KU News: A focus on personal growth seen as key for college students coping with mental health effects of pandemic

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A focus on personal growth seen as key for college students coping with mental health effects of pandemic
LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas researcher is the co-author of two new scholarly papers based on a longitudinal study of 629 first-year college students at four U.S. universities that began just weeks after the initial COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 and continued with three more check-ins over the subsequent year. Participants reported on their mental health, academic adjustment, identity development and COVID-19 stressors.

Program helps Native students bridge from Haskell to KU to careers in science
LAWRENCE — A unique program that provides opportunities for Haskell Indian Nations University students to receive STEM training at the University of Kansas and potentially pursue advanced degrees and careers in science recently received a $1.2 million funding renewal from the National Institutes of Health. Leaders of the Haskell-KU Bridges to the Baccalaureate Program are introducing new features designed to help trainees see a place for themselves in bioscience careers, tap into a community of mentors, build essential skills, remove financial barriers, and access a range of resources, networks and supports.

Hollywood depictions of Black male teachers stick to stereotypes, tropes, analysis shows
LAWRENCE — In a new study published in the journal Educational Studies, a University of Kansas researcher has found that the scripts of the most popular Hollywood films depicting Black male teachers from late 1960s onward are all derived from anti-Black social science scholarship’s depictions of Black fathers. Daniel Thomas III, assistant professor of curriculum & teaching, found that movies tend to cast Black male teachers in four main stereotypical tropes. “Hollywood loves to thrust this assumption into the mainstream, and viewers love to consume the trope,” Thomas said.

Full stories below.

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Contact: Brendan Lynch, KU News Service, 785-864-8855, [email protected], @BrendanMLynch
A focus on personal growth seen as key for college students coping with mental health effects of pandemic
LAWRENCE — Starting in early 2020, COVID-19 wrought havoc in the lives of American society at all levels. Among groups most upended were first-year college students — young people at a critical point in their psychological development as they began to navigate lives on their own.
“For students going to college shortly after high school, it’s often the first time they’re living independently,” said Andrea Follmer Greenhoot, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. “They’re making more decisions for themselves. They’re exploring identity and career-related roles. They’re developing new relationships. All these transitions involve developing a sense of who they are and where they want to be going. Those were disrupted by the shutdown in April 2020 — everything came to a screeching halt.”
Follmer Greenhoot, who also serves as director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Gautt Teaching Scholar at KU, is co-author of two new scholarly papers based on a longitudinal study of 629 first-year college students at four U.S. universities that began just weeks after the initial lockdown and continued with three more check-ins over the subsequent year.
Participants reported on their mental health, academic adjustment, identity development and COVID-19 stressors. They also shared personal narratives about their experiences during the pandemic.
The first paper, published in Emerging Adulthood, finds the pandemic negatively affected student mental health, development of identity and academic resilience when compared with pre-COVID data. Further, Follmer Greenhoot and her colleagues found “these alterations persisted and, in some cases, worsened as the pandemic wore on; and patterns of change were often worse for students indicating more baseline COVID-related stressors.”
“This paper focused on trajectories of adjustment over the year after the pandemic began,” Follmer Greenhoot said. “These students really struggled. While there’s been a lot of work looking at the impact of the pandemic on mental health in student populations, probably the most important takeaway from this study is that it’s also been a developmental disruption. The pandemic has really derailed some important developmental tasks that are typical for emerging adults in college.”
According to a summary of the research effort, students’ narratives frequently referenced themes such as:

1. Academic distress; lack of motivation
2. Loss of efficacy and academic confidence
3. Loss of autonomy/control
4. Social disruption, loneliness
5. Goal and activity disruption; loss of formative experiences, stalled decision-making and identity formation
Samples from students’ stories illuminate these developmental disruptions and the mental health challenges posed by COVID-19.
“I find myself with absolutely no motivation, constantly finding the easiest way to complete assignments and overall learning hardly anything,” said one participant.
“… is this really the career I want? The coronavirus took away every future life I thought I knew… This is the most pivotal and influential portion of my college career, and I am going to miss out on a lot of the experiences that will define my education,” wrote another student.
