Facilitating connection to enhance college student well-being: Evaluation of a new experiential group program.

Costello, M. A., Nagel, A. G., Hunt, G. L., Rivens, A. J., Hazelwood, O. A., Pettit, C., & Allen, J. (2022). Facilitating connection to enhance college student well-being: Evaluation of an experiential group program. American Journal of Community Psychology. 


Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Many youths who transition into college have to adapt to a new setting and its associated cultures, expectations, & stressors.
  • Given the amount of navigation youths have to do upon entering college, it can complicate their sense of self and connectedness to the community. This can, in turn, harm youths’ sense of belonging.
  • This study assessed the effectiveness of a relationship-focused intervention called The Connection Project, which aimed to promote well-being and school belongingness among new college students.
  • Supportive peer relationships and experiential programming can promote new college students’ sense of belongingness and reduce their depressive & loneliness symptoms.
  • Participants felt an increased sense of belonging, even when they were remote.
  • The intervention had a more significant effect on students from marginalized backgrounds.
  • This study demonstrates that interventions can effectively be conducted online and serve as the first line for addressing college students’ mental health.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

This randomized controlled trial examined the impact of The Connection Project, an experiential, relationship-focused intervention designed to improve school belongingness and decrease symptoms of depression and loneliness among new college students. Participants were 438 first year and transfer students (232 treatment, 206 waitlist control) at a medium sized, 4 years, predominantly White public university in the Southeastern United States. At postintervention, the treatment group reported significant relative increases in school belonging and significant relative reductions in levels of loneliness and depressive symptoms in comparison to waitlist‐controls. Program effects were stronger for students from marginalized racial or ethnic backgrounds, students from lower socioeconomic status households, and transfer students. Results are interpreted as suggesting the utility of experiential, peer‐support prevention programming to promote college students’ well‐being, particularly college students who hold identities that are traditionally disadvantaged in this context.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

This study found that The Connection Project was successful in fostering belongingness and reducing loneliness and depressive symptoms among new college students. Program effects were stronger for students from socially marginalized groups: students from minoritized racial or ethnic backgrounds demonstrated greater reductions in loneliness than White students; students from lower SES backgrounds demonstrated greater reductions in depressive symptoms than students from higher SES backgrounds; and transfer students demonstrated increased belongingness and greater reductions in loneliness and depressive symptoms than first‐year college students. Importantly, this suggests that not only does The Connection Project have significant potential to support students’ well‐being during the transition to a new university, but also that it may be particularly useful for groups of students who may be at disproportionate risk for loneliness, depressive symptoms, and reduced sense of belonging to their university due to marginalization within the university context based on representation within that context. Additionally, follow‐up analyses suggested that students who attended more frequently demonstrated slightly more benefit to belongingness from the intervention. Notably, these findings were identified during the Spring 2020 and Fall 2020 semesters, which were marked by immense stress and uncertainty regarding the COVID‐19 pandemic and necessitated online implementation.

This study is the second to examine The Connection Project’s ability to promote well-being among college students. In a previous pilot study, The Connection Project demonstrated promise in facilitating a sense of belongingness to the university among groups of students, even during a mid‐semester shift to mandated remote education (Costello et al., In Press). The current study now provides strong evidence that the program not only affects students’ sense of belonging at their institution, but also has direct effects on two markers of student well‐being: levels of loneliness and levels of depressive symptoms. These impacts suggest a significant primary prevention potential for the program, given that these two indicators of difficulty are among the top reasons for referrals to university mental health centers (Bruffaerts et al., 2018).

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