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Vanessa Oppong's research highlights the importance of ethnic identity in promoting sexual health. (Photo illustration by University Relations)

Vanessa Oppong studies the importance of ethnic identity in promoting sexual health

The senior in VCU’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences is passionate about reducing health disparities, particularly those affecting African Americans.

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When it comes to practicing safe sex, African Americans with increased commitment to their ethnic identity are more likely to negotiate condom use with sexual partners and had greater condom self-efficacy — or confidence in one’s ability to use them consistently and correctly — according to research by Virginia Commonwealth University student Vanessa Oppong.

Oppong, a senior in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences, conducted the research as part of a fellowship last summer from VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and then continued this academic year under VCU’s Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation (iCubed).

“I am very passionate about the reduction of health disparities, particularly those affecting African American communities,” Oppong said.

Black Americans continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. Although they represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, black people accounted for 43 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate of new HIV diagnoses per 100,000 among black adults and adolescents was eight times that of whites and more than twice that of Latinos.

“Sex is a taboo topic for a lot of people, but the risks are often not really understood until it’s too late and you have a positive result from their STD test,” Oppong said. “As an African American, and a female, I feel like [sexual risk] and how to protect yourself is not really addressed very well.”

Since fall 2016, Oppong has worked as a research assistant in the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention, which was founded in 2001 as part of the Department of Psychology to provide a place, forum and means to promote and conduct culturally congruent and community relevant prevention and intervention work primarily with African Americans and other culturally different groups.

As part of her UROP fellowship last summer, Oppong and another intern at the center, Olivia Allison, a student at the College of William and Mary, developed and implemented a program at three community faith-based venues to raise awareness of the importance of HIV testing in the African American community.

Oppong’s research paper grew out of survey data collected from community participants in HIV prevention programs.

“She has performed superbly in both HIV prevention programmatic and research-related activities,” said Faye Z. Belgrave, Ph.D., University Professor in the Department of Psychology, director of the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention and co-director of the iCubed Core on Culture, Race and Health. “She has been a tremendous asset. Her commitment to the Richmond and campus communities has been unwavering from the beginning.”

For her research, Oppong set out to discover the connection between ethnic identity — the degree to which one feels a sense of belonging to one’s ethnic group — and sexual risk, as measured by condom use, condom negotiation and condom efficacy.

Previous research had found that ethnic identity could serve as a protective factor in preventing risky sexual behaviors, such as sex with multiple partners or sex without a condom.

In finding that a stronger ethnic identity correlates with lower sexual risk behavior, Oppong’s research has implications for how public health information is communicated, particularly among the African American community. 

“Intervention programs, such as in schools for example, [would be more effective] by being more culturally competent in discussing sexual health,” she said. “We can have programs that students can relate to better. That could apply to African Americans, but [also other groups] such as LGBT [people].”

Oppong said she is grateful for the opportunity to conduct research while an undergraduate at VCU, but hopes to work on this issue and related topics from the advocacy or health policy side in the future.

“I feel like [the health disparities affecting African Americans] are unfair,” she said. “Us being affected in such a large amount affects me because I could be at risk too. So if I can do things to prevent it and prevent peers who look like me, I feel like I’m doing something important.”


As part of Research Weeks (April 5-26) we are highlighting the work of six undergraduates whose work was made possible by VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Department of BiologyDivision for Community Engagementand guidance from faculty members.

Research Weeks take place on both campuses and feature a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines.

See more stories by clicking on links in the “Related stories” section or learn more about the lineup of events for this year’s Research Weeks.