Author: Adiki Puplampu
Date: 03 August 2023
Since the early days of the ELITE Program for Black Youth, mental health and wellness have been at the heart of our program structure. So, when Madison Dabbs-Petty, the Wellness Coordinator/Counselor for the Wellness and Coaching Series and doctoral student in Educational Psychology at the University of Alberta, presented a poster at the Canadian Psychological Association Conference in June, it was the realization of not only the hard work of the Wellness and Coaching team but also a testament to the ELITE Program’s commitment to research innovation. Madison’s presentation to a Toronto audience of psychology professionals was the culmination of over a year of work with ELITE Program interns and a major research deliverable for the Wellness and Coaching Series.
The Wellness and Coaching team is led by Dr. Sophie Yohani, professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Alberta. She is supported by Madison and Evan Essapa, a new member of the team, who are the intern-facing staff. The group is rounded out by two graduate students who provide research support. As a team composed of master’s and doctoral students in psychology, each member experiences crossover between their academic work and the work they do for the series. For Madison, a first year PhD student with a background in sociology, working with the ELITE Program closely aligns with her values as both a counseling psychologist and a researcher interested in minority identities.
At the ELITE Program, we know that success as an innovator and entrepreneur comes with an undeniable set of stressors. For interns preparing to enter demanding STEMM fields, the ability to manage the stresses of a dynamic career is critical. Through the Wellness and Coaching Series, our goal is to equip interns with the wellness tools they need to successfully navigate the emotional and structural challenges associated with their future careers.
For Black youth, who may come from families where mental health is not discussed and mental health resources are not accessed, this education is particularly important. From culture to historical mistrust of healthcare systems, there are myriad reasons why Black communities shy away from discussing mental health.
“I think it's, it's hard for us to sometimes vocalize the, I guess, the mental health issues that people within the community may face because we're always seen as, “Oh they can tough it out. They're, they're strong. They're all this, they don’t need this. They don't need the support because they're so strong. And I think that that's something that's very much worrisome because it's kind of disregards the fact that Black people are also human and we're also going through tough times, you know?”
- Anonymous ELITE Intern
Madison considers it essential that ELITE Program interns have wellness knowledge because of their generally overachieving nature. High achieving students will often neglect their mental health when faced with demanding workloads and periods of stress. Madison sees the Wellness and Coaching Series as an opportunity to give these students tools to tune into themselves and build practical toolkits of personal care, creating a foundation that will hopefully inform how they approach their mental wellbeing for years to come. By learning these skills early in their careers, interns have more time to practice them so that as their professional and academic lives increase in intensity, they have familiar tools to fall back on.
Before Madison and Evan joined the ELITE Program, the Wellness and Coaching Series was piloted by Dr. Yohani and a small team. When Madison came aboard in 2022, the program’s second year, she took on the enormous responsibility of running all the small group sessions for the undergraduate and high school interns. This year she overhauled the program’s teaching materials for visual engagement and to reflect feedback from previous cohorts. Along with established material on concepts like mindfulness, stress, and microaggressions, the curriculum this year includes more content about work-life balance. Madison also works alongside the team’s research assistants to analyze the data gathered from qualitative and quantitative evaluations completed by interns.
There are two main goals of the research conducted through the Wellness and Coaching Series. The first is to understand the series on an evaluative level, to understand if the program delivery is truly effective. The second main goal is to understand what the Series offers and what it demonstrates about wellness and the Black community more broadly.
To conduct their research, the Wellness and Coaching team has interns complete a questionnaire before, during, and after the series. The purpose of these questionnaires is to gauge interns’ familiarity with the Series curriculum. Last year, the team found a noteworthy increase in intern knowledge of Series subject matter. In addition to the questionnaires, last year the team conducted semi-structured interviews with a small group of interns who volunteered their time to answer more in-depth questions about their experience in the Series. The responses from these interviews were thematically analyzed by Madison and McKenna Gawalko, one of the research assistants on the Wellness and Coaching team. From both the quantitative and qualitative research results, Madison and McKenna developed an evaluative report for the series. The contents of this report formed some of the material for Madison’s poster presentation.
This year, the wellness team is focused on exploring the concept of hope. Dr. Yohani is specifically interested in understanding the relationship between hope and agency as they relate to intern mindsets.
“...Hope isn’t pretty or dainty. It's… hard-fought and it's a struggle. But I think that that's really the way I view hope as well… I call it hope at the same time as this “assurance of things hoped for and not seen.” And I think that's really beautiful in the sense that as like, I'm just 16 and I don't really know where I'm going with life. But I have this faith that things are going to work out all right and things are going to be okay.”
- Anonymous ELITE Program Intern
After two cohorts, the Wellness and Coaching Series is a well-oiled machine, educating interns while also producing insightful research. Now in the midst of their third cohort, the team is already gathering fascinating research findings and equipping yet another group of aspiring researchers, innovators, and entrepreneurs with the skills they need to sustain their mental wellbeing for the bright futures ahead of them.