Understanding COVID-19’s impact on campuses
Two students and their professor help advance research into ways colleges can better protect campus communities during high-stress events such as a pandemic.
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories on work done by students who participated in the 2021 Stonehill Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), which pairs students with an experienced faculty mentor to perform significant, publishable research.
Working on a research project with Professor Jacqueline Beatty has been a longtime goal for Tanya Abboud ’22 and Alexis DaSilva ’22. In keeping with Stonehill’s commitment to empowering students as leaders and change-makers, the pair took the initiative to propose a collaboration with the biology and health science faculty member in 2020.
“Then the pandemic happened,” Abboud said.
Though the crisis delayed the start of the trio’s partnership, it also inspired their 2021 SURE projects: Understanding Risk Factor Reduction Behaviors for COVID-19 in College Students and Mental Health Awareness and Behavior Management in College Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic. The team is collecting and examining survey data from students at Stonehill College, Rowan University and will incorporate data from the Community College of Rhode Island to explore mental and physical health behaviors that increase the danger of a COVID infection and determine what colleges might do to help students better protect themselves.
“As future healthcare professionals, Alexis and Tanya were well suited for this SURE project because they appreciate the role of research in health care and seek to better understand the connection between health behavior and clinical outcomes,” Beatty said.
DaSilva, a health science major and gender and sexuality studies minor from Providence, Rhode Island, explored health-related behaviors that can mitigate COVID-19 risk factors, such as obesity and diabetes.
“I hope to become a physician assistant (PA) after graduation,” she said. “The medical field is always evolving, so reading research articles is something that is going to be part of my life for a long time. I feel that everything I’ve learned through SURE will help me, not just as I train to become a PA, but also long after I’m established in that role.”
Abboud, from Taunton, MA, a psychology major who is also minoring in biology and Arabic, examined COVID-19 risk factors tied to stress, anxiety, and depression among students during the pandemic. She also investigated the role of diet and exercise as ways to improve mental health and how sleep quality affects psychological health.
As the two students reviewed their research, a central theme that surfaced was the importance of institutional communications to make students aware of the mental health resources available to them, especially as new programs are created. They also concluded that, despite vast improvements made in recent years to destigmatize mental illness, society still has a long way to go in erasing the shame associated with this topic. Creating an environment that promotes frank, honest discussion about mental health is a good first step in helping young people manage their overlapping health issues in situations such as the pandemic.
Both students say they believe that their research into ways to safeguard student health during crises may also prove relevant beyond the threats posed by a pandemic, given that the challenge of living through natural disasters and working for social change also create stresses that can impact student health.
“We hope our study will help colleges optimize students’ well-being and work toward the betterment of their mental and physical health during distressing times,” DaSilva said. “Students’ health is just as important as their academic performance.”
Abboud said she believes this research increases awareness of the vital issue of inaccessible and unaffordable mental healthcare as well as aids campus officials in establishing resources to aid young people.
“I hope we don’t have another pandemic, but if another were to hit, we can help colleges prepare so they’re better able to help people get through it,” Abboud said.
As they prepare to publish their findings, Abboud and DaSilva are thankful they got to work with Beatty. Likewise, the professor enjoyed helping her co-researchers enhance their communication and critical thinking skills.
“The opportunity to mentor students in a research setting outside of the classroom provides a level of experiential learning that is unique and rewarding to all who are invested in the process,” Beatty said.