First-year students' stories of a pandemic: Study seeks data to help them flourish

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | June 4, 2020

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The data gathered from student stories "may help us to create interventions to support students who may be struggling as they navigate disruptive and stressful events," says Emory psychologist Robyn Fivush.

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The Silent Generation grew up dealing with the Great Depression and World War II. Now the first-year college students of Generation Z are coming of age amid climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The whole world was opening up to students that started college last fall,” says Robyn Fivush, an Emory professor of psychology and director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts. “They reached the threshold of adulthood. And then the pandemic hit, pulling the rug out from under them. What does it mean for their dreams of research, of travel, of what they want to do with their lives? It creates an even more uncertain future at a point when they were just starting to home in on their passions and form their adult identities.”

Emory University is one of five universities across the country collaborating on a study focused on narratives written by first-year college students from last fall about their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The longitudinal study will follow the students for a year or more to track their psychological well-being and academic performance. The goal of the study is to determine whether the self-narratives can predict better outcomes for the students, and to gather data for any interventions that may be needed to help students to have more rewarding and successful academic experiences.

Fivush, director of the Family Narratives Lab in Emory’s Department of Psychology, is a leader in the field of narrative identity — how we use stories to understand ourselves and to make sense of the world and our place within it. She launched the student narratives study in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri, the University of Utah and Western Washington University.

“I’ve become particularly interested in college-age individuals because it’s such an important time in the formation of identity,” Fivush says. “Even though the majority of Americans do not go away to college, the ones that do are living away from home for the first time, learning time management, how to feed themselves, how to interact with peers and how to make their own decisions.”

The researchers are recruiting students from all five of the universities now for the study. They hope to enroll between 600 and 1,000 participants to write two detailed narratives. The first narrative asks them to describe an event that best captures the challenges they have faced as a result of COVID-19. The second narrative focuses on an event that best captures what they have learned about themselves as a result of COVID-19.

Participants will also fill out questionnaires at the start of the study, and at periodic intervals during the course of it. The questions cover the participants’ living situations and their physical health. They also aim at assessing the participants’ levels of anxiety, stress and depression, whether they are flourishing, and whether they are experiencing positive personal growth and making academic progress.

The hypothesis is that more coherent, positive narratives will be predictive of better mental health, more effective identity processing and better academic progress. “The data may help us create interventions to support students who may be struggling as they navigate disruptive and stressful events,” Fivush says.

Students from lower-income families and first-generation college attendees were already more at risk for not making it to graduation so the fallout from the pandemic may be especially difficult for them to navigate, Fivush says. “If we don’t get some really deep data about what they are experiencing and how they are making decisions we are not going to be able to help them to stay the course and graduate,” she says. “It’s vital to understand and support them. Education remains the single most important path to upward mobility and for resolving inequalities.”

The researchers launched the study with available funds as a year-long project, and they will release useful data as it becomes available. They are currently writing grants to secure funding to extend the study for longer.

Fivush has served in administrative roles at Emory designed to create more integrated and reflective experiences for undergraduates. “I really enjoy administrative work because it’s a chance to think strategically about education and what it is that we’re trying to accomplish,” she says. “Emory is well-situated in terms of its resources and its commitment to the undergraduate experience. We are teaching the change agents and the leaders of tomorrow. The role we play as educators is critical for the future of the world.”

Generation Z, or those born from around the mid-1990s to early 2010s, now make up the largest segment of the population and are the first true “digital natives” — those who have never known the world without the Internet.

“Every college student has a smart phone and is continuously flooded with information,” Fivush says. “That has broken down and fractured shared social narratives. It may give you more leeway to create your own story. On the other hand, it makes the world more complicated, more ambiguous and uncertain. And all of those things can make the identity journey more challenging.”