With the emergence of the global pandemic, UCI’s Office of Inclusive Excellence (OIE) reached out to the campus community with a call for proposals, urging researchers to use COVID-19 as “a lens through which to explore fault lines of inequities.” The call, part of OIE’s Confronting Extremism program, led to more than $500,000 in funding spread across 13 individual and team faculty projects, including a project from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), “Distance Based Support for HBCU and HSI Students.”
For this project, Informatics Professor Rebecca Black is partnering with Gloria Washington, assistant professor of computer science at Howard University. The two researchers, along with informatics doctoral student Lucretia Williams, are leading a team that aims to develop and study AI-supported online communities in place of in-person engagements for students at Howard University, a Historically Black College/University, and UCI, a Hispanic-Serving Institution. These online communities will provide tangible and useful resources for students in need of mental health services.
“There’s already a strong stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community, but it’s time we debunk that and get the help that we need,” explains Williams, who first conceived of the project while she was an undergraduate at Howard University. “Fast forward to present day, with Blacks and Hispanics dying at higher rates from COVID-19 and trauma from experiencing racism in America, and the mental state of these two groups is at an all-time low.”
“The main goals of this project are to alleviate the burden minority students go through when navigating to find efficient and effective mental health services on their college campus,” says Williams, “as well as to help educate and matriculate minority students by easing their experience in higher education through a supportive community.”
To achieve these goals, the team is currently working with three undergraduate computer science students — Candace Williams and Leah Clements of Howard University and Michael Allotey of UCI — to design and develop an application offering online mental health services. It is noteworthy that the team is kicking off this work during Minority Mental Health Awareness month, with recent articles highlighting the stress of being Black in America as well as how the pandemic has led to a mental health crisis in Latinx communities.
“We have to come together to create solutions that will actually work,” says Williams. “The partnership with UCI and Howard can foster learning, growth, and change.”
— Shani Murray