HBCU Wellness Project study yields significant results on students and emotional intelligence

According to Dr. Mitchell Parks, former assistant professor of psychiatry in the Meharry Medical College School of Medicine, faculty in the college’s annual HBCU Wellness Project found something interesting about the students—a rise in emotional intelligence. After two years of work, Parks published the results of the study in the November 2019 Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.

“The primary goal of the HBCU Wellness Project,” according to the Meharry website, “is to leverage educational and service-oriented resources at HBCUs to positively impact the health and well-being of Tennessee residents.” Students from Fisk University, LeMoyne-Owen College and Lane College participate each summer in the program funded by the State of Tennessee to train nonprofessional undergraduates from historically black colleges and universities to design and implement community-based health disparity reduction interventions on campus communities, Parks said. They trained the students to evaluate their proposals in case they were to continue the projects and use evaluation data to improve their efforts. According to Parks, faculty members came to him with their own analysis. “They said, ‘Something is happening to your students—they’re getting better,” Parks said. “We don’t quite know what it is, but something is happening to your students that you all need to examine longitudinally.’”

Parks said he and his colleagues discussed it and came up with emotional intelligence as the quantifiable, improving element. The problem is that there’s not exactly agreement about what emotional intelligence is.

“The emotional intelligence field is very, very complicated,” Parks said. “Everyone knows it exists, but when you ask them ‘What are the non-cognitive components of this intelligence?’ you get a variety—a range of answers to that question.”

According to Parks, emotional intelligence is the ability to navigate social interactions professionally. “It’s the individual’s ability to gauge when interacting with others what the tenor of feelings and expressions are,” he said, and “modulate how they interact and communicate appropriately.”

Some say emotional intelligence has to do with self-assurance, confidence and motivation—each distinctly measurable, Parks said. Another issue is whether one is born with it or whether it’s teachable—a “trait versus state” question. “As a writer I’m trying…to let the reviewer know that I know these issues exist. But I don’t have a firm position on either approach,” he said.

“Part of my challenge in writing this paper was I sort of have to try to put a stake in the ground to say what it is,” he said. “Whoever is going to review this manuscript is going to know what those issues are and they’re going to have an expectation when reading a manuscript about this topic that the researcher is going to stake a claim.” Parks said he selected a metric that had been used in a study of students in India within the same age demographic. The metric implies that emotional intelligence can be learned.

A cohort of 31 undergraduate students participated in the wellness project study, Parks said. Interestingly, the demographic reflected the same characteristics as first-year medical students. “I tried to make the argument that the Wellness Project curriculum is a surrogate for an HBCU medical school curriculum because they have a similar teaching and mission.”

Emotional intelligence is separate from cognitive, or frontal lobe intelligence, Parks said, where a student will demonstrate their prowess with grades. “You can’t make the assumption [that] just because the student gets an A on the exam they’re able…to use that information effectively with a patient…How that physician engages with that patient in terms of devising and implementing a treatment plan is just as important as what’s in the treatment plan.”

Parks said that the sample size is so small and the statistical significance is so great, that something “tremendous” is happening—the numbers indicate that. “How can you have a sample size of 30 with a standard student…comparing the same person before and after…and have such stark differences in improvement. The improvement is real, the question is why,” Parks said.

“They argue it’s the curriculum but it could also be the curriculum and the setting, or the curriculum and the setting and seeing mostly African-American faculty members.”

In the multiple linear regression analysis, Parks said, looking at what particular demographic variable had the most impact in changing or improving limited emotional intelligence domains, “We saw…a statistically relevant correlation between self-described race—African American—and motivation,” he said. “The implication of that result is that African Americans have much more height and motivation in terms of an emotional intelligence parameter because it’s being presented with a health disparities reduction curriculum and that goes to the social justice aspect.”

“I would make that argument from these results—that if a medical school applicant has a choice of going to a [predominately white institution] or HBCU medical school and they pick an HBCU, the results of measuring their EI are probably going to be similar to our [test] students because they’re going to have this inherent sense of social justice reinforced by being at the HBCU,” Parks said. He implies that argument saying Meharry produces a high percentage of primary care physicians. “When our graduates leave Meharry, they want to work in primary care fields. So it would appear that if you were to…measure it you would probably have similar results to what you are seeing in our smaller study,” he said. “And these students are probably self-selecting for an HBCU because they had that social justice mission and Meharry mirrors that.”

The next step from this paper, Parks said, is to look specifically at an HBCU medical school cohort. “There is something special about [a self-identified African American student] going to an HBCU for the purpose of addressing health issues related to African Americans. And this study proves that.”

“That is not in the literature when you read these articles that have been written about majority schools. The issue is that with the measures they’re using, the cohorts of their African-American students is so small, they can’t get any statistically significant results. So one of the reasons why I think this particular article was published is because no one is looking at African-American students intentionally in a medical school context. And folks want that question addressed. Really this is the first paper that’s kind of addressing that issue intentionally…we’re actually targeting an African-American cohort,” Parks said.

“It’s putting a key in the door that just needs to be turned and opened. The key exists now.”

CLICK HERE to read the paper in the November 2019 Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.