Empowering Students for Healthier Relationships
Kwynn Gonzalez-Pons has been working at the intersection of health, technology, and gender-based violence for years. It started in her master’s program. She was working on a Master of Public Health degree and one of her professors had just published a report about gender-based victimization in homeless women. She read the report, emailed the professor, and was hired almost right away as a research assistant. “I have no idea why,” said Kwynn. “I had literally no experience with research. That’s really embarrassing to admit as a doc student now, but that’s how far I’ve come in the last six years.”
Kwynn got right to work assisting with a grant the professor had received to develop a technology-enhanced screening and support tool for health care providers to use with clients, helping them screen for interpersonal violence (IPV). “The impetus for the grant was to address a very real gap,” said Kwynn. “Healthcare professionals interface with people who are in active, harmful relationships, all the time. But often, providers either don't know how to identify it, so they don't provide the right resources, or they don't want to engage with it because they're afraid of saying the wrong thing. There are a lot of barriers that explain why intervention is not going well in that space.”
The project was designed to use a multifaceted approach; work with providers to dispel myths about gender-based violence, educate health care providers on potential warning signs of domestic violence, and train them in how to offer resources and what resources would be most helpful. During the day, she worked as a health advocate on that project, while also volunteering as a victim advocate at a rape crisis center.
It was a lot, which is why Kwynn shifted gears professionally, but it’s where things really started to come together for her. “That project is my origin story.”
Since then, the ways she engages with the health/technology/gender-based violence intersection have changed, but that focus is still there. And it’s still a lot.
Now a PhD candidate at the University of Utah College of Social Work, Kwynn’s dissertation project has three main components. First, she did a qualitative study looking at the empowerment process model with college students who have experienced relationship abuse. The theory behind the study suggests that people will move from a place of being disempowered to being empowered through a goal-oriented process. “Understandably, a lot of research in this area focuses on the negative aspects of intimate partner violence,” she said. “I felt drawn to this research because I wanted to consider if there is a piece of these experiences that’s positive in some way.” To explore this, she did interviews with 18 college students who had, or were in the middle of, experiences of relationship abuse. Though their specific circumstances varied, similar themes emerged:
- My partner tried to control who I could/couldn’t see.
- My partner didn’t respect my boundaries.
- My partner would blame me for their negative actions or behaviors.
Kwynn took these themes and rewrote them—reframing them as positive goal statements:
- I want to have control over my life, including what friends I have and when I hang out with them.
- I want my boundaries to be respected—physically, sexually, and through technology.
- I want my partner to be accountable for their actions.
By taking student experiences and re-writing them into personally focused goal statements, Kwynn hopes to help students move toward empowerment. “Ultimately, I hope these goal statements are incorporated into advocacy with students. These are something a counselor could pull out and say ‘These are things that a lot of college students say are important to them in their lives right now. Does any of that resonate with you?’ This could be a way to start that conversation and help connect students to resources.”
The second part of Kwynn’s dissertation, a quantitative study that is just about to wrap up, is a randomized control trial that helps students identify possible safety-related needs through an online interaction decision aid. “Safety planning is a tool used by advocates when people are in unhealthy and unsafe situations, but not everyone is going to seek care in a brick and mortar place or have access to an advocate. This tool can be accessed on the web or as an app, so it’s highly accessible to whomever might need it.” Kwynn went on to explain that once someone starts MyPlan, the tool prompts them to answer questions about their relationship. Once they’ve answered everything, they’re given a “health rating” for their relationship. Depending on how healthy or unhealthy the relationship is, and in what ways, the program gives them a tailored safety plan.
If you download the app now, it gives out phone numbers and resources for national organizations. But with seed grant funding from the College of Social Work, Kwynn worked with developers to change that to University of Utah and Salt Lake County resources. “This makes the app more relevant to our local community,” she said. “Providing local resources that people can easily access removes another barrier for those who need help.” While her qualitative study looked at empowerment as a process, this quantitative study looks at empowerment as an outcome. Students will be randomly assigned to either go through the app questionnaire or to review a control resource. Kwynn will then measure whether students who access the app score higher on safety-related empowerment.
Do you know someone who is experiencing intimate partner violence? Are you in need of support? One of these places can help.
- For after-hours emergencies, contact the 24/7 Crisis Line: 801-587-3000.
- 24-hour LINKLine 1-800-897-5465,
- 24/7 Crisis Line 801-467-7273
- Download the app for Apple, Android, or through the browser app to create a personalized plan for your situation
- Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor 24/7
- Call 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678 to connect with an LGBTQ+ friendly counselor 24/7/365
Once the first two parts of the project are done, the third study will examine the results and see what is unique about relationship abuse within the college context. There are multiple reasons she wanted to study this specific group in the population. “I’ve been in college of a long time, she said,” and I’ve had a lot of peers that have disclosed being in abusive relationships. I want to be part of empowering people in situations like that to protect themselves, to take their safety into account and have the healthiest relationships they can have. And I feel like that’s not where violence prevention has been on college campuses.”
“This work is personal for me,” said Kwynn. “I’ve had a lot of friends who have been in unhealthy or abusive relationships.” Given the events of October 2018, this is also personal for many students on the University of Utah campus. “What happened with Lauren McCluskey really influenced my decision to study this,” Kwynn explained. “Seeing everything Lauren tried to do and was still failed [by those tasked to help her]. That’s stuck with me.” Kwynn had been planning to focus her dissertation on her other great passion issue, human trafficking, but after Lauren’s homicide, felt compelled to pivot. “I’ll never forget that and I don’t think anyone who was here during that time will. We were all impacted by that. I didn’t know Lauren, and I didn’t have a chance to help Lauren. But there are other Laurens—other students who are in these situations that we can have an impact on. I want to have a role in that.”
Future Directions in Research
In addition to her doctoral work, Kwynn is also an advisory board member for the University of Utah’s McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention. “We have a lot of great resources on campus for intervening and for aftercare, but we’re specifically focused on the prevention piece at the Center,” she explained. Her work as co-chair of the Patterns of Perpetration working group is particularly important to her. “Less than probably 15 percent of research in this area focuses on perpetration. Most research focuses on victimization and risk factors of victimization,” said Kwynn, “But that’s backwards. If we want to stop perpetration, we should look at perpetration behaviors, and who's perpetrating. We need to ask, what are the risk factors and protective factors for perpetration?” Through this group, Kwynn is putting together a proposal to launch a long-term study on what modifiable behaviors can be targeted to reduce perpetration and what that looks like for the U campus.