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Psychology doctoral students receive NSF fellowships to explore discrimination in school discipline, campus mental health

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Randl Dent and Ebony Lambert, doctoral students in the Health Psychology Program of the Psychology Department, will conduct research through the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

Two Virginia Commonwealth University doctoral students have been named recipients of prestigious three-year fellowships through the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

Ebony Lambert and Randl Dent, doctoral students in the Health Psychology Program of the Psychology Department in the College of Humanities and Sciences, were among 2,000 scholars pursuing master’s or doctoral degrees who were chosen by the NSF from more than 13,000 applicants.

Lambert, a first-year doctoral student who graduated from the College of William and Mary, received the fellowship for her research proposal to examine the impact of psychological mechanisms of bias on racial disparities in school outcomes.

“Research and national conversations regarding racial disparities in school outcomes have often painted black students as poor performers and troublemakers,” Lambert said. “When examining these disparities, educators and scholars sometimes blame black students themselves, their intellectual ability, community, values, home life, parents’ competence, and other aspects of their personal lives in a long list of individual-level factors for these disturbing and historically rooted national trends. My research adopts a social justice and educational equity approach that seeks to determine how schools are failing black students, as opposed to proliferating the idea that black students are failing in schools.”

Specifically, Lambert said, her research will investigate whether educators perceive black students as inherently less than human and whether such a perception would contribute to the racial disparities found in school disciplinary measures.

“Findings from this project will highlight the role of dehumanization in black students’ health and academic success from the educators’ perspective,” she said. “My next steps are to empirically investigate this process from the black students’ perspective in order to provide more comprehensive understandings of the effects of bias in academic settings.”

Dent, a second-year doctoral student who graduated from Washington and Lee University, was selected for her proposal to study the factors that may lead black college students to be less likely to take advantage of available mental health care services.

“On college campuses, there are many free or low-cost services that students can use when experiencing psychological distress,” Dent said. “However, research has consistently shown that black students are less likely than white students to seek help to address their psychological distress. This underutilization of mental health care services may exacerbate current racial disparities in education and health.”

Recent social psychological research, Dent said, has found that black Americans experience feature-based discrimination, or discrimination based on their physical facial features, in addition to group-based discrimination. For example, she said, black Americans with stronger Afrocentric features (such as darker skin and eye colors, wider nose, thicker lips, coarse hair) are treated more negatively than those with weaker Afrocentric features by not only racial outgroup members but also fellow black Americans.

“These findings suggest that black students may not prefer to see just any black [mental health] counselor, due to concerns over discrimination based on their Afrocentric features,” she said. “I hypothesize that black students would prefer to seek help from counselors with Afrocentric features most similar to their own. My research is examining whether there is evidence to support this hypothesis.”

Lambert and Dent are both under the mentorship of Nao Hagiwara, Ph.D., an assistant professor of health psychology, who runs VCU’s Discrimination and Health Research Lab, which investigates different aspects of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, and their relation to health outcomes.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowships are a testament to Lambert’s and Dent’s scholarship so far, as well as their potential for becoming successful researchers and teachers, Hagiwara said.

“Randl and Ebony both investigate serious social issues that impact so many people’s lives (i.e., health care disparities and educational disparities, respectively), and I believe their topics are timely given the current social and political climates,” she said. “The most significant contribution of their research to their respective fields is the integration of ‘theories of bias’ into applied research that often lack theoretical perspectives. I am so proud of Randl and Ebony for their accomplishments.”

Lambert became interested in studying racial disparities in schools as an undergraduate researcher when she explored explicit anti-black bias and notions of black inferiority in academic settings, with a focus on that discrimination’s impact on health and school outcomes for black students.

“Upon matriculation into graduate school and learning more about the school-to-prison pipeline, however, I became particularly interested in how specific psychological processes of bias influence the treatment and perceptions of black students,” she said. “Thus, the research that I will conduct through my NSF fellowship serves as a more targeted extension of my previous line of research, as it will investigate dehumanization of black students in the context of one specific and particularly pressing issue in schools — racial disparities in school disciplinary measures.”

Lambert said she hopes her NSF fellowship research will shine light on how psychological processes in teachers may influence students’ educational outcomes and contribute to racial disparities in schools.

“Once we identify the underlying mechanisms, we can develop theory-driven interventions to reduce the disparities and create heathier lives in all students,” she said. “Thus, this project will serve as the foundation for my program of research aimed at investigating how bias is brought into American classrooms and aims to establish bias as a factor that contributes largely to black students’ health outcomes and life trajectories.”

Dent, meanwhile, became interested in investigating mental health care utilization by black students while an undergraduate researcher studying how campus climate might affect the mental health of black students at predominantly white institutions. For her undergraduate sociology capstone project, she examined the links between positive youth experiences, adolescent depression and adolescent mental healthcare utilization.

Dent said she hopes her research project will ultimately lead universities to hire mental health counselors who adequately reflect the student population they serve.

“I hope that a greater diversity in the mental health care providers will lead to increased mental health care utilization by black students and students of other diverse backgrounds,” she said. “Students are looking for counselors that can understand their experiences and that they can feel comfortable talking to about the problems they are currently facing.”

She added that she hopes to present her research at VCU and other Virginia colleges and universities.

“This will hopefully increase the public’s awareness of the influence that feature-based bias may have on the help-seeking behaviors of black students, which is a critical first step in providing supportive outlets to black students,” she said. “In the long term, I hope that findings will also provide the foundation for future evidenced-based intervention research focusing on improving black mental health care utilization, which will ultimately reduce the pervasive educational and health disparities present in our country.”