Shifting institutional norms to increase students’ resilience: A participatory action research study

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American Public Health Association 2020 Annual Meeting and Expo

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Issues: Persistent inequalities that pervade higher education in the United States include disparities in student attainment, academic achievement, postgraduate achievement, and student experience. The proposed intervention is situated within a multi-year participatory action research study using digital storytelling to promote individual resilience, change community and institutional norms, and support policy advocacy.

Description: The intervention hypothesizes that witnessing non-traditional students’ stories of vulnerability, resilience, and courage in navigating college to graduation will promote vicarious resilience and increase self-confidence, self-esteem, and a sense of belonging. The intervention will also establish community norms within the university that are more welcoming of diverse students’ experiences.

Lessons Learned: Faculty, staff, and administrators (n ~ 60) expressed enthusiasm for the digital stories after viewing them at a student success symposium, leading to collaborations with advising staff, faculty development, and student affairs to screen the digital stories. We evaluated student experiences viewing the stories with a mixed-methods survey (n = 64) conducted at one freshman orientation event in August 2019. Students found the stories interesting (98.1%) and useful (98.1%) even when they did not personally relate to the stories.

Recommendations: Next steps include broader testing of the digital storytelling intervention to examine long-term effects of witnessing these stories on resilience. From an ecological systems perspective, there are individual, social, and institutional factors that can improve outcomes and support individual achievement and structural change to reduce disparities. Digital storytelling is an innovative, participatory form of social action and research that can facilitate this movement.


College Students, Participatory Research


Public Health and Recreation