Maximizing Student Health

Maximizing Student Health

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Resiliency Project, a $3.4 million initiative of the Duke Endowment that aims to maximize the health and well being of students at four schools, is under way and generating enthusiasm.

With its longstanding interest in funding projects focused on facilitating positive outcomes, the Duke Endowment has thrown its weight behind this collaboration between researchers in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and practitioners in the Department of Human Affairs at Duke, Davidson College, Furman University, and Johnson C. Smith University.

Universities have long sought to maximize student health, but there is a general perception that today’s students face unprecedented challenges.

“There’s almost too many opportunities,” says Rick Hoyle, of Duke’s Psychology & Neuroscience Department, one of the creators of the study. “Part of having a good experience here is learning to manage decisions about what to do and what not to do.”

At the heart of the project are two tests of approximately 450 questions each. Students bound for one of the four colleges first filled them out at the end of high school, providing researchers with valuable “pre-matriculation information.” These new freshman are currently responding to the second go-round of testing.

“Knowing who they are when they arrive helps us understand who they become while they’re here,” says Tim Strauman a Duke social scientist with a longtime interest in the relationship between self-regulation and good health. “We want more than just a snapshot of a single time. We want to know the strengths and vulnerabilities that students bring to campus with them.”

According to Hoyle, many of the indicators for success are in place early on. One reason is that college students are “emerging adults”—they are still developing. “Part of what we want to see is how things change, particularly over their freshman year, academically as well as socially, in personality and decision making. The idea is that people get on a sort of trajectory pretty early on, and that trajectory is going to result down the line in them having a productive professional and personal life, [or not]. We want to put as many people as we can on that positive trajectory.”

The project is especially exciting to researchers, offering them a rare kind of immediacy.

“Having that direct feedback loop, with the results from the study being presented and shared with practitioners who are working with students every day was something that is really different and really rewarding for us,” says Molly Weeks, a researcher on the project.

With four colleges involved, the study will generate extensive data. SSRI will make a vital contribution by providing housing for it. “Over time we hope it will involve integrating new data we collect with administrative data, and we need a place to store and keep safe that data,” says Hoyle.

The wealth of data will enable schools a rare chance to evaluate their myriad programming efforts. New practices might be in the offing, but actions undertaken as a result of the project might as easily entail modification of existing programs, or the identification of successful ones and implementation of them on other campuses.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that millions of dollars have to be poured in to creating additional opportunities for Duke students,” says Strauman. “It may be that we’re doing some things really well already and we can tweak some other things to get more bang for the buck.”

Researchers will also be able to evaluate popular beliefs about the situation of college students. “A lot of these are assumptions based on anecdotes, or topics in the press,” says Hoyle. “So the idea is to get a good read on what’s going on. For example, the role of parents in a college student’s life has changed. The general assumption is that’s a bad thing, that helicopter parenting is not in the best interests of the student. That may or may not be true. We’re hoping to collect data to confirm whether continued extensive involvement favors resilience or actually undermines it.”

The project is still in the data-collection stage, but anecdotal evidence indicates a warm response throughout the Duke community. “I can’t think of a person who we asked to be part of the project who hasn’t immediately responded positively,” says Strauman. “I think people really see this as a way for a great university to become even greater.”

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