Master of Public Health Faculty, Students Publish Study on Spirituality and Managing Academic Stressors

Headshots of Master of Public Health in Global Health students, Nastehakeyf Sheikhomar MPH’22 (in pink) and Vy Phung MPH’21 (in stripes), and Assistant Professor of Public Health Sr. Angela Ekwonye, PhD (in white)

The year 2020 seems to be defined by stress of all kinds— COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment, civil unrest, systemic racism, and partisan politics, the list goes on. Pursuing a college degree is known for being stressful, so adding these universal stressors to an education experience can be harmful to student’s psychological health. As St. Kate’s students finish their classes and prepare for finals, the strain and toll of all these factors could be detrimental.

Spirituality and connecting to something larger than oneself can be a great comfort and can relieve stress. Assistant Professor of Public Health Sr. Angela Ekwonye, PhD, and two Master of Public Health in Global Health students, Vy Phung MPH’21 and Nastehakeyf Sheikhomar MPH’22 recently conducted a study addressing academic-related stressors and using spirituality to manage its psychological effects. Their study and findings were published in an article entitled “Spirituality: A Psychological Resource for Managing Academic-Related Stressors” in the Mental Health, Religion & Culture journal. As the abstract of the article states, “the study examined if and how spirituality helps college students deal with academic stress.”

Spirituality and religion are often used interchangeably in society, but the article defines spirituality as, “the relationship one has with God, or whatever one deems to be his/her Ultimate and derives a sense of meaning, purpose, and mission in life from the relationship (Ekwonye et al., 2019; Hodge, 2001). Spirituality can also be about nature, music, art, family, community, or beliefs and values that give one a sense of meaning and direction in life (Puchalski et al., 2014).” The article goes on to say, “Spirituality can help people find meaning in life and influence their feelings, behaviors, and overall mental health making it a useful tool for minimizing the emotional responses and worry evoked by academic or other challenges (Khoynezhad et al., 2012).”

Although there has been some research regarding the relationship between spirituality and managing stress, most of those studies have looked at the quantitative research and are “mostly correlational.” The article goes on to say that it is difficult to capture the effects of spirituality through quantitative research, and that “spirituality could be better-measured using qualitative methods, which tend to be holistic, open-ended, individualistic, and process-oriented. Conducting a qualitative phenomenological study with college students can give voices to their lived experiences.”

In the article, Sr. Angela, Phung, and Sheikhomar explain that they wanted to “explore the perception of college students to ascertain if and how spirituality helps them effectively deal with academic stress and setbacks experienced in higher education.” To do so, they asked a sample of 25 students to respond to open-ended semi-structured interview questions. Through their research, they identified four major themes: 1) The spiritual student; 2) Sources of meaning in life; 3) Academic goals and challenges; and 4) Coping strategies and benefits. Some of the coping strategies include quiet time in self-reflection, yoga and meditation, and friend and family support. As a result, Sr. Angela and the researchers found that “most of the students engage in spiritual coping practices to manage their educational struggles,” says the article.

This study meant a great deal to Sr. Angela, who has been a professor at St. Kate’s for five years. The academic stressors that she has observed in her students can cause anxiety, distress, and fear, which are detrimental to students’ psychological well-being. These effects can be amplified by a student’s inability to cope effectively with stressful events or situations. As Sr. Angela explains, “understanding how spirituality can help students overcome various academic difficulties in college was important to me because it could reveal another resource that faculty, staff, and student support services can use to improve college experience, retention, and graduation rates.”

Given the current state of world events, this article is even more timely. Sr. Angela says, “The spiritual coping strategies discussed in the article can help individuals cope with the extreme stress evoked by the current situations.”


Learn more about St. Kate's Master of Public Health (MPH) in Global Health

St. Kate's students, faculty, and staff can request the article from library services here

Article Reference:

Angela U. Ekwonye, Nastehakeyf Sheikhomar & Vy Phung (2020): Spirituality: a psychological resource for managing academic-related stressors, Mental Health, Religion & Culture, DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2020.1823951