Follmer Greenhoot said the research should inform mental health providers and parents. As director of KU’s Center for Teaching Excellence, she has particular interest in the research’s implications for educators and staff who interact with students in higher education.
“We need to recognize that in addition to the fact that students are stressed and struggling with mental health, it’s also the case that some of these developmental experiences haven’t happened for them,” she said. “That changes who we get in our classroom and on campus and what they need out of the college experience.”
Follmer Greenhoot’s collaborators include Monisha Pasupathi and Cecilia Wainryb of the University of Utah; Jordan Booker and Mikayla Ell of the University of Missouri; Kate McLean of Western Washington University; and Robyn Fivush of Emory University.
The team discovered positive results as well. In a second paper appearing the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science, the team analyzed student narratives, comparing them with data collected over the subsequent year. Follmer Greenhoot said the researchers discovered many of these college freshmen were able to make sense of their own COVID-19 experiences in ways that gave them resilience.
Most notably, first-year college students who mentioned personal growth when writing stories about their COVID-19 experience at the pandemic’s outset tended to be more resilient to its hardships. References to growth address new knowledge, reasoning, attitudes, behaviors, or personal strengths and resources as a result of the lived event, according to Follmer Greenhoot.
“The main finding we highlight in the Psychological Science paper was the power of students referencing growth in their narratives about the pandemic at the initial time point,” she said. “Students whose narratives in April of 2020 tended to reference growth from events they were exposed to showed greater resilience across a whole range of measures. We found those references to growth were a significant predictor of how they were doing a year later.”
This, in spite of participants experiencing more sources of COVID-related stress than researchers anticipated.
“We were interested in the relationship between their narratives about the experience and these measures of adjustment,” said Follmer Greenhoot. “We also gathered information about the types of COVID-related stressors they were exposed to overall, like not being able to see loved ones, a family member losing their job, someone in their life dying. We were surprised at how many stressors students were exposed to — somewhere between 15 and 17 distinct stressors related to COVID on average at each time point.”
But the KU researcher said those students referencing growth in their narratives tended to fare better than students not citing personal growth, even if they experienced more numerous or more severe COVID stressors.
“There was quite a bit of variability, and one might normally think the number of stressors or the level of stress they were exposed to would be a big predictor of their adjustment, both concurrently and long-term,” Follmer Greenhoot said. “That was the case, except when we considered the characteristics of their narratives about those stressful experiences. It turns out it’s the way they’re constructing their narratives about the experience that really provides insight and prediction into their adjustment. That was more important — it washed out the impact of the actual stress levels they were experiencing. It speaks to the importance of sense-making, how we process our experiences and how we come to react to them over time.”
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Contact: Mindie Paget, Office of Research, 785-864-0013, [email protected], @ResearchAtKU
Program helps Native students bridge from Haskell to KU to careers in science

LAWRENCE — Kynser Wahwahsuck is a member of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas. For as long as she can remember, she has known that the tribe struggles to provide drinking water on the reservation — situated on 150,000 acres of tribal land about 60 miles north of Topeka — because of its aging water treatment plant.
The fact that she now finds herself in a position to improve this situation for her tribe is a testament to her tenacity, her deep care for community and planet, and the promise of a unique program that provides opportunities for Haskell Indian Nations University students to receive STEM training at the University of Kansas and potentially pursue advanced degrees and careers in science.
“Being able to rebuild the infrastructure for good water quality is something the tribe needs,” she said. “I’m hoping I can make a difference in this role.”
Wahwahsuck, who is also a descendant of Shoshone and Sac & Fox tribes, started a new job in July as the tribal climate resilience liaison for the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance after graduating from KU in May with a master’s degree in ecology & evolutionary biology.
She is one of more than 125 American Indian/Alaska Native students who have participated in the Haskell-KU Bridges to the Baccalaureate Program. The program supports students from Haskell who seeking careers in biomedical, bioengineering, behavioral and environmental health fields by transferring to KU to access degree options not available at the tribal college. As the program enters its 21st year with a $1.2 million funding renewal from the National Institutes of Health, its leaders are introducing new features designed to help trainees see a place for themselves in bioscience careers, tap into a compassionate community of mentors invested in their success, build essential skills, remove financial barriers, and access a range of resources, networks and supports they need to thrive.
