This year has been incredibly difficult for a multitude of reasons. Since the start of the pandemic in March, we’ve seen spikes in racial tension, major political controversies, job loss and unemployment, isolation from loved ones, and of course – widespread illness. While some of have adapted, secured employment/funding, and made the best of online learning and working, it’s important to pause and acknowledge that some of our peers continue to experience distress and hardship.
We’ve known for years that minority-identifying students continue to be underrepresented in graduate education, especially in STEM fields (Okahana, Zhou, & Gao, 2020), which includes health psychology. In 2019, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) reported that while graduate schools had broad increases in the first-time enrollment of minority students since the previous year (i.e., Latinx +5.7%, Black/African American +5.5%, Asian +5.3%, and American Indian/Alaska Native +3.5%), these students still only constitute a small fraction of the total student body. Further, the pandemic appears to have impacted these students disproportionately:
The growth in first-time enrollment rates for [such students] is encouraging. But we still have so much work to do. I’m particularly concerned about the disproportionate economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on underrepresented minorities (URM). The modest gains the U.S. has seen over the past ten years in URM and first-generation graduate student enrollment and degree completion are in real jeopardy.
-CGS President Suzanne Ortega
In fact, research over the past year has yielded some disheartening findings. One study in a diverse sample of college students from three Texas state universities found that minority students (including Black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander) had 2 times greater odds of experiencing food insecurity as a result of the pandemic compared to their White peers (Owens et al., 2020). The reason for this disparity may also be due in part to the fact that Black and Hispanic individuals are also at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19 and suffering adverse outcomes (e.g., hospitalization) compared to White individuals (CDC, 2020), which may lead to financial burden or job loss. Further, Chirikov and colleagues (2020) examined a sample of more than 45,000 students (including more than 15,000 graduate students) finding that between May and July of 2020, low-income students, students of color, and students who identify as gender or sexual minorities screened positive for major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder at higher rates compared to majority student peers and in some cases at twice the rate (e.g., for depression) compared to the previous year.
What is being done about this on a macro-level?
On a broad level, organizations such as the CGS, Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the Council of Historically Black Graduate Schools (CHBGS) have collaborated to create an NSF-funded project: Investigating Challenges to Matriculation and Completion for Underrepresented STEM Graduate Students during the COVID-19 Pandemic. This investigation aims to study and address systemic barriers to minority graduate students. Many other organizations (e.g., NIH) have echoed these concerns and started initiatives to address the impact on URM students.
What can we do as members of the Society for Health Psychology?
Early results from the Student Advisory Council’s Fall 2020 Needs Assessment Survey suggests that students in our organization also face issues related to food insecurity, lack of support, and increased financial burden. Many students continue to look for and welcome additional resources. In the short term, here are a few ways to start addressing these disparities and make an impact on your own:
- Advocate within your department or organization to distribute a needs assessment survey. This is one way to gauge the specific problems that your students face due to the pandemic. Some students may not be willing to come forward on their own, especially in the high-pressure environment of grad school.
- Advocate for the creation of a food pantry within your department. This is one approach to alleviate food insecurity and provide resources on campus.
- Disseminate digital resources. Feel free to send digital resources to email@example.com and we will forward these to our student listserv, and campus representatives to reach a wider audience.
CDC (2020). COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups. Available online:
Chirikov, I., Soria, K. M., Horgos, B., & Jones-White, D. (2020). Undergraduate and graduate
students’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. SERU Consortium, University of California – Berkeley and University of Minnesota. https://cshe.berkeley.edu/seru-covid-survey-reports
Okahana, H., Zhou, E., & Gao, J. (2020). Graduate enrollment and degrees: 2009 to 2019.
Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.
Owens, M.R., Brito-Silva, F., Kirkland, T., Moore, C.E., Davis, K.E., Patterson, M.A.,
Miketinas, D.C., & Tucker, W.J. (2020). Prevalence and Social Determinants of Food
Insecurity among College Students during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Nutrients, 12(9), 2515.