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Bridget Nelson, counseling psychology doctoral student

Bridget Nelson, counseling psychology doctoral student

For many students, living away from home and attending college is the first time they experience true independence.  A focus for many at Auburn is to ensure this new-found freedom also comes with support and resources.

Bridget Nelson, a counseling psychology doctoral student, was a graduate assistant for Survivor Advocacy and Violence Prevention in the Office of Health Promotion and Wellness Services when several sexual assault incidents occurred in the campus community during the fall 2021 semester.

Students came to her office seeking resources to help prevent incidents like this from happening again. One way she sought to help students is by sharing research about the relationship between sexual assault and intoxication. Studies show that nearly 50% of sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses involve alcohol, but often, traditional programming colleges use address sexual assault and alcohol separately.

When the time came to choose her dissertation topic, Nelson believed she could develop programming that would aim to teach students how to use alcohol more responsibly to better engage in bystander intervention tactics, which provide safe techniques to help when they see someone in a dangerous situation. While education and resources regarding responsible drinking exist, they are often reactive rather than preventative, which is what Nelson wanted to create with her research.

“We have alcohol programming, sexual assault programming and we even have bystander prevention training, but there was never anything that combined drinking culture and sexual violence prevention specifically,” said Nelson. “So, I created a new program for college students to get all of this material under one roof.”

Under the advisory of Brian McCabe, an associate professor in the Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and Counseling in the College of Education, Nelson began her pilot study. She used data from the National College Health Assessment, or NCHA — a nationally recognized research study that provides data about students’ health habits, behaviors and perceptions specific to their college campus — to build the program to ensure it was specific to Auburn University students.

Then, around 40 students broken into smaller groups in different sessions attended a two-hour interactive lecture and were given tests to assess their knowledge of alcohol and its relationship with violence before and after the lecture.

Four weeks later, they took the test again to measure their recall on the information and their alcohol intake, and the results showed a significant decrease in alcohol consumption and that the information taught in the lectures was well retained by the students.

Based on the results, Nelson demonstrated that it is possible to cover the combined content in a reasonable time and that there is sufficient student involvement to continue pursuing this type of programming. She was also able to conclude that there is potential to reduce violence by moderating the drinking of potential bystanders and teaching bystander prevention tactics within the context of heavy drinking.

“It’s important because it takes a realistic approach. I think a lot of times, students hear about programs related to drinking and they don’t want to do that because they think it's going to be judgmental or harsh and strict,” said Nelson. “I wanted the training to feel realistic and helpful, because that's the way you're going to get more students to buy in, right?”

The next steps? More research. She plans to expand her test group, possibly in a different area of the country and with more additions to the study. Down the road, Nelson explained, it will be valuable to test actual bystander behavior rather than talking through it in a lecture.

“The students who participated were genuinely interested, really involved and proved that this kind of programming is a need on our campus,” said Nelson. “Ideally, every incoming Auburn student would go through this training. It's not a quick fix. But at the same time, as a researcher, I think that's energizing for me, because this is a lifetime of work with the potential to increase safety on campus. Who wouldn't want that?”

For more information on available campus trainings and resources, please visit the Health and Wellness pageon the Auburn Recreation and Wellness website.