Marilee Ratliff, Office of Institutional Research

I conducted an internship with the Director of Institutional Research at Texas State University during the 2013-2014 academic year. The Office of Institutional Research primarily functions to provide collected institutional data, such as enrollment history, to University administration and government officials. I specifically worked with the OIR director on a project he was co-chairing called the Common Experience with the theme Minds Matter: Exploring Mental Health and Illness. I chose this internship to supplement my thesis research, which focused on mental health and illness among college students. My major duties associated with this internship included attending the Common Experience planning meetings, assisting with the planning and implementation of events, updating the Common Experience event calendar, conducting participant observation by attending events, and designing a survey to assess students’ opinions about mental health and illness and whether attending mental health related events affected students’ opinions.

The Common Experience

The Common Experience is a program designed to engage the campus and community in an intellectual discussion focused on a single topic. The topic changes every year. It is designed to specifically target incoming freshmen by introducing the topic during freshman orientation, providing an assigned reading book following the theme that all freshmen are encouraged to read, theme based assignments in required freshman experience classes, and encouraging students to attend events sponsored by the Common Experience. All Texas State students and community members are welcome at most of the events and are encouraged to attend. Texas State University selected a mental health and illness related theme for the 2013-2014 Common Experience.

Involvement in the planning committee and attendance at events afforded me the opportunity to conduct participant observation. This allowed me to gain knowledge of resources and comprehend aspects of the planning process and the effect of events.  Planning a program of this scale requires a great deal of effort and many people simultaneously working on various aspects. Although the Common Experience every year requires great care in planning and a wide array of events, it was especially important this year considering the sensitive nature of the topic. The goal of Minds Matter: Exploring Mental Health and Illness was to raise awareness and open a dialogue about the subject of mental health, which is often treated as taboo.

Mental illness is often associated with fear and perceptions of the mentally ill as dangerous. Many of the events this year addressed this stigma. By having a Common Experience program focusing on mental health and illness, the dialogues and conditions associated with this topic begin to be normalized and thus act to reduce the stigma.

Efforts to reduce stigma involved a variety of approaches that began in the planning meetings. Great care was taken to choose the right words for publicity. Overall the goal was to break stigma, not reinforce it.

One particular challenge was the art gallery exhibits. Artists with mental illnesses or those who address mental health in their work were recruited. However, it was imperative to find a way to promote the artists for their talents in gallery exhibits, rather than highlighting mental illnesses, while still sticking to the theme. One of many art exhibits that were held throughout the year was called “Face Forward: Portraits of Emotional Exposure.” This exhibit featured over 40 pieces of art by a number of artists. In addition, many of the artists were present at the public reception to discuss their work. I talked to the artist of a piece that I found particularly interesting. She depicted people that had a physical abnormality and morphed the image into a somewhat grotesque depiction of internal anatomy while also using medical supplies for texture. The people in her art weren’t “normal” and she was trying to convey their internal struggle with overcoming the abnormality. Given the wide variety of talent showcased, many styles and emotions were depicted. This effectively displayed a wide range of human emotions and mental states that functioned to work towards the goal of promoting conversation about mental health.

Image 2: Face Forward publicity image
Image 2: Face Forward publicity image

A variety of other events with various goals were held throughout the school year such as the De-Stress fest that functioned to connect students with campus resources and activities, counseling center workshops taught coping skills to students, faculty were taught to deal with distressed students, and panel discussions allowed for conversations about topics associated with mental health. All of these events combatted stigma by educating and continuing to normalize the conversation about mental health. In this way, the program appears very successful.


Considering how important it is for students to have a strong support network and access to resources, the question was raised about whether students at other universities might benefit from a similar program about mental health and illness on their campuses. In order to answer this question, an evaluation would need to take place.

It is an important and complex task to assess the effectiveness of a program. A successful program evaluation requires the use of both qualitative and quantitative methods. Quantitative research has become a standard component in applied anthropology. Decision makers want concrete statements supported by numbers that sometimes necessitates the use of surveys. In addition, surveys provide a valuable component to the methodological principle of triangulation. However, the results from surveys are of greater benefit when combined with knowledge of cultural context gained through qualitative research methods, such as participant observation and interviews.

