UMass students present Island youths’ problems

Rural Health Scholars program makes suggestions on better supporting Martha’s Vineyard youth and young adults.

UMass medical student Read Allen, at podium, presenting a part of the Rural Health Scholars cohort's findings. Next to her, from left, are other students in the program: Sabine Shaughnessy, Erin Johnson, David Runyan, Gianna DiPinto, and Brian Nickley. — Eunki Seonwoo

A group of UMass Chan Medical School students, known as Rural Health Scholars, studied ways to support the Island’s young people in overall well-being and in educational and occupational endeavors. 

UMass doctor of nursing practice students David Runyan and Gianna DiPinto and medical students Bian Nickley, Read Allen, Erin Johnson, Sabine Shaughnessy, Danielle Heims-Waldron, and Elisa Rocha spent 10 days on Martha’s Vineyard interviewing stakeholders and target demographic populations for the study. 

This effort was done as a part of Rural Health Scholars, an annual program in which UMass students tackle an Island issue and generate a report with their results and some suggestions. The presentation of the Rural Health Scholars report took place at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School library, and was hosted by the Island education nonprofit ACE MV (Adult and Community Education Martha’s Vineyard), which facilitated the students’ activities. The program was sponsored by the Dukes County Health Council. 

“It was a big undertaking,” Lisette Williams, career navigation specialist at ACE MV and the one who worked with the students during the program, told The Times. “I’m really appreciative of what these students from UMass were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time.” 

The students worked together to analyze the current population of Martha’s Vineyard, and how the Island’s socioeconomic landscape affects young adults. The primary target population was people between the ages of 16 and 26, especially those who did not complete their education (both high school and college), are unemployed or underemployed, or are newcomers and immigrants to the Island. Nickley said these populations are “uniquely affected” by the cohort’s focus factors: economic instability, education, housing instability, language and literacy, healthcare access, and social and community connections. 

“The folks that reside here on the Island are extremely passionate about its community and the Island’s well-being,” Runyan said. 

Nickley said the cohort conducted interviews in teams of two, with predetermined questions to help guide the conversations. The interviewees were either alone or a part of a focus group of around four individuals. Their findings combined the answers they received from the interviews and publicly available information. Among the 68 interviews with stakeholders, such as the MVRHS community and Island business owners, and target demographic populations they had, only 13 were actual youths. The individuals interviewed were kept anonymous. Additionally, the recent nor’easter temporarily knocked out power and kept people indoors, which hindered the interview process, according to Williams. 

With the publicly available information and the interviews, the Rural Health Scholars described seven areas that should be focused on: the housing crisis, education, the workforce and trades, community dynamics, social opportunities, mental health and substance use, and challenges to community-oriented efforts because of “not in my backyard” mentalities and funding issues. Each section was introduced with quotes from those interviewed. 

The Island’s housing crisis was an underlying issue connected to all of the problems, such as employment and unstable home life, the students reported hearing from those interviewed. “Every single interview we had, someone mentioned housing on this Island,” Nickley said. 

Heims-Waldron said education was another subject that needed to be looked at. At MVRHS, there are three educational paths for students: career and technical education, college prep, and general education. Heims-Waldron said each of these educational paths was good for students. However, a connecting problem was the lack of exposure to what college is like, and different career options, particularly those that exist off-Island or in the trades. 

“Lack of exposure to professional and career opportunities can lead to a misunderstanding of how college can help you attain those goals,” Heims-Waldron said. “Some students really saw college as just a way to have a new experience and get off the Island, and not necessarily about the long-term implications of attending college.” 

Immigrant children have an even more difficult time because of their language barriers, according to Heims-Waldron. Some of them also have to be concerned about being undocumented. 

DiPinto said the small Island environment also affects young people because of a lack of privacy and a disconnect between the older and younger generations. While the more tight-knit community can provide comfort and a sense of belonging, it also hinders some young people’s development of soft skills (interpersonal skills, communication, listening, and time management). Even if living on the Island is not the best for some people, their socioeconomic situations can make leaving Martha’s Vineyard difficult for them. 

Meanwhile, Allen said, the lack of social hubs for young people to congregate without alcohol present contributes to the substance abuse issues on the Island. This is amplified by the winter months and the COVID pandemic, which can cause feelings of isolation to rise. The loneliness is also coupled with the mental health staff shortage the Island faces. 

Runyan said connections were an important element to getting young people to open up about their issues. Runyan said the cohort found mental health and substance abuse issues were a topic that came up nearly as much as the housing crisis during the interviews. 

The cohort made some recommendations for what the community can do to provide better socioeconomic conditions for young people. These included continued development of affordable housing units, community college course options, apprenticeships to boost awareness of different career tracks, formation of a Youth Summit, and cooperative efforts among Island organizations to host social events throughout the year, among other suggestions. 

The presentation concluded with a question and answer session, in which the audience asked about how they and the community can support younger people in more detail. 

The students’ findings will be shared with different Island organizations. For those interested in learning more about the program and the findings, contact Williams at