“This program is one of the longest KU-Haskell collaborations. Getting asked to lead it felt like winning the lottery,” said lead investigator Amy Burgin, professor of environmental studies and senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey & Center for Ecological Research. “It takes years to establish a program like this and to put together a record of effectiveness. I got to inherit all of that and then start to think about creative ways that we might adjust and continue building on that success.”
Removing barriers
Success for the Bridge Program looks like more than 90% of students completing its requirements over the past 20 years and 73% of Bridge scholars graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the past decade — significantly higher than the overall graduation rates for Haskell and KU. Additionally, Bridge trainees complete graduate programs at twice the rate of the general American Indian/Alaska Native population.
That’s a trend the Bridge Program and its trainees would like to see continue. Very few Native students achieve higher degrees; just 77 earned science doctorates in 2018, according to the National Center for Science & Engineering Statistics. While other historically excluded groups have seen significant increases in the number of completed doctorates over the past 20 years — a leap of 51% for Latinx students and 45% for Black or African American students — Native American rates have decreased by 50%.
Hearing one of her mentors share that startling data at a conference motivated Wahwahsuck.
“That was the moment that I realized I wanted to go to grad school because of that low number,” she said. “I wanted to show myself that I could do it. I also have four younger brothers, and I wanted to show them that they can achieve anything they put their minds to. For myself, for my family and other Indigenous people — there is space for us in these places and in scientific research.”
The Bridge Program harnesses that motivation, helping students explore their interests and forge individual paths to scientific careers. Trainees gain hands-on foundational experience in KU labs. They connect with a mentor who helps nurture and guide their development as researchers. They pursue their own area of inquiry, conduct experiments, develop posters and present their research at symposia and conferences. They meet with each other to maintain cultural connections and share common experiences and concerns. And they engage in professional development, including hearing from alumni about how the Bridge Program helped them envision and achieve their education and career goals.
During the first year of the two-year program, Bridge trainees are enrolled at Haskell. In year two, they have the option to transfer to KU and engage in rigorous, mentored research. Program leaders note that only 20% of past Bridge trainees have transferred to KU or another four-year institution due to many factors, including the significant cost difference between KU and Haskell. The Bridge Program now offers a tuition benefit — a new feature for this funding cycle based on feedback from previous participants.
“We’re hoping that helps lower some of the cost barriers,” Burgin said. “We want these students to have the best of both worlds. To thrive, they need the preparation, sense of community and culturally aware support that Haskell provides so well, along with access to the different kinds of research options available at KU that can help them build STEM careers.”
Current tuition, fees and other expenses for a full-time KU student approach $20,000 annually, compared to a total cost of less than $1,000 at Haskell, where students are typically responsible for some fees but don’t pay tuition.
Navigating culture shock
That’s not the only difference between the two institutions, whose campuses are separated by just a mile geographically but are worlds apart in other ways.
“It can be a huge culture shock for people to go from Haskell to KU in a short time. The amount of people on campus, the fact that you have to pay for parking — you can’t just park where your class is,” Wahwahsuck said. “Also, tribal diversity at Haskell is amazing. And, yeah, there’s diversity at KU, but sometimes it’s a little hard to see.”
One way the Bridge Program helps ease the transition is by connecting participants to KU’s First Nations Student Association. Wahwahsuck said being part of that group made her feel more comfortable at KU, like “you still have a sense of home after you leave Haskell.”
Like many students, Wahwahsuck went to college knowing she was interested in science but not certain exactly where that interest might lead. She was accepted to the Bridge Program and got her first research experience working in a KU laboratory that studied breast cancer. Through a few other KU internship opportunities, she discovered her passion for ecology and explored the effects of nitrogen pollution on biodiversity in hay fields and grasslands. Wahwahsuck didn’t actually bridge to KU for her undergraduate degree; instead, she earned her bachelor’s in environmental science at Haskell. But she returned to KU through the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program, or PREP, which promotes diversity in biomedical research. That’s when she landed in Burgin’s lab and shifted her research focus to the effects of land use on headwater streams in northeast Kansas.
