MAGNOLIA, Ark. (News Release)- Erin Burch, a senior psychology major at Southern Arkansas University, has turned a research project into a springboard to deliver a presentation in front of a national conference in New Orleans this February. Her travel will be funded by a student research grant through the SAU Foundation.
Burch, from Fayetteville, Arkansas, changed her major from nursing to psychology in her freshman year, but her journey to SAU was an unexpected one.
“I didn’t have in mind yet what I wanted to do in college,” Burch said. “I was planning to join the military after high school, but then I heard about SAU.”
She received a postcard from SAU, and after trying other colleges, found the Admissions office “super-helpful. SAU really worked with me and made sure I knew I could have a future by coming here. I’m so glad I did.”
Her initial plan was to become a nurse practitioner, but after taking some psychology courses she realized she had found her new niche. Dr. Deborah Wilson, chair of the Behavior and Social Sciences Department, and Dr. Krista Nelson, assistant professor of psychology, helped her find her way.
“My professors are passionate about what they’re doing. Psychology is a diverse field and there is so much to learn about it,” Burch said.
Each semester, Wilson works with 20-25 students in Research Methods where each student completes an individual research project. Last spring, Burch participated in the class, leading to her desire to study loneliness and depression among college students, particularly within the LGBT population.
“Loneliness is an emotional problem and depression is clinical,” Burch said. “As the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance, I wanted to find out, are they more likely to be depressed?”
Wilson said Burch’s idea grew from her natural concern for others and interest in clinical psychology. “When she shared her idea with me, I immediately began thinking about how we would measure loneliness and depression, and how her results could benefit SAU community members,” Wilson said.
Drawing on her own extensive academic and professional career, Wilson proposed to supervise Burch’s use of the Beck Depression Inventory-2, a published instrument commonly used to assess depression. Burch located a scale for measuring loneliness and in combination with the Beck, created a strong path to assessing SAU student experiences.
She determined that LGBT students are more likely to experience loneliness and depression. “Because they are a minority group, they have more factors and less social support,” she said. “I know that many of them tend to experience this condition.”
Wilson said Burch “was so motivated, organized, and passionate about her research. Her willingness to work hard was evident early on and I was confident she could have her work accepted for a conference presentation.”
Burch conducted a research project that was engaging, well-written, and thorough, said Nelson. “Unsurprisingly, her study was accepted on a national level.”
Titled “College Students Who Experience Depression and Loneliness: The Influences of Sexual and Gender Minority Status,” Burch’s article will be published in the National Social Science Journal (NSSJ) in 2020. This refereed journal accepts only 12-15 percent of all articles submitted. Wilson and Nelson are coauthors of the article.
Burch will also present at the National Conference of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) in New Orleans. She applied for and received a generous grant from the SAU Foundation to make travel possible.
“I’m really excited about it, but I’m not sure what to expect,” Burch said of presenting. “It will be a great experience.”
Burch is currently applying to graduate schools and plans to earn her Ph.D. in psychology. “I want to conduct clinical research, hopefully validating treatments for various disorders. There is plenty of research opportunity for the LGBT community, specifically in adolescents,” she shared.
Burch suggests making more support groups available on campus to alleviate loneliness and making sure students know the SAU Counseling Center can help. “We already have many resources,” she said. “It is important for our campus to be open and accepting.”
Nelson and Wilson agreed that Burch is “a phenomenal student.”
“I’m so happy she chose SAU,” Wilson enthused. “While she could have chosen a larger university, I believe her accomplishments highlight SAU’s tradition of commitment to our students, opportunities for faculty and Foundation support, and the academic excellence of our students.”