While one can read about the steps to conducting a survey, first-hand experience is essential to fully understand and appreciate the amount of time and effort that goes into survey design and implementation. In addition, learning to work with a client to meet their needs is a pivotal lesson for an applied anthropologist. It is a skill not typically gained through regular course work or through studying survey methods. The best way to develop this skill is to practice in a real life setting with actual objectives and obstacles. It is important to understand that the client’s needs are fluid and as circumstances change, so must the goals of the survey and the strategy. Because profound issues of stigma surround the topic of mental health, research on mental health issues in conjunction with University-sponsored Common Experience events created the potential for a delicate situation, and this fact raised concern among some committee members. In addition, we were limited by the lack of a research budget that would have allowed us to provide incentives for research participants and survey materials. Therefore, my supervisor and I decided on a more modest research objective than originally envisioned. The challenges and obstacles I encountered, according to my professors in the Anthropology Department, are not at all uncommon when setting out to conduct research. An applied anthropologist must learn to be adaptive.

Although a lot of time and effort went into planning this research, sometimes things don’t go as planned. A very low response rate was obtained by this dispersal method. Due to time and budget constraints, this could not be remedied for the purposes of this project. However, my future research endeavors will benefit from the knowledge gained from this venture. If this project was to be repeated, a better response rate would likely be obtained by dispersing surveys directly to students in US 1100 courses, conducting exit surveys at individual events, or offering incentives for research participation.

A 2.5% response rate was obtained via the email dispersal method. Given that there were only twenty-five respondents, statistical tests to make inferences about the student population in general could not be reliably used. Therefore, only specific statements about the respondents can be made. Two of the twenty-five respondents answered that they were under eighteen years of age and therefore did not complete the survey. All of the twenty-three respondents that remained were either eighteen or nineteen years old. Nineteen respondents were female and four were male.

As far as knowledge of services, there seems to be some gaps in knowledge of available services and who can access them and if there is a fee associated or not. Eighteen people claimed that they personally knew someone with a mental health issue. All but one person said that they attended an event on campus that was related to mental health or illness. The one person who did not attend an event on campus indicated that he had attended an event related to mental health or illness that was not associated with Texas State University. Seventeen of the twenty-three students responded that they were required to attend an event for class credit. Seventeen people responded that the event(s) related to mental health that they attended affected their opinions about mental health or mental illness. Two people were neutral and three did not feel their opinions were affected. Twelve students indicated that attending the event(s) increased their knowledge about mental health or mental illness. Seven felt neutral and three people did not feel the events increased their knowledge.

Respondents provided the following comments about the mental health event(s) that they attended: “It was interesting to understand how people with mental issues feel and how they think they’re outcasts. It made me feel empathetic.” “Very well presented and gave you a better outlook at mental health.” “The events helped me see that your mental health is something that you constantly work on and that everyone struggles with it to some degree.” “They really did not put emphasis into mental illness.”

Overall, after this experience, I can see that there were a number of aspects to this research design that could be improved. Given the nature of the responses and limited comments, it would be more beneficial to conduct exit surveys so the context surrounding the events is clear. Focus groups would also have been helpful to determine what appeals most to students.

I never would have understood the complexities, dedication, and time commitment that are involved in survey design if I had not taken on this project. Through this internship, I saw first-hand the importance of triangulation. My thesis research gave me the qualitative research opportunity through interviews while my internship allowed me to conduct participant observation. In addition, I was able to explore how qualitative methods can lend themselves to quantitative research through the design and implementation of the survey. I am grateful for the opportunity to have hands on experience with applied anthropology by designing a survey to meet the needs of a client. I learned valuable lessons about real-world bureaucracy and the importance of really getting to know and build a rapport with your clientele. The main difficulty that I experienced with this internship was not having the opportunity to conduct a full evaluation of the program. However, I feel the lessons that this experience taught me as an applied anthropologist will greatly benefit my future research endeavors and client interactions as I build a career.

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