Thursday, June 13, 2013

Non-Traditional College Students' use of Social Support in the Management of Stress

Stress is pervasive in contemporary American life, and research suggests that stress profoundly affects mental health, physical well-being, productivity, performance, and takes a toll on the human biological system (Hildebrandt, Yehuda, & Olff, 2012). In light of the recent economic turn-down in the USA, many individuals have returned to college to further their education (Kenner & Weinerman, 2011; Lane, Michelau, Palmer & Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, 2012). More than 75% of college students experience moderate stress from college-related stressors (May & Casazza, 2008), however, non-traditional college students who manage families, school work, and other social obligations have stressors that younger students do not have (Gigliotti & Huff, 1995). Families, social obligations, and school work can combine to exert tremendous pressure on these students. Stress is pervasive in many people's lives, although non-traditional college students may have to manage a wider variety, and conflicting obligations than most people do between work and home life (Gigliotti & Huff, 1995). These students tend to be more self-directed and goal-oriented than younger students, although there is a paucity of research on their experiences of mitigating stress (Gigliotti & Huff, 1995). This study will explore the experiences of non-traditional college students and their use of social support when faced with stress. To explore the depth of these experiences, and to gain insight into their subjective experiences, a semi-structured interview and a self-administered questionnaire will be used to gather data.

Purpose Statement

This proposed phenomenological study proposes to explore non-traditional college students' use of social support to affect and manage stress. The questionnaire will help colleges and non-traditional students understand the process of stress management for these students, to create support groups, and other programs and resources to assist these students in the successful mitigation and management of stress. During the last several years, colleges have seen a significant increase in the number of adults returning to college (Lane, Michelau, Palmer & Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, 2012). Because the stressors to this population are unusual and different than traditional college students, this research is beneficial to the non-traditional students and their families, their co-workers and employers, and the colleges they attend.

Viable Research Questions
The overarching research question for this qualitative study is; what are the experiences of non-traditional college students in using social support to affect the management of stress? Responses to this question may not be measureable, but meaning will be gained, which will be analyzed by the author. This question is important to non-traditional students and the universities that facilitate their learning. From exploring the subjective experiences of these students, colleges may be inspired to develop systems and programs to accommodate non-traditional students and the stress that is specific to their situations.

Research Plan

I have chosen a qualitative research design for this study because of the need to explore the subjective experiences of these students. This research is not seeking to analyze variables, make predictions, or determine cause and effect, so a quantitative design is not appropriate. This research utilizes a phenomenological approach that will explore in depth, the subjective experiences of the individuals. This approach is commonly utilized when exploring the essence of human experiences about a phenomenon, in this case, the experiences of non-traditional students managing multidimensional aspects of their adult lives (Creswell, 2009). This study aims to learn the meaning of subjective experiences of the use of social support to affect stress management. The study is organized around identifying subjective experiences and finding meaning within them.

I am personally connected to this phenomenological study because I have been a non-traditional student, managing the stressors of family, school, and other social obligations. I intend on being the primary contact and interviewer of the participants of this study. The intended population for this study is non-traditional college students recruited from responses to a call for participants posted at the student union building at the University of Hawaii, Maui College. The aim of this study is to enlist 25 non-traditional students. The size of the sample is based on the small size of the college and the number of non-traditional students matriculating. Data Collection

The recorded semi-structured interview will be used for this study and it will include the interview and a self-administered questionnaire. The self-administered questionnaire is the Measures of Perceived Social Support From Friends and From Family (Procidano, & Heller, 1983). The interview will cover several aspects of social support and stress management, but will be flexible enough that participants can express their experiences without the constraints of a more structured approach (Smith, 1995). Data will be retrieved from the responses to the questionnaire. The interview and questionnaire will answer the research question through obtaining subjective experiences of the participants.

The primary ethical consideration, and perhaps a limitation of this research is accounting for cultural contexts. Since this research will be done on a Hawaiian Island, various cultural affects must be taken into consideration when analyzing responses. The population at the University of Hawaii Maui College is 61% Asian or Pacific Islander, 2% Hispanic, 32% White non Hispanic, and 4% other various and mixed ethnicities. This population is not representative of the general American population. It will be important to have participants note their ethnicity for research purposes, and to clarify cultural perceptions about social support and stress management. Because of the cultural composition of the participants in this research, the findings may not be directly generalizeable to other populations. Other ethical issues include finding help for individuals whose stress levels appear unmanageable. Resources for stress management, support groups, and counseling will be included in the informational package for participants.

Data Analysis and Interpretation
The analysis will be conducted by the author. After transcribing the interviews, and compiling data from the questionnaires, Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis will be used to analyze the data (Smith & Osborn, 2003). The author will identify patterns, themes, and meaning within the participant responses with an awareness of inherent bias from personal experiences as a non-traditional college student. This material will be coded to assist in the useful analysis of the data (Creswell, 2009). The compilation of this material will be audited by a non-involved researcher.

Mitigating Threats to Validity
To mitigate threats of validity, all stages of the interview, questionnaire, and data analysis will be documented. Transcripts will be reviewed for mistakes in transcription and coding will be checked to ensure that meanings across coding are consistent. When the data is compiled, it will be presented to the participants in a follow-up interview to determine the accuracy of the compiled data.


Creswell, J. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Gigliotti, R. J., & Huff, H. K. (1995). Role-related conflicts, strains, and stresses of older-adult college students. Sociological Focus, 28(3), 329-342.

Hildebrandt, T., Yehuda, R., & Olff, M. (2012). Effects of Traumatic Stress Molecular and Hormonal Mechanism. In , European Journal of Psychotraumatology (pp. 1-123). Co- Action Publishing.

Kenner, C., & Weinerman, J. (2011). Adult Learning Theory: Applications to Non-Traditional College Students. Journal Of College Reading And Learning, 41(2), 87-96.

Lane, P., Michelau, D. K., Palmer, I., & Western Interstate Commission for Higher, E. (2012). Going the Distance in Adult College Completion: Lessons from the "Non-Traditional No More" Project. Western Interstate Commission For Higher Education.

May, R. W., & Casazza, S. P. (2012). Academic Major as a Perceived Stress Indicator: Extending Stress Management Intervention. College Student Journal, 46(2), 264-273.

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Procidano, M. E., & Heller, K. (1983). Measures of perceived social support from friends and from family: Three validation studies. American Journal of Community Psychology, 11, 1–24

Smith, J. A. (1995). Semi-structured interviewing and qualitative analysis. In J.A. Smith, R. Harre, & L. Van Langenhove (Eds.), Rethinking methods in psychology (p. 9-26). London: Sage.

Smith, J. A. & Osborn, M. (2003). Interpretative phenomenological analysis. In J. A. Smith (Ed.), Qualitative psychology. London: Sage.

University of Hawaii, Maui College. (2013). Maui Community College. Colleges and Universities at U.S. College Search. Retrieved May 4, 2013, from

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