Public Health students help to promote indigenous youth resilience

November 12, 2014

Photo (from left): Shirley Zhen, Idun Klakegg and Katie Rowlett of Haverford College, Steele Valenzuela, Lucas Trout of Seattle University, and Hannah Weinronk

This past summer Public Health undergraduates Hannah Weinronk and Shirley Zhen, along with Epidemiology graduate student Steele Valenzuela, spent six weeks in Kotzebue, Alaska, in support of a pilot research project led by Associate Professor of Community Health Education Lisa Wexler. The project, titled Intergenerational Dialogue Exchange and Action (IDEA), is designed to work with local leaders and Elders to highlight community strengths in order to promote youth resilience among Arctic indigenous youth. The study takes a community-based participatory approach built on a storytelling model that provides opportunities for local role models to teach youth about their own lives in ways that make healthy strategies for action apparent and relevant to indigenous young people’s daily experiences. Its central hypothesis is that young people exposed to stories of resilience, recovery, and wellbeing from indigenous Elders and adults will build supportive relationships, and gain personal and cultural identity clarity, self-esteem, and belonging and purpose.

Weinronk, Zhen, and Valenzuela had been independently looking to earn extra independent study credits or research opportunities with a community health-based focus when their advisors suggested they contact Wexler, who had been actively recruiting UMass Amherst students to assist with the project. A dynamic individual whose enthusiasm can be infectious, Wexler quickly realized she had a trio of like-minded students on her hands. She provided the students with a crash course in political, environmental and health issues shaping life in Alaska Native communities as well as studies specific to indigenous communities, along with copious readings on substance abuse, skills-based interviewing and coaching training, community-based research approaches, and research ethics in those communities.

The students arrived in Kotzebue, a Native Alaskan hub village of approximately 3000 people located on a peninsula 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, during the height of summer when the sun never sets.

“We could have had a million readings and it would not have prepared us for the reality of being there,” says Valenzuela.

Photo (clockwise from left): Shirley Zhen, Hannah Weinronk, with student research colleagues Katie Rowlett of Haverford College, Lucas Trout, and Idun Klakegg (front)research colleagues

Weinronk agrees. “The readings provided important frameworks for the type of thinking we needed to do, but actually being there was an entirely different story.”

In the beginning, their efforts were primarily focused on logistics and planning in support of the project. The three UMass Amherst students, along with three other students from Haverford College and Seattle University working with collaborator Dr. Joshua Moses, also contributed to the project; all lived together, ate together, held daily meetings, and made plans together.

“Dr. Wexler and Dr. Moses were there with us that first week,” says Zhen, “but after that we were left on our own.” Wexler stayed in touch regularly via Skype and email, and returned for the last week of the project.

Their first few days were spent learning the methodology and brainstorming ways to get their ideas for promoting youth resilience out to the community. They also spent a considerable amount of time knocking on doors, pitching their ideas to community members and inviting them to participate.

“In our first week there, we also did our own photovoice project to get to know each other and the method,” says Weinronk.

With help from 11 indigenous youth co-researchers, they were able to identify speakers willing to participate in the intergenerational storytelling sessions at the heart of the project. The students conducted these sessions on a near-daily basis in group settings, asking questions about leadership, community and culture.

Photovoice sessions were conducted with the university and local co-researchers regularly. “At first we’d give them a prompt,” says Valenzuela. “Questions like ‘what’s your favorite thing about your community?’ But before long they were coming into the sessions with questions of their own. They’d take photos of whatever images were evoked from that prompt.”

For participants, the photovoice sessions led up to a larger digital storytelling project. Each of them had to create a personal story that they wanted to tell, putting together music, photos, text, and voice to tell their stories. The six-week period culminated with a potluck dinner for project participants and their friends and families to share the digital stories that were produced. A packed house turned out for the event.

“Some chose to share, and some others didn’t,” says Zhen. “But everyone appreciated that there was a place to showcase all the good qualities that people wanted to present about their community.”

Participants were each given a DVD to take home with them.

The student researchers all agree that the final community dinner was a powerful moment for each of them. Weinronk adds another, recalling fondly their 4th of July experience participating in community celebrations, such as dance performances, pageants, and tug-of-war contests. Afterwards, they joined community members for a bonfire on the beach.

“At that point,” says Weinronk, “we were about a month into the project and we could hang out with the youth co-researchers as peers.”

Kotzebue residents celebrate the 4th of July in traditional dress.

Valenzuela recalls fondly another experience – a going away/birthday party for one of the youth co-researchers. “I got to celebrate with him and his family. In those moments, we could really connect on a personal level with our indigenous co-researchers.”

Back at UMass Amherst, Weinronk and Zhen continue to be involved in Wexler’s research, primarily in support of other program initiatives. Dr. Wexler and her colleagues are analyzing data from the pilot project before they draw any conclusions. “She’s working on a grant for that,” says Zhen. “They may try this program again in a different village, or even bring those villagers here.”

All three of her student researchers agree the experience was eye-opening.

“We’re all carrying on different pieces from the summer,” says Weinronk. “We met some pretty incredible people.”

“We learned a lot,” says Zhen. “I’m on a pre-med track where everything is science, science, science. My experiences made an impact on me in the way I work with people, and I’m even more strongly interested in taking a holistic medicine approach. I’m going to take a gap year, and it’s influenced me in thinking about how I want to approach those years before I apply to med school.”

“I would want to take my epidemiology research into a community-based project,” says Valenzuela. “It sounds easy when you read it in an academic paper, but when you get into it it’s a totally different experience. The youth we worked with gave us a completely different perspective on what life is like outside of Amherst, in an Alaska Native community.”

“IDEA is built on resilience and the capacity of a community to affect change,” says Weinronk. “I learned how important it is to look to leaders who are actively engaged in making change in their own communities. I learned a lot about the kind of attention it requires and the importance and necessity of doing work that is truly community-based in order to create sustainable change.”

Project IDEA is supported by National Science Foundation NSF ARC Award Number 1219344 and the Canadian Institutes of Health CIHR Team Grant: The Evidence-Base for Promoting Mental Wellness and Resilience to Address Suicide in Circumpolar Communities program, entitled: Research RASP: Resilience and Suicide Prevention project.