Kristen Wilson wanted to figure out how to combat the increasing mental health struggles seen in students as the COVID-19 pandemic stretched on.
In her last semester in the Wilmington University Prevention Science program, Wilson has whittled that topic down to focus on community college students for her doctoral dissertation.
Prevention science uses statistics and studies to create programs that will reduce risk factors in a community and help them protect people by helping them avoid elements that contribute to the problem.
It’s a field that’s drawn much more interest since the pandemic began.
Rather than reacting to or providing treatment in the aftermath of an issue, such as homlessness, preventive science can offer solutions to make those things more avoidable in the first place.
Instructors said WilmU’s Prevention Science program is one of a kind because it’s exclusively offered online and can be completed in just two-and-a-half years.
“It’s not your traditional PhD program because it’s more action research,” said Dr. Edward Guthrie, dean of the university’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “You can look at a problem and in a shorter period of time have the skill set to empirically look at it, evaluate it, work with the community, build that coalition, and then make recommendations and implement them to help resolve that issue or work on it.”
Dr. Debra Berke, director of psychology/organizational dynamics programs, likes to call it a “weed and seed” approach.
Although the weed and seed approach originated as a Department of Justice program focused on crime control and prevention, Berke said, some general strategies can be adopted for other community-based prevention such as substance abuse prevention, suicide prevention, teen pregnancy prevention, and youth violence prevention.
“We want to weed out those bad things in our society that aren’t promoting healthy growth and development, and we want to seed in positive predictive factors like knowledge and skills and attitudes, values, beliefs, policies and procedures, those kinds of things,” Berke said.
Both Wilson and Berke described prevention science as a soft science.
“I don’t mean that in a negative way,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of industries who are not familiar with this, or they’re uncomfortable talking about these sorts of things because culture change is scary. So our goal is to take some of this and translate it into a way that other industries can understand it and respond to it.”
Another unique factor of the Wilmington University program, Berke said, is it’s a doctor of social science, not a PhD program.
The program is meant for professionals, and the coursework is structured in a manner to fit into the schedules of students, who are often working full-time jobs while working on the degree.
The program started in 2018 with the goal of preparing students to help bring prosperity, knowledge and nobility to the communities they live in.
But the university sees “community” as something much more meaningful than just a set geographical location.
“Community can include a neighborhood, a larger urban area, a particular demographic (i.e. looking at alcohol exposure with adolescents), a rural area, or a discipline/profession,” Guthrie said. “There are a number of communities and populations that experience challenges.”
“WilmU’s Prevention Science Program gives you those enhanced durable skills, problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and interpersonal communication,” Guthrie said, “but at a different level so that you can help build community coalitions to help work on community and neighborhood problems.”
Examples of Prevention Science
One example of the kind of work in the program is a student who worked on a project that looked at challenging childhood experiences such as poverty, domestic violence, abuse and homelessness, and how that can help programs that reintroduce incarcerated people into society be as successful as possible.
One of the research points in this case was looking at which programs lower or increase the recidivism rate.
The student evaluated how the state could adjust those programs to lower the rate.
She said that one recent graduate has started an executive position in a community organization that positively impacts individuals re-integrating with family, friends and the community after incarceration, with one goal of preventing recidivism.
Another graduate began a position with a federal organization that tracks and analyzes conditions that have resulted in childhood deaths to develop prevention interventions.
Wilson, who’s also the director of social services at Rowan College of South Jersey, said a colleague of hers in the WilmU program is writing a dissertation about substance abuse prevention and how organizations who deal with that were impacted by the pandemic.
Another example of what goes on in the classroom, Guthrie said, is looking at the opioid crisis and analyzing how it’s affecting various neighborhoods in the state differently.
Say you’re in a rural area, like parts of Sussex County, Guthrie said, what services or resources are available for opioid prevention and education, and how can people get access to them?
In this example, students research how many prescriptions for opioids are given and whether information/educational materials are given to the patient outlining the potential for addiction or abuse.
Once that research is conducted, students in the program focus on how those resources could be improved to help more people addicted to prescription opioids.
Those who study prevention science classes start with introductions into what the science is and how to build a foundation of research.
They then work on applied research methods, choosing an area of interest to study using different approaches such as qualitative and quantitative research.
A qualitative approach focuses on personal accounts and documentation that show how an individual or group acts.
A quantitative approach, on the other hand, relies on measurable data to form conclusions.
During guided study classes, students work on their own project and learn independently with feedback from a mentor.
They also study inquiry research, which gives the student the chance to research a topic they’ve chosen, create theories about how to help and present an argument to address that real-world issue.
Students will pitch a project proposal to their project chair who will guide them in their work.
Each year brings two new groups of around 17-20 students who enroll in the program.
WilmU has partnered with community organizations such as the Delaware Department of Health and Human Services, Beebe Healthcare, the Department of Correction and others to help provide workforce development training customized to the needs of those organizations.
This includes trauma-informed training and teaching de-escalation practices, for example.
Wilson is now finishing her last semester and working on her dissertation.
It is a qualitative study that focuses on community college students’ mental health and how substantial a factor it is in obtaining their degrees and pursuing higher education.
She said the goal of the dissertations is typically to provide solutions or recommendations to fix the problem at hand.
For her project, some of the solutions she’s offered are providing trauma-informed professional development to teachers and increasing mental health awareness and services at a classroom level.
Wilson isn’t sure how she’ll use her degree.
“I’ve thought about teaching, but I’m definitely leaning more into the consultant side,” she said.
She said her mission is to help certain institutions understand that solutions are out there and achievable, and she hopes to help implement those proposed solutions to improve the lives of future generations.
Raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Jarek earned a B.A. in journalism and a B.A. in political science from Temple University in 2021. After running CNN’s Michael Smerconish’s YouTube channel, Jarek became a reporter for the Bucks County Herald before joining Delaware LIVE News.
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