“This was important to me because my tribe resides in the watershed where I conducted my work,” Wahwahsuck said.
Connecting identities
Helping strengthen and solve problems in tribal communities is a common motivation for Native students pursuing higher education. The Bridge Program strives to nurture that commitment by matching students with faculty mentors who are increasingly trained to co-build research experiences that incorporate Indigenous knowledge and ways of thinking and valuing — allowing students to connect their Native identity with their budding scientific identity. Bridge scholars also receive peer mentoring from a KU graduate student who attended Haskell and can offer perspectives and support from shared experience.
Wahwahsuck played that peer mentor role for Bridge trainees during graduate school and described the opportunity as a “full-circle moment where I was able to be the person to encourage them that they do belong in science.”
For her part, Wahwahsuck received that guidance and encouragement from Becky Welton, who has served as program manager for the Bridge Program for nearly 15 years. Welton has an office on the Haskell campus, where she builds relationships with students and recruits those who might be a good fit for the Bridge Program.
“That’s the best part of the job: interacting with the students,” Welton said. “You get to know them on a personal level. It’s very rewarding to see them grow and develop and succeed.”
She keeps tabs on every student who comes through the program and knows, off the top of her head, what many of them are doing now. That includes Wahwahsuck, whose role with the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance perfectly marries the knowledge, experience and interests she cultivated at Haskell, KU and beyond.
“It’s crazy. I really called it my dream job when I was applying for it. It just felt surreal that I got it,” Wahwahsuck said. “It’s exactly what I want to do — work with tribal nations and help them combat climate change.”

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Contact: Mike Krings, KU News Service, 785-864-8860, [email protected], @MikeKrings
Hollywood depictions of Black male teachers stick to stereotypes, tropes, analysis shows
LAWRENCE — Morgan Freeman has given many powerful, memorable performances. His role as Mr. Clark, a New Jersey-based high school principal known for dispensing authoritarian discipline in “Lean on Me,” is certainly memorable, but that depiction and many others of Black male teachers are based on prejudiced tropes about Black families that were generated from 20th-century social science research — a form of racial knowledge that reified an anti-Black epistemic order of knowledge, according to a new study published by Daniel Thomas III of the University of Kansas. In fact, the scripts of the most popular Hollywood films depicting Black male teachers from late ’60s onward are all derived from anti-Black social science scholarship’s depictions of Black fathers.
Thomas, assistant professor of curriculum & teaching at KU, found that movies have cast Black male teachers in four main stereotypical tropes, and those depictions are not just based on Hollywood’s collective imagination. “This research sought to scapegoat socio-historical issues of white supremacy and racist public policies by attributing the cause of any issue or inequity experienced by Black America to dysfunctional families caused by absent Black fathers,” Thomas said. “Hollywood loves to thrust this assumption into the mainstream, and viewers love to consume the trope.”
Thomas, along with co-authors Marcus Johnson of Texas State University and Anthony Brown of the University of Texas at Austin, analyzed 11 popular films that prominently featured Black male teachers. Their study, outlining how the teachers are confined to four stereotypical tropes and how such scripts couldn’t exist without flawed social science research, was published in the journal Educational Studies.
“The bodies of Black men and boys are discursively rearranged within movie scripts to quench America’s thirst for pathological representations of Blackness,” Thomas said. “Both non-Black viewers of color and white moviegoers have such a limited sense of Black existence that they come to believe they have actually had an “authentic” Black experience with film. In reality, these viewers are lured into a deeper state of delusion where their myths and stereotypical fascinations and fears of Black men and boys are presented as truths.”
