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Pandemic Priorities: Students' Stories

A gallery photo of Dr. Tiffany Baffour and Dr. Jason CastilloSometimes a research study springs forth from a single conversation.  This spring, University of Utah College of Social Work associate professors and program directors Tiffany Baffour and Jason Castillo had a conversation about how their students were doing.  In the middle of a pandemic, they had concerns about their students’ well-being.  Dr. Baffour explained, “We wanted to have a better understanding of the challenges our students were facing and how we, as a College, could work to ensure students’ needs were being met.”

So, they followed up that conversation with action.  They found literature that discussed how universities and students responded to natural crises—earthquakes, hurricanes, floods—but there was no data about pandemics similar to COVID-19.  In May, they crafted a set of survey questions designed to understand undergraduate and graduate social work students’ perceptions of how various entities—the University and College, the community, and local, state, and federal governments—responded to COVID-19, as well as the impact COVID-19 has had on their physical and psychological health, well-being, and academic performance.  Additionally, they held four focus groups to deepen their understanding of how the students were accessing campus services. They also wanted to understand specific barriers and supports students were experiencing related to academic success.

The results of the survey and focus groups are still being analyzed, but even in the initial analysis, some very important themes emerged.  One is the students’ desire to continue investing in both their education and their future profession.  “Students overwhelmingly talked about wanting to return to face-to-face classes, to have that in-person experience,” said Dr. Baffour.  “I remember in one of the focus groups I facilitated, one student commented they’d rather come to class in a hazmat suit than end that aspect of their educational experience.  Students want to be safe, but they also want to be in the classroom.” 

Another theme was the students’ desire to be in their practicum placements.  They had developed relationships of trust with their clients and wanted to continue to support them during a very harrowing set of circumstances.  “This speaks volumes of our students,” Dr. Castillo reflected.  “They want to be out there doing this work.”

This is the fourth disaster through which Dr. Baffour has been a mental health practitioner and social work educator.  She’s learned a lot through those previous experiences, but one thing stands out.  On September 11th, 2001, Dr. Baffour was a doctoral student and instructor at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  She recalled, “The advice my mentor gave me is something that I continue to share with my students: You need to be there to support your clients.  You can’t support them unless you’re taking care of yourself.  You have to focus on your own self-care so that you can do a good job for your clients as well.”

Education around self-care in the face of trauma was another theme.  Previous research data shows that in other natural crises, students use services more after the crisis than they did before.  The preliminary data of Dr. Baffour and Dr. Castillo’s study suggests that utilization of University and College resources remained unchanged due to COVID-19.  What did change were the external stressors students were facing—things like housing, income, and childcare.  With all those additional difficulties, students said they needed more information about self-care and burnout, suggesting a curricular change both Dr. Baffour and Dr. Castillo are enthusiastic about.  “As educators, it’s important that we help students understand how to navigate not only their own trauma, but the secondary trauma they’re experiencing through their clients,” said Dr. Baffour. “As we move as a society, this pandemic will subside, but other things will come up.” 

Dr. Castillo is excited for other curricular and program changes that studies like this can bring.  “How can our curriculum change to help better prepare our students?  What skills do they need to work with individuals, families, groups, and communities in moments of crisis?  How can the College serve as a leader in building capacity?  What role can we have in helping the broader community to be more prepared?” 

Though this started with one conversation, Drs. Baffour and Castillo hope is it leads to many more. “It’s findings from studies like this,” said Dr. Castillo, “that help us move the conversation forward so we can do better the next time around.”

Research in Focus: Student Researchers

Social work PhD student Kyle Rehn and recent MSW graduate Lindsay Marchant participated in this research project in a different way than their peers.  “One of the more fulfilling aspects of doing research in a university setting is being able to engage student researchers in the process,” said Dr. Castillo.  “Our students bring unique perspectives to our work that, in this case, really strengthened our finished project.” 

Dr. Baffour added, “Our student researchers were a huge benefit to our team.  We wouldn’t have been able to do this project so quickly without them.”

Reflecting on what he’s learned in this process, Mr. Rehn noted, “This experience laid an immense foundation for how I understand the process and methods for conducting meaningful and publication-worthy research.  Dr. Baffour and Dr. Castillo have been amazing.  They have both played a crucial role in guiding me through the process, techniques, and methods that are necessary to conduct a well-thought-out study and prepare for publication in academic journals.  I am truly thankful for this opportunity and the immense experience that this research has had on my academic and professional development.”

Ms. Marchant was also grateful for what she learned through this process.  “One of the most important things I have gained from being a part of this study has been contributing to all the phases of the research.  I have had opportunities to be part of other studies, but only contributed to certain parts.  It has been really amazing to watch the study morph from brainstormed ideas to an actual research article.”  She continued, “I have learned more about how to work with peers.  Dr. Baffour also does a really good job at realizing the strengths of her colleagues and collaborating with them to get more of a perspective.  Working with both Dr. Baffour and Dr. Castillo on this study has been exceptional—even while working with time restraints, it has been low-stress.”



Last Updated: 4/14/21