Project examining impact of the pandemic on youth receives broad response

A global research project, supported by Youth as Researchers at Penn State, is designed to support youth and empower them to play an active role in addressing the challenges of COVID-19. Credit: Pixabay/Alexandra KochAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A call to support research aided by Penn State on how COVID-19 has changed the lives of young people was answered by more than 6,000 youth in at least 50 countries.

The global, interdisciplinary research initiative is designed to support youth and empower them to play an active role in addressing the challenges left in the pandemic’s wake, according to co-investigator Kaila Thorn, a graduate student in agricultural and extension education at Penn State.

“Our goal was to have about 200 youth between the ages of 18 and 35 identify COVID-related challenges in their communities,” she said. “Three weeks after we distributed applications, we had thousands of responses, from Haiti to Northern Ireland to America and everywhere in between, which shows the severity of the problem and the drive of youth to make a difference.”

She explained that while COVID-19 has touched every segment of the population, youth — who make up more than half of the world’s population — face many long-term effects on their mental health, education, social lives and career opportunities.

The project at Penn State is led by Youth as Researchers, an initiative that engages youth to make positive changes in their communities. The program is under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO, which encourages peace and universal respect for human rights through collaboration among nations. Penn State is home to one of 18 UNESCO Chairs in the U.S.

“Youth historically have been the guiding force of change, positive social action and engagement, and in many ways, the first responders to a crisis,” said Mark Brennan, professor and UNESCO Chair in Community, Leadership, and Youth Development, housed in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

“This initial project was small and sought to get youth input on the impacts of COVID-19,” he said. “It has snowballed beyond our wildest dreams. The impact of this work has the potential to have massive implications for global policy and new programs to address the challenges of the pandemic.”

Youth as Researchers is an initiative that engages youth to make positive changes in their communities. The program is under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Credit: Youth as ResearchersAll Rights Reserved.

The project began in May with a survey that was distributed to youth ages 15-35 through several avenues, including social media platforms of UNESCO and partner nonprofits and emails to youth connected with agency programs.

In addition to collecting demographic information, the survey asked youth to reflect on their well-being; the role of technology in their lives; impacts on learning during the pandemic; and effects of the crisis on human and individual rights. It also gauged respondents’ willingness to carry out a research project specific to their communities.

Thorn and her colleagues pored through the thousands of responses, grouping them by region, problems identified and motivation for applying, among other factors. More than 200 youth were selected to join the 30 cohorts, representing five major regions of the world. For those not selected, the team is exploring options for them to contribute. “We anticipate offering a second iteration of the program given the large response,” Thorn said.

The cohorts currently are completing virtual training modules, which cover topics such as identifying an issue, research methods and ethical considerations. The groups then will embark on their studies to affect social change in education, employment, mental health, technology, human rights and other areas. The goal is to share their findings and recommendations with policymakers in late spring.

“A group in North America is considering looking at youth and their perceptions of public space during the pandemic,” Thorn said. “While every project will have a different flavor, they all will shine a light in this dark COVID tunnel.”

Laura Guay, a senior majoring in biobehavioral health and French and minoring in global health, became involved through her participation in the 2020 Penn State UNESCO Fellows Program. Though she oversees administrative tasks as a project leader, her primary role is to manage the Youth as Researchers communications team.

“What is great about building teams of researchers during this time of physical distancing is that it allows the participants to have social interactions with other youth with diverse identities throughout the world, creating an incredible and unique opportunity for social connection,” Guay said.

She added that because this research is youth-led, the proposed solutions to overcome the global health crisis and its implications on youth are likely to be more appropriate than solutions offered by individuals outside of that demographic.

Brennan lauded Thorn and Guay for bringing the project to fruition. “Their efforts were nothing short of amazing,” he said. “They led the design of research tools, developed online training videos in multiple languages, and coordinated groups. They did this not for academic credit or reward, but to help others.”

In addition to the College of Agricultural Sciences, the project is supported by Penn State's colleges of the Liberal Arts and of Health and Human Development. UNESCO is funding the research, supplemented with in-kind contributions from Penn State, the National University of Ireland Galway, and the Make a Difference Leadership Foundation in South Africa.

The initiative will host its official launch event at 8 a.m., Dec. 4. The Facebook live component can be accessed at (in French) and at (in English).

Last Updated December 02, 2020