For the study, the authors analyzed “To Sir, with Love,” “Cooley High,” “Hard Lessons,” “Lean on Me,” “House Party 2,” “Menace II Society,” “Major Payne,” “Higher Learning,” “To Sir, with Love II,” “Nutty Professor” and “One Eight Seven.” Black male teachers were scripted to remain confined to four anti-Black tropes generated from social science research that constructed Black fathers as: absent and wandering, impotent and powerless, soulful and adaptive, and endangered and in crisis. As a result, the authors organized their findings into the following four themes: There’s no script without absent or powerless Black fathers; (un)natural saviors and motivators; saviors from death; and deviance and motivating the lazy and irresponsible.
Before illustrating how the films fall into the aforementioned tropes, the authors summarize how popular culture converged with social science’s utilization of prejudiced and methodologically inaccurate research since the early 20th century to depict Black families in America. The Moynihan Report of 1965 was disturbingly influential in casting Black households as dysfunctional due to a matrifocal structure, the authors wrote. Studies have disproven the Moynihan Report showing that there was no statistically significant difference between Black and White families regarding the presence of fathers, and a current study from the Pew Research Center found that Black men were the most involved fathers.
“The stereotypical assumption has still been adopted in subsequent academic research and the ‘popular public pedagogy’ of Hollywood films,” Thomas said.
In fact, the first trope is reflected in the fact that fathers are absent in 10 of the 11 films. In only two of the analyzed films are fathers of main characters portrayed. The only film that didn’t fall into the trope was “Nutty Professor,” which depicted the Black male teacher as having a highly competent white research lab assistant.
The trope of “taking their (un)natural place” runs through the films by showing teachers being completely comfortable and highly effective in situations such as teaching in largely white schools, but the films frame the characters as being out of their natural element. Morgan Freeman’s Mr. Clark character is shown early in “Lean on Me” as a comfortable, impactful teacher, but out of place working with white students. That, and other cases of unnatural fits, never address Black male educators’ content knowledge, counter-hegemonic pedagogical approaches or their interpersonal skills; they simply fit.
Once the teachers take their place in filling the void created by absent Black fathers in the films, they often fall into the third trope of saviors from death and deviance, the authors wrote. Teachers in “Hard Lessons” and “To Sir, With Love II” are shown attempting to save Black youth from gang-related deaths. In other films, the teachers are shown attempting to keep young men away from drugs and jail, but they are never shown reading, designing lessons or teaching in a typical classroom setting.
The final trope revolved around teachers motivating lazy and irresponsible youths to achieve. Laurence Fishburne’s Professor Phipps character in “Higher Learning” exemplified the trope when he critiques a student for being lazy and thinking the world owed him something, saying, “It is laziness that has kept Black people down in this country.”
While movies are not reality, they are part of the public consciousness, and Hollywood is part of a global economic machine, Thomas and co-authors wrote. The public portrayals reinforce stereotypes, fundamentally alter standards and expectations, and are reflected in public education policy as education laws are driven by either contempt from conservative lawmakers or pity from liberal approaches.
Building off themes explored in the paper, Thomas is designing a class tentatively called Black Men and Boys in Education. The course will examine how contemporary experiences of Black men and boys are a byproduct of historical discourses that have situated the essence of Blackness as a problem since the 15th century, Thomas said. Considering that historical construction from that starting point until the 21st century will offer a look at the uninterrupted framing of the population as problems within the realm of education, which is reflected in Hollywood films as well as the American education system.
“The films continue being made because they have proven to be popular and profitable, but also because they reiterate false notions produced by academic fields within academe that have been able to portray these stories as authentic precisely because they emerged from an institution with the power to legitimize truth,” Thomas said. “Not only has the intersection between this research and Hollywood films misconstrued the image of Black families, fathers and boys on national and global scales, but they also fail to address the intellectual, political and ideological depth of Black male teachers due to these stifling constraints.”
“I cannot think of a single example of a Hollywood movie that counters these ubiquitous narratives,” Thomas added. “Hollywood will probably not release a film that that addresses the systemic, sociohistorical origin story of racialized educational inequity encountered by Black folks. It’s terrifying to know that people leave the theater after watching these films thinking, ‘All we need is magical Black male teachers, they can fix it.’ We have to stop utilizing Black families, fathers and Black male teachers as scapegoats for centuries of anti-Black policies.”
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