Senior Combines Neuroscience, Dance in Honors Project

Veronica Burnham, Staff Writer

The shift from high school to college is a challenge for many students. While leaving home, incoming college first-years dream of the (almost) unlimited freedom, new friends and exciting experiences, but this transitional period can often cause large amounts of unexpected stress.

In her senior Honors project entitled “Engaging with Movement to Create Community: An Investigation of Somatic Practices for Stress-Reduction in First-Year Students at Oberlin College,” Neuroscience and Dance double-major Isabel Roth explored stress and stress relief though somatic practices in first-year students.

Wishing to complete an Honors project that bridged both of her distinctive interests, Roth looked to somatic practices — physical practices that are said to bridge the divide between mind and body — for her focus in research. With experiences as both an HLEC and a housing coordinator for OSCA, Roth had been privy to aspects of the personal lives of many first-year students.

“I felt there needed to be some different tools offered,” says Roth about the College’s efforts to aid transitioning first-years.

Though First-Year Residential Experience RAs and academic ambassadors are meant to fill this niche, Roth noticed that they were often inadequate.

“RAs often have too many pressures on them, as they have to monitor their residents and uphold College policy,” she said.

Inspired by her first-year seminar, “Bridging the Body-Mind Divide,” Roth took this Honors project as an opportunity to create one of the “tools” she felt was lacking.

Prior to the start of the 2010-2011 academic year, Roth worked with Residential Education to contact incoming freshmen about her project. Roth then met with those who responded with interest in participating in the study. Using a random selection process, Roth selected a small group of 16 students who participated in her weekly class and used those not chosen as the control group, a group that would reflect the state of first-year students without her treatment.

Those chosen to participate attended 12 sessions, held for two hours each week, in which a variety of somatic practices — including yoga, meditation, some light tai chi and body mindfulness — were explored. Roth measured stress levels in participants throughout the semester — before orientation, right before fall break and during finals — via online survey and in-person interviews. She then compared the results of those who had taken the class and those who had not, and found some interesting results.

Overall, Roth observed a general shift in the sources of stress, from mainly social at the first check-in, to a mix of social and academic before fall break, and finally to mostly academic-based stress during finals.

By the end of the semester, 100 percent of workshop participants listed academic stress as their main source, compared to only 65 percent of non-workshop members. All of the participants in the workshop reported that they felt comfortable in their transition to college, whereas only about 53 percent of the non-workshop surveyed individuals claimed to feel the same.

In group discussions and anonymous surveys, Roth’s students expressed overwhelmingly positive feedback for the class, citing it as a great source of stress relief and of a sense of community, too. Roth hopes that there may be a chance for more opportunities like her project for future first-years.

“I really think physical practices bring you together in a way that few other things do,” remarked Roth.

This Sunday, she is holding a presentation and movement workshop that will be similar to a large-scale version of her class in Wilder Main Space at 6:30 p.m.