When Molly Weeks was 16, she moved with her family from a city in Alberta, Canada, to Raleigh, N.C., leaving behind the close friends she had grown up with.
Now a research scientist in the department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, Molly says the challenges she faced during that summer helped shape the direction of her career. Moving to a new country, feeling disconnected, rebuilding a social network – all sparked an interest in the role that friendships can play in our lives.
“Relationships are such a fundamental part of the human experience,” she says. “Taking a scientific approach to understanding the types of relationships people have and how they can affect emotional well-being has been the crux of my research for years.”
Since 2013, Molly has served as project director for a four-campus research-practice partnership studying student resilience and well-being. Funded by a $3.4 million grant from The Duke Endowment, the study includes Davidson College, Duke University, Furman University and Johnson C. Smith University.
It began with data collection across the four campuses to understand the causes of student stress, how stress manifests itself, what tools help students, and where interventions are most needed. Using that data, gathered from the Class of 2018 over four years, campus teams are now looking for patterns and trends. Researchers and practitioners are also in the early stages of designing and implementing new ways to enhance resiliency.
The study is not about removing knots in students’ lives or erasing their sources of stress. Instead, Molly says, “it’s about understanding what we can do as researchers, faculty members and practitioners to help students develop the skills to deal with those obstacles and stressors – both in college and then independently as they move on.”
For Molly, the project has been a chance to dig deep into a topic that she’s passionate about. After studying psychology at N.C. State University and earning a Ph.D. in developmental psychology at Duke, she has been researching social development in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. Her special interest is the college years.
“Friendship is among the strongest predictors of both loneliness and belonging in college, and feelings of belonging are a key factor in understanding student success and persistence,” she says. “The exciting piece of the resilience project is being able to use research to understand the challenges that students face, and then to use those findings to inform practices that will help them develop healthy and fulfilling lives in college and beyond.”
Today, as the mother of a 3-year-old, Molly’s roots are firmly planted in North Carolina. This is where she met her husband – through a mutual friend – and both his family and hers live nearby. She enjoys keeping up with old friends in Alberta, but has developed strong connections here.
“People often think of friendship as just something in your life – not anything you need to spend a lot of mental energy attending to,” she says. “But there's a lot of evidence that shows us the significant long-term consequences of close relationships. If there’s one key takeaway from my research, it’s that friends matter.”
Learn more about the Student Resilience and Well-Being Project
Using data collected from the Class of 2018 over four years, researchers and practitioners on each campus are beginning to design and implement interventions that are tailored to their campus culture and needs. Here are some examples:
• Based on early research results, the Physical Education and Recreation Department now offers more programs with a cognitive and mental health component, including yoga and mindfulness classes.
• Informed by the research, Davidson launched a holistic advising program where faculty were trained to talk about physical, social and emotional topics, in addition to academics.
• The research is informing the pilot of Pathways, a two-year course that addresses the needs and experiences of freshman and sophomores. Pathways now includes coping skills, study skills, time management, conflict resolution and belonging and identity.
• The relationships built among faculty and staff throughout the project are leading to new developing efforts, including a first-generation student experience program and peer mentoring institute.
• Noting that developing friendship, one of the key foundations of resilience and well-being arising from the study, often begins with first-year roommates, Duke is engaging in a study to see if assigning roommates (rather than allowing students to choose roommates) leads students to interact with peers from diverse backgrounds and develop friendships they may not have otherwise developed.
• Recognizing that the shift from freshman to sophomore year can be difficult and stressful, Duke has created programming to strengthen sophomores’ academic engagement.
Johnson C. Smith University
• The resilience study led the university to pilot several activities and events during mid-terms and final exams aimed at reducing student stress.
• The results led to a focused study in collaboration with Furman on student physical health and body composition that involves one-on-one meetings eight times over the four years to measure weight, height and blood pressure and ask health-related questions.
Susan L. McConnell
Director, Higher Education