A string of paper figures.

Experiential Learning Builds Connection Across Generations

A public health storytelling project tackles community, wellness, connection, and perspective by pairing UMass Amherst students with older adults.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, supporting student success through experiential learning opportunities is a priority. Known as "high-impact practices"—which can include project-based learning, community-based learning, or undergraduate research—these courses and programs have several features in common. They promote active engagement. They involve collaboration, both in and out of classroom settings. Students are asked to take responsibility for their learning, while faculty members often assume coaching and mentoring roles. Research has linked high-impact practices to greater gains in learning and retention compared to traditional instruction. High-impact practices can also help students develop skills that are essential in career settings.

One such course, led by Gloria DiFulvio, faculty member and undergraduate program director of the public health sciences major, gives real-world context to a hidden public health problem by pairing students with older adults to participate in documented conversations that lead to the development of personal connections and community engagement. Partnering with Northampton Neighbors, a nonprofit that provides services and support for older adults, UMass Amherst public health students take these conversations and contribute them to a storytelling project called “The Epidemic of Loneliness: On Connection, Belonging, and Public Health.”

How Does Connection Affect Well-being?

The seeds for "The Epidemic of Loneliness" were planted just before the pandemic when DiFulvio read a book by Dr. Vivek H. Murthy—19th and 21st (current) Surgeon General of the United States. In Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Murthy makes a case for loneliness as a public health concern: a cause and contributor to drug and alcohol addiction, violence, depression, anxiety, and ultimately, a detriment to the greater good. 

Being connected to others gives us a stake in more than our own interests. It expands those interests to include our whole community and thus increases our motivation to work together. 

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness
Gloria DuFulvio
Gloria DiFulvio

“In public health,” explains DiFulvio, “a central part of health is social connection, that feeling of belonging, that sense that you matter in the world.” Looking at the UMass public health curriculum, she identified the need for a program that addressed these issues. DiFulvio—who has extensive experience implementing mixed methods to evaluate health and human service programs—didn’t want the course to focus on social connection through a strictly theoretical lens. She designed “The Epidemic of Loneliness"—rooted in Murthy’s book—to allow students to experience the public health field as they might in the real world during their careers, giving them the “opportunity to connect and to actualize that connection,” and expose them to “different perspectives” beyond their own.


Coming Together through Storytelling

It’s perhaps obvious that many older adults experience loneliness, but a more surprising fact is that college-age adults report feeling high levels of loneliness (a state exacerbated by digital life and the dearth of social rites necessitated by the pandemic). The overall well-being of both groups is affected by feelings of isolation, which can lead to more serious issues.

With this in mind, DiFulvio decided to pair each student one-on-one with someone of an older generation. She reached out to Northampton Neighbors, a community-focused organization that offers support to older adults. “We jumped right on it!” says Diane Porcella, director of Northampton Neighbors. Older adults are “our knowledge keepers, but we kind of want to keep them off to the side,” Porcella laments. “They lose their visibility. They lose their message. They lose their ability to be seen.” DiFulvio sees storytelling as a way to address that.

Over the course of a semester, UMass Amherst students meet and engage in conversations with Northampton Neighbors members. These meetings culminate in a reciprocal interview in which both student and older adult share stories that are recorded and contributed to the larger project. In the classroom, students unpack their experiences with each other, examining the importance of connection in society and in their own lives. “It has really opened my eyes,” reveals Raluca Buhaescu, a senior public health and communication major. “Everybody is feeling this, and we should be talking about it more.”

Dennis Bidwell and Raluca Buhaescu
Dennis Bidwell and Raluca Buhaescu

Buhaescu was paired with Dennis Bidwell, a retired fundraising consultant and former member of the Northampton City Council. Working with nonprofits, community and connection were woven through Bidwell’s career, and he often had opportunities to meet and mentor college-age adults. It was this absence of connecting with a younger generation that first drew him to participate in DiFulvio’s project. “It’s been really enjoyable to have young people show some curiosity in my experiences,” explains Bidwell, who’s been paired with two students across two semesters (so far). They participated in rich conversations that caused him to reflect on his own college days, which involved Vietnam-era anti-war organizing. “It was interesting to realize that a twenty-one-year-old wanted to know more about the particular historical events back then, but also just what it was like to be facing the possibility of being drafted,” says Bidwell. Through this project, Bidwell identified a parallel between the experience of having a “personal stake” in how larger political issues played out and the anxieties experienced by students today, especially around climate change and abortion rights.

Retired teacher and coach Linda Castronovo had a similar realization when she was paired with Brooke Medeiros, a senior planning to attend physician assistant school after graduation. “I certainly did not feel 40 years older than Brooke,” recalls Castronovo. “While our college experiences are decades apart, I think many of the concerns of today’s college students are similar to what my concerns were in the 1980s.”

Gloria DiFulvio and participants in the "Epidemic of Loneliness" project on New England Public Media's Connecting Point.


From Theory to Practice

A high-impact practice in the area of service and community-based learning—as defined by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)—"The Epidemic of Loneliness" uses field-based experiential learning with community partners as its instructional strategy.

Looking back on her coursework as a public health major, Buhaescu says “The Epidemic of Loneliness” stands out. “We are actually taking what we're discussing and putting those things into practice,” she points out. “I think a lot can be learned from reading articles and being in the classroom, but it’s different when you go out into the world.” Medeiros agrees: “I’ve never seen a course where you will engage with the community unless it's research,” she explains, making the distinction between collecting information as data and “listening to a person and hearing their life journey.”

The far-reaching, community impact and unique model of DiFulvio’s project have garnered attention; "The Epidemic of Loneliness" has been featured on New England Public Media’s Connecting Point and on WHMP.



Forging Intergenerational Bonds

“I don’t know what DiFulvio’s matchmaking process is, but we had a lot in common,” says Bidwell, who remains in touch with the student he paired with during his first semester participating in the project. He foresees maintaining communication with Buhaescu as well, and they recently met for coffee. Castronovo recalls the effortless conversations she shared with Medeiros, who she now considers a friend. She describes her as “honest, brave, and vulnerable,” saying, “maybe I have more life experience, but certainly not more wisdom.”

This story was originally published in December 2022.

A group of students roasting marshmallows around a firepit at a previous PondFire event.

At UMass Amherst, we know many of our students experience feelings of loneliness, struggle with their mental health, or have difficulty balancing academic and personal lives. In support of making well-being part of everyday life in order to help them thrive, the Campus Life and Wellbeing collaborative connects students to practical resources for academic, emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual well-being.