Can Building Hope Help College Students Succeed?

UMass Amherst nurse researcher seeks to identify therapeutic targets to improve students’ mental health
Stephanie Griggs
Stephanie Griggs

AMHERST, Mass. – Why do some college students succeed and others fall short?

Stephanie Griggs, a University of Massachusetts Amherst clinical assistant professor of nursing, is picking away at that multifaceted conundrum with research about the differences in hope, emotional well-being and academic performance, among other factors, by race and gender in first-year students.

“I love asking complex, burning questions that are not easy to answer,” says Griggs, who as a first-generation college student herself understands the range of challenges so many students face. “Why is one student able to succeed who doesn’t have the resources or that strong GPA background and academic preparation, when you may have a student who has all those advantages but they don’t succeed? What are the underlying factors that go along with success?”

In research published in Nursing Forum, Griggs discusses results of a cross-sectional, anonymous survey of 495 freshmen at a large public university in the Northeast. She hopes the results will lead to a greater understanding of the role hope plays in promoting mental health among diverse college students, especially during the often-stressful transition to college. The data may also help researchers design interventions to target hope in college students, taking into account racial and gender differences.

“We spend a lot of time on intelligence and trying to increase knowledge, but how do we cultivate motivation and increase people’s hope – because I think that is at the core of success and what drives people,” Griggs says.

She conducted the research as part of her PhD dissertation at UMass Medical School, along with statistician Sybil Crawford, professor; Carol Bova, dissertation chair and professor; and Donna Perry, associate professor, at the Graduate School of Nursing at UMass Medical School. In addition to teaching pediatrics, writing and scholarship courses at UMass Amherst, Griggs is a postdoctoral fellow in the self and family management of complex chronic conditions training program at Yale University.

The survey used scales of three protective factors – hope, a global self-concept measure known as core self-evaluations (CSE) and emotional well-being – and assessed three health risk behaviors – alcohol use, drug use and sexual risk taking. Demographic data and GPA were also gathered.

Among the findings: There were no significant differences in academic performance by race; however, men reported a lower mean GPA than women. Hope and health risk behaviors did not differ by gender; however, men reported higher emotional well-being and CSE than women.

The survey found racial differences in hope, CSE, emotional well-being and health risk behaviors. Caucasians reported the highest health risk behaviors, as well as the highest hope and CSE. African Americans reported the highest emotional well-being, followed by Hispanics, Caucasians, Asians and “other race.”

The survey involved 331 females, 161 males and three reporting “other gender” in the second semester of their freshman year. The sampling was “generally similar” to the target population regarding gender and race, with a slight overrepresentation of women, Hispanics, African Americans and Asians.

Though hope and related factors still need to be looked at in larger population samples, Griggs says her survey offers something to build on. For her study, she used Synder’s Hope Theory, which defines hope as a combination of agency and pathways thinking. In other words, students need to have the motivation and the ability to visualize various routes to a particular goal. “They have a plan B and a plan C,” Griggs explains. “They’re thinking about what to do to overcome challenges ahead of time.”

Perhaps hope can be enhanced in “booster sessions” that help students develop pathways thinking and learn “cognitive goal mapping” to create a guide for their goals, potential roadblocks and pathways thinking, Griggs says. “Taking a cognitive approach and putting it down on paper makes it all tangible,” she says.

She also believes strongly in peer support networks. “I can see students leaning on each other and supporting each other, sharing ideas when they have similar challenges.”