Students feel drawn to study projects that connect to their cultural identities
When Florence Almeda, A22, received a grant from the Tufts Summer Scholars Program, she intended to study sexual and reproductive health as part of her honors thesis in community health. But with the rising visibility of anti-Asian hate during the pandemic and the shootings in Atlanta, she found herself drawn to a more personal topic—mental health in Filipino American women in college. She spoke with her advisors and made the decision to change her focus.
“I came to the realization that mental health, particularly Filipino American mental health, was something that I felt really called to pursue,” Almeda says. “It was a scary decision to make—sexual and reproductive health was my thing and I don’t have a background in psychology—but it felt like something I needed to do. It felt very important and personal to me.”
Almeda is Filipino American and took pride in learning about her racial and ethnic identity as she grew up. The thesis project was an opportunity to embrace that heritage while exploring the experiences of women her age.
Not every student who majors in community health pursues an honors thesis, but those who do spend a year or more planning and conducting a research project of their choosing. They work with a faculty mentor to construct research questions, conduct literature reviews, and collect or compile data for analysis. For some students, it is an opportunity to dive into a topic that they feel very personally connected to.
“The thesis work has been an incredible experience,” says Marwah Kiani, A22, who conducted her honors thesis research on domestic violence in South Asian immigrant communities. “I feel a lot of pride being South Asian and being a child of Pakistani immigrants and I loved doing work with the South Asian community because it’s my own, and it’s home.”
Having these personal connections to their work can be advantageous, says Shalini Tendulkar, a senior lecturer in the Department of Community Health who advises both Almeda and Kiani. All researchers come to the table with existing perspectives, she says, and the goal, particularly with qualitative research projects, is to teach students how to acknowledge where they’re coming from instead of striving for some unattainable, impartial viewpoint.
“I believe it’s beneficial to have a personal connection to what they’re researching, because it makes them really passionate about it,” Tendulkar says. “Their own background and perspective and closeness to the topic is something to be celebrated and capitalized on, because it allows them to connect to the people that they're talking to and gathering stories from.”
"I believe it’s beneficial to have a personal connection to what they’re researching, because it makes them really passionate about it."
Both Almeda and Kiani chose projects that required them to conduct semi-structured interviews. This type of research would normally be done in-person, but the pandemic forced them to primarily recruit participants online and try to build a rapport over Zoom.
“They’re exploring topics that are deeply personal to them, that connect to the cultural communities they identify with,” Tendulkar says. “Navigating all that in the midst of a pandemic, and being motivated and inspired to commit to what is a really challenging learning experience—that has really impressed me.”
As Almeda dove into the existing research on Filipino American mental health, she found that, as a group, Filipino Americans have a particularly low rate of seeking mental health care. This reflected what she and her peers had experienced.
“The literature review process was super validating,” Almeda says. “For the first time, to see my own personal experiences written out and talked about by people in academia—it was just incredible, and very emotional, to gain the language to talk about personal things that you’ve been through.”
Still, there wasn’t a lot of information on mental health outcomes for Filipino Americans, Almeda says. For the most part, they were lumped in with the larger racial group of Asian Americans, which encompasses a broad range of experiences and cultures with distinct health needs.
“There is a lack of Filipino-American-specific public health literature,” Almeda says. “So I thought it was really important to look at how gender and ethnicity also play a role in mental health outcomes and the way that people talk about and experience mental health.”
Almeda used her connections as a founding member of Tufts’ Philippine Student Union to reach out to other collegiate Filipino cultural groups in the Boston area. She was able to interview 20 Filipino American women about their experiences and attitudes around seeking mental health help.
Many of the women she spoke to said that finding a therapist who shared a similar background or identity was extremely valuable. Many also sought support from personal networks, where friends could validate experiences with discrimination and microaggressions.
“It really showed me how important it is to cultivate cultural communities on campus and for people to be able to find them,” Almeda said.
Kiani found her study participants with the collaboration of Saheli, a community organization that offers support for South Asian survivors of domestic violence. With Tendulkar, she conducted interviews with advocates from Saheli to understand patterns they’ve seen and hosted three focus group discussions with community members about promoting healthy relationships.
“Domestic violence exists in all communities,” Kiani says. “Sometimes we blame culture, and talk about it as being a determining factor of abuse, but it’s not. I’ve been trying to bring a holistic approach to understand where culture is involved, but also talk about where it isn’t.”
In her discussion groups, Kiani asked participants to reflect on the relationships they saw growing up, lessons they’ve learned, and what they hope to pass on to their children. In those conversations, she heard examples of people embracing South Asian cultural norms and traditions in ways that provided support and intervention against abuse, instead of perpetuating it.
For example, South Asian cultures are often very family- and community-centered, Kiani says. That can be an avenue for exploitation, where an abusive spouse might demand that their partner sacrifice their wellbeing for the sake of the family. But it can also be a basis for a strong support network.
“In encouraging healthy relationships, there needs to be a lot of space and autonomy given to a person to be respected as an individual,” Kiani says. “But the community members that I spoke to also talked a lot about how having this idea of collectivism—paying attention to the people around you, being there for them, and the respect that you provide to those people—as a very South Asian cultural concept that has helped them in building their relationships.”
Conducting this research forced Kiani to think through some biases she might have internalized while growing up in the U.S.
“There’s this myth of having to Westernize in order to become this progressive feminist, for example, or to have to feel liberated,” Kiani says. “And I think that all the people that I spoke to are testaments that you can fight for gender equity and equality and not have to get rid of your cultural identity.”
Through their research, both Almeda and Kiani have found ways to understand and embrace important facets of their culture and community and confront aspects that are less than ideal. That process hasn’t always been easy, Tendulkar says, but it has helped them develop as students and researchers.
“I’ve watched them reflect on the conversations they’ve had, the perspectives they’ve had,” Tendulkar says. “They really grew through this experience and gained so much confidence.”