Kitko, manager of Health Initiatives at Penn State was recently interviewed for the NCBHAC member’s spotlight series. Here’s an inside look at the wellness initiative at her university. 

As many people across the country know, Penn State is a sizable university, with a total students body of 95,973, including part-time students. Faculty, including adjunct and clinical number at approximately 6300. The total number of full-time staff is 18,925; part time is 8,604. Penn State has 24 commonwealth campuses and a county extension department. This includes an academic medical center, which is about a two-hour drive from its University Park campus.

From an administration perspective, Kitko feels university leaders, such as the president and provost, provide a moderate level of support for Penn State’s health and wellness initiative. Penn State’s faculty and staff wellness program, Health Matters, is located in Human Resources on the University Park campus. Kitko, known around campus as the person in charge of wellness initiatives, reports directly to the senior director of Employee Benefits. She works closely with campus partners to accomplish the wellness vision and mission—partners such as Faculty Senate, President’s Council, Staff Advisory Council, Academic Leadership Council, College of Nursing, Hershey Medical Group, payroll and information systems. Penn State’s health plan and EAP are considered external partners.

The university’s first program, Faculty/Staff Health Promotion began in 1987. In 1996, it was renamed Health Matters. The program was incorporated into the employee benefits division in 1997. Together, Kitko, two health promotion associates, two lactation specialists and nine health promotion specialists focus on health initiatives that reach employees and their families. Some of Penn State’s initiatives include annual flu shots for faculty and staff, a 50 percent subsidy for Weight Watchers, and a wellness clinic at University Park focused on acute care, chronic disease management, nutrition education, tobacco cessation and lifestyle change. Its EAP offers a two-in-one benefit. Employees, their dependents, parents and parents-in-law may use up to five in-person sessions with a therapist per issue when using the EAP benefit. They may also utilize the core advocacy benefit, which can help employees untangle medical claims, find a specialist, find a new doctor or child or pet care, or obtain legal and/or financial resources. Use of these benefits has been strong since the university began offering them in 1998.

Penn State has a faculty and staff wellness team, called Wellness Ambassadors. They help Kitko and her team promote programs and services to those not on the University Park campus. Although Penn State does not have a health and wellness strategic plan, the team is held accountable to the OHR strategic plan.

Because Kitko serves out of the Office of Human Resources, she does not oversee the student wellness initiative. Student wellness is run out of the Office of Student Affairs. It focuses efforts on sexual health, nutrition, fitness, alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, body image, eating disorders and healthy lifestyle choices.

We asked Kitko to provide 2–3 examples of what her team has done to begin to change the culture of wellness at Penn State. She noted that changing culture is a very hard thing to do. They are trying to include more strategies in their plan that will provide traction for culture change, but it will take time.

First, Kitko would like to make Penn State tobacco-free. Some of the campuses away from University Park are tobacco-free, but the largest, University Park, is not. There is also a movement for biking on campus that has been taking shape for several years. HR is one of the work units who have four commuter bikes to get to and from meetings on campus. It is much faster than getting in the department car, driving to the site, parking and getting to the meeting. Penn State is in the process of building an employee health clinic that will include acute care, health education, behavior change programs, and chronic disease management.

To assist with the promotion of wellness, communication with employees at all campus locations, as well as family members, is crucial. Currently, they use home mailings, mass e-mails, list serves and human resources strategic partners to disperse information.  The Penn State Today, a daily email news resource, and the HR website are also common mediums.

As is the case in many universities there are some initiatives that have not worked or have been discontinued at Penn State. These include Know Your Numbers, a biometric screening program. It was offered from 1996–2013. After faculty outcry regarding privacy issues ensued in 2013, the program was halted. Another program that was offered in conjunction with its health plan was “Personal Nutrition Coaching.” The service included one, one-hour session with a Registered Dietitian and six, half-hour sessions with a RD per year for all plan members. The program held an average of 1000 coaching sessions each year, and included weight loss, reduction in medication needs, and reduction in individual risk factors. Due to circumstances beyond Kitko’s control, this program was discontinued. In addition, the Great American Smokeout and Breast Cancer Awareness partnership with Lee Jeans were eliminated. Penn State found these two programs to be ineffective in reaching the people who needed to be involved and provided no outcomes. Challenges such as walking/running, calculating miles, counting fruits and vegetables, etc. were also stopped. Said Kitko, “Unless we can show that a program reduces risk factors, we will be less inclined to offer it. High participation is not enough.”

Kitko shared some of her biggest lessons learned from operating the wellness program at Penn State.

  1. “It’s okay to take risks with programming. In the beginning, some of the topics we offered were not mainstream, yet we offered them because people wanted them offered. They were extremely well attended.
  2. “Evolve with the current health needs of your population and always use programming to improve those health risks. Be able to show the cost-benefit even if it’s not in hard ROI. The cost of doing nothing far exceeds the costs of doing something.
  3. “Tie all programming and initiatives to the university’s strategic plan. Know who the play makers are and make them your allies.
  4. “Those who have the least knowledge in health and wellness can have dramatic impact on the success or demise of your program. Read all research (or conduct some or your own) that proves health and wellness strategies bend the cost curve for organizations.”

Some of Penn State’s biggest successes include:

  1. The growth of the program. When Kitko started, Penn State only offered a few lunch and learn programs per semester, Weight Watchers at Work, tobacco cessation via videocassette tapes, and nutrition education and stress management. From the time she began as a health promotion specialist, changes were put in place to reduce cancellation rates. Program offerings were increased to include all campus locations, and the university began offering programs via videoconference and webinars to reach the masses.
  2. Offering the biometric screening and health risk assessment to all employees and their benefits-enrolled spouse/partner in 2013 “was a dream come true,” said Kitko. “We had an 82 percent completion rate and are now able to see the risk factors of our population.”
  3. Integrating wellness into the health plan. “It’s been a slow but steady process,” she said. “People are now beginning to understand how being a good health care consumer can help themselves as well as the financial health of the university.”
  4. Being a part of the implementation of an employee health clinic as part of the College of Nursing and Penn State Hershey Medical Group. “Having an OHR presence is a huge accomplishment.”

Kitko’s advice on building a successful wellness program at an academic institution include:

  1. “Involve the key faculty, staff and administration in all discussions regarding programs and the integration of them into the health plan. If they are in agreement with what the health and wellness team is hoping to accomplish, the implementation will be much easier and with fewer roadblocks.
  2. “Measure, measure, measure, so that you can prove your programs and services are making a difference in reducing medical spend and improving quality of life for the employees.
  3. “Awareness events only provide minimal results at permanent behavior change. The intentions are admirable, but without a culture that supports the changes people are hoping to make, most will fall short of making a life sustaining behavior change. In addition, you will not have data to show who participated and if they were successful for the long-term. This one of the reasons the field of health promotion struggles to prove programs are cost-effective and needed within the workplace.”


If you would like further information or have questions for Cassandra Kitko about Penn State’s wellness program, please reach out to her at or 814-865-0358.