Young, Gifted & Advancing

Marjorie Malpiede / January 13, 2020

A Steve Fund event at Georgetown University

The Steve Fund launched in 2014 as a national resource—and leading voice —on the mental health of college students of color. Since then, it has made significant contributions to both young adult mental health and higher education.

From its ground-breaking research on the unique dynamics affecting students of color, to its Equity in Mental Health Framework, to its ongoing programming, the Steve Fund provides resources, critical data on and informed strategy to better serve the emotional and behavioral health of college students of color, now making up 42% of all enrolled students in America.

One of the organization’s goals is to create and sustain a robust national dialogue about the mental health and emotional wellbeing of students of color today.

Its Young, Gifted & @Risk series has succeeded in doing so with creative programs throughout the country that continue to remind stakeholders of the need for an intentional strategy aimed at supporting this population group.

On Nov. 1, 2019, the Steve Fund partnered with Georgetown University for a day-long series of presentations, panel discussions, and breakout sessions focused on creating successful learning environments for students of color.

Young, Gifted & Advancing was the second of the 2019 three-part series that was launched at the University of Michigan and culminated at The City University of New York. Its goal was to explore the link between mental health and persistence.

Steve Fund Board member Gordon Bell hosted the program and welcomed the 200 or so participants before introducing John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University. A nationally recognized leader in both social justice and student wellbeing, DeGioia said the school’s partnership with the Steve Fund was guided by their “shared commitment to engender flourishing in all of our young people.”

Flourishing—or thriving along multiple realms—is a frequently referenced concept at Georgetown and an appropriate description for what was a major theme of the event: that a person’s overall wellbeing takes on many forms and is intrinsically tied to the health or illness of his or her environment.

“At college, young people are forming identity at vulnerable moments which can be even more difficult for students of color where challenges can be higher,” DeGioia said. He urged all institutions to guide this formation with resources and information that allow all students to become “their most authentic selves.”

“Thanks to the Steve Fund, we are equipped with more data and information than we’ve ever had before,” he said.
The Steve Fund’s Senior Medical Director, Dr. Annelle Primm presented the organization’s latest work aimed at building knowledge and capacity among organizations serving young people of color. The Steve Fund’s workshops, curricula, training, and technical assistance support the research-backed recommendations set forth in the Equity in Mental Health Framework, a 10-dimension road map for colleges developed in conjunction with the JED Foundation.

The Framework was developed in response to research the Steve Fund and JED Foundation reported in 2017, which found that “students of color report greater feelings of isolation and a significantly reduced likelihood of seeking professional care for mental health and emotional wellbeing concerns than their white peers.”
Primm touted new research underway led by the Steve Fund and involving partnerships with the JED Foundation and the Healthy Minds Network. Now being piloted at 17 colleges, the study looks at contributing factors for mental health and emotional wellbeing for students of color, now embedded into the widely-utilized Healthy Minds Survey.

For the keynote session, Dr. Sherry Molock, associate professor of clinical psychology at The George Washington University, was joined on stage by Dr. David Rivera, associate professor of counselor education at Queens College-CUNY. The two experts spoke on “Macro and Micro Climates: Challenges to and Protectors of Mental Health for Students of Color.”

They began the discussion with the assertion that the mental health of college students should be viewed from an ecological perspective, taking into account the relationships between the student, the institution, the community and the public, with the public holding a large degree of influence.

“We need to help de-pathologize the student by understanding they are the product of a larger sphere,” said Rivera. “In this scenario, it is the public sphere that is ill (with dynamics such as racism), not the student,” he continued.

Molock agreed, saying that, “In higher education, we often believe we are a closed environment—as if the larger environment doesn’t impact students.” She pointed to polarizing political rhetoric that has many campus community members feeling afraid. These fears exacerbate stressors and vulnerabilities that already exist for students of color, including a lack of belonging.

“Many members of marginalized communities feel as if they are not valued,” she said; “This is an invisible burden that they experience that is often not acknowledged.”

Both Molock and Rivera believe that to help overcome these invisible burdens, schools need to recognize they exist for students. Not doing so only makes schools complicit in the ongoing isolation these students feel.
“Colleges have to change in order to welcome the students who they ask to come here,” said Rivera.

During the response panel moderated by Dr. Adanna Johnson, associate vice president for Student Equity & Inclusion at Georgetown, panelists considered these messages from their own experiences.

Dr. Daniel Phillip, from IntraSpectrum Counseling, says that external factors are definitely a problem for many of the students he sees. “I always ask my clients—‘how did you get to college?’” he said.

Phillips believes campus community members have a role to play in helping all students thrive. He encourages faculty and staff to put students in the center instead of worrying about lack of training. “You are a human being,” he said. “You don’t have to be a mental health expert to help someone.”

On the response panel, Tawara Goode, Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics at Georgetown, said “Schools need to ask themselves—‘Is this campus welcoming or rejecting of students of color?’ Values have to align with what actually happens on campus at a policy-making level, at an administrative level and at a teaching level. Who is accountable for making sure we are living this?”

The third panelist, Jay Wang, is the Chairman of the Steve Fund’s Youth Advisory Board. He said that there are many ways that institutions can demonstrate inclusion, from academic changes that eliminate “weed out” courses to responding authentically to what happens on the physical site.

“When there is a racist incident on campus, the reaction from the school can’t just be ‘well racist acts do occur,’” he said; “When the school says that, we feel it is being complicit. We don’t feel we can trust them.”
These plenary discussions provided the foundation for a series of expert-led break-out sessions that allowed audience members to take a deeper dive into a range of related topics such as: The community college climate; the classroom experience and impact on learning; the role of faculty; religion, spirituality and intersectionality.

These 60-minute sessions provided practical learning opportunities for the conference attendees, leaving them with both food for thought and best practices to follow.