The COVID-19 pandemic is negatively affecting all segments of society, and young people — whose educational, financial and social lives have been hindered — are no exception, leaving many of them anxious about the future.
Supporting those youth – and empowering them to play an active role in addressing the challenges left in the pandemic’s wake – is the focus of a global research initiative supported by faculty and students in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
The project is spearheaded by Youth as Researchers, a program that gives teens and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 the opportunity to study a problem that affects them or their community, and then use that information to make a difference.
The program is under the umbrella of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO, which encourages peace and universal respect for human rights by promoting collaboration among nations. Penn State is home to one of only 18 UNESCO chairs in the U.S.
“More than half of the world’s population is under age 25, and a third are 15 or younger – it is a massive global population that is continuously increasing in size,” said Mark Brennan, professor and UNESCO Chair in Community, Leadership, and Youth Development at Penn State.
“This group is experiencing diverse impacts from the pandemic that many other groups may not experience, such as an interruption to school or training, increased need to serve as caregivers, and disruption to their emerging careers and livelihoods.”
Youth also historically have been the driving force behind social change, responses to crises and the advancement of the human condition, Brennan pointed out. Hence, it is paramount that they have a voice in rebuilding the well-being of their communities, and this research is a stepping-stone in that process, he added.
The project began in May with a survey of youth ages 15-35, which was distributed through several avenues, including social media platforms of UNESCO and partner nonprofits and emails to youth connected with agency programs.
In addition to collecting demographic information, the survey asks youth to reflect on their well-being (social, mental, financial, physical, community and career); civic engagement during the crisis; the role of technology in their lives; impacts on learning, training and education during the pandemic; and effects of the crisis on human and individual rights.
The questions were developed by a working group of academics, including those at Penn State and the National University of Ireland, Galway, UNESCO program leaders, agency partners and youth representatives in Europe, Asia, Africa, North America and South America.
“The surveys will give us baseline ideas of the wide range of impacts that COVID-19 is having on youth around the world,” said Kaila Thorn, a graduate student in agricultural and extension education at Penn State and co-principal investigator. “These impacts likely will be different in different settings. It also could be that the root of these problems and ways to address them will be different around the world.”
The global assessment will be followed later this summer with the training of 20-30 cohorts of Youth as Researchers worldwide, one of which will be based at Penn State. This curriculum, which will be developed and evaluated by Penn State and National University of Ireland, Galway, will help the cohorts to conduct their research – through virtual means – on COVID-19 issues most important in their respective countries or regions and provide that information to local and national governments.
“Youth are on the ground, experiencing the good and bad of our ever-changing world,” Brennan said. “They also have broad networks of friends and acquaintances, opening new avenues for obtaining information. If we are to navigate this pandemic and rebuild after it, the research and input of youth will be critical in obtaining more accurate data for local and international decision-making.”
Mary Kate Berardi, a doctoral candidate in agricultural and extension education at Penn State, also is lending her expertise to the study. Berardi is working on a related project focused on empathy education and how it can be used to address challenges presented by the pandemic.
UNESCO is funding the research, supplemented with in-kind contributions from Penn State, National University of Ireland, Galway and the Make A Difference Leadership Foundation in South Africa.
This project is one of several carried out by Youth as Researchers, including “Philadelphia Youth Researchers: Police Perceptions of the Community: Community Perceptions of the Police,” which focused on community and police violence in North Philadelphia. This research led to the formation of a coalition of community residents that regularly interacts with the Philadelphia Police Administration.
Another, “LGBT Youth and Their Mental Health,” was used by the Irish Department of Education to shape LGBTQ youth policy and programs designed to decrease bullying. A 30% reduction in bullying has been reported nationwide, Brennan said.