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SURI: Exploring the Link Between Athletes, Family Influence, and Anxiety Scores

LEXINGTON, Va. June 23, 2023 — In recent years, anxiety and depression have emerged as major concerns among college students. The pressures and demands of academic life, coupled with various personal and social challenges, can take a toll on their mental well-being.  

Recognizing the urgency of addressing these issues, Caragh Osborne ‘24 aims to identify key contributing factors and raise awareness about their implications. 

Osborne has always had a passion for mental health. 

This summer, she’s conducting a study focused on anxiety symptom scores among athletes and non-athletes, examining the impact of family influence on the decision to attend college and its potential correlation with anxiety levels.  Student doing summer undergraduate research at VMI, a military college in Virginia

“With the spotlight that is cast on anxiety and depression in college students, I think it’s important to take a look at what factors contribute to this – before the students are even at school,” said Osborne.  

She will spend the first half of the summer completing research as a part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Institute (SURI) at Virginia Military Institute. This program, offered by the VMI Center for Undergraduate Research (VCUR), provides cadets with a unique opportunity to delve into high-level research that relates to their degree path. 

SURI consists of cadet-led research under the direction of a faculty advisor. During class, Osborne asked Maj. Aubrey K. Whitehead, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, to assist in her research. Whitehead teaches LEAD 344, a mandatory leadership theory course, and in the spring semester, also taught a motivation course for the first time at VMI.  

“It came up organically,” said Whitehead. “We were chatting about topics in class, and she came up to me and said, ‘I would like to do research!’”  

Based on the relationship they had built in class; Whitehead did not hesitate to accept. The faculty advisor serves as a consultant to the cadet researcher and guides them through the research process.  

“Major Whitehead always has really great input,” Osborne said. “So, it was an easy choice.” 

Anxiety on post and among athletes 

The primary focus of the research is to inventory self-reported anxiety symptom scores among cadets at VMI. By examining the differences in these scores between athletes and non-athletes, Osborne hopes to gain insights into how participation in sports impacts anxiety levels.  

As a cadet, Osborne has witnessed first-hand the mental health issues that arise on post, in the realm of athletics and cadet life. As a Division I athlete on VMI’s water polo team, Osborne has a personal connection to her topic and has dealt with performance anxiety throughout her many years of participating in athletics.  

During her first year at VMI, she experienced anxiety at water polo practice, due to her status as a rat. Thankfully, her teammates were there to surround her with support.  

“When you’re on a team, there’s no First, Second, or Third Class,” she said. “There are no rats ... essentially, everyone is on the same team.”  

Sports involvement is often associated with various positive outcomes, such as improved physical health, teamwork skills, and stress reduction. However, it is important to understand whether there might be any nuances regarding anxiety within this context. 

“During the season, we travel every single weekend,” said Osborne. On some weekends, she and her team are gone from Thursday to Sunday, which can lead to playing catch-up.  

“For me, my biggest source of anxiety is how I am going to get my homework done.”  

Throughout her research, Osborne aims to investigate the role of family influence on a cadet's decision to attend college. Specifically, the study explores whether cadets who report perceiving more family influence in this decision exhibit higher anxiety scores.  

The stress that led to the study  

Student doing summer undergraduate research at VMI, a military college in VirginiaWhitehead and Osborne initially connected through conversations about sports. Eventually, Osborne landed on a topic, which stemmed from her level of stress.  

“It kind of came from Caragh’s level of stress and thinking about what was next in her life,” said Whitehead.  

Osborne was torn between searching for a post-graduate job or continuing her education in a master’s program.  

Family support and expectations can significantly shape an individual's mindset and approach to college life. Examining this aspect will provide valuable insights into the interplay between familial dynamics, anxiety, and the decision-making process. 

To accomplish these objectives, Osborne has dedicated several hours each day throughout the five-week Summer Session I to reading current literature, collecting data, and conducting analysis.  

By thoroughly examining existing research and employing rigorous data collection methods, the researcher aims to establish a solid foundation for their study and ensure its validity. 

SURI’s success rate  

The SURI program at VMI plays a pivotal role in empowering cadets to conduct research in their areas of interest.  

“I’m a big fan of SURI,” said Whitehead. “I think this is a unique opportunity that more cadets should take advantage of.”   

This unique opportunity allows them to contribute to the field of knowledge while gaining invaluable experience in conducting rigorous research.  

“I think the SURI program is important because it allows cadets to conduct high-level research on something they are interested in,” said Osborne.  

The findings from this study hold the potential to benefit not only current students at VMI, but also students at other educational institutions. Understanding the factors that contribute to anxiety and mental health challenges in the college setting can inform the development of targeted interventions and support systems.  

On a personal level, Osborne aspires to use this experience as a stepping stone for her future graduate work in the field of mental health and clinical outcomes.  

Olivia Polumbo 
Communications & Marketing 

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