From Oct. 9 to 30, the University is seeking student participation in the National College Health Assessment survey contributing to the University’s “primary source of undergraduate and graduate student health data,” per an Oct. 3 email from the Division of Student Affairs.

The American College Health Association creates the NCHA, and colleges and universities pay to administer the NCHA on their campuses. 

Leah Berkenwald ’07 joined the University in July 2018 as the Wellness Promotion Program Manager at the new Health and Wellness Promotion department, and she is responsible for overseeing this year’s survey at Brandeis. The survey has been given to Brandeis students twice in the past, in 2014 and 2016, and the University plans to conduct it every two years, Berkenwald told the Justice.

The NCHA survey was created in 2000. It asks students about a variety of issues, including alcohol, tobacco and drug use, sexual health, weight, nutrition and exercise, mental health, and personal safety and violence, per the ACHA-NCHA’s website. It is confidential and voluntary, allowing students to skip any questions they are not comfortable answering. This produces “one of the biggest national data sets of college student health data,” according to Berkenwald.

Every school that participates is given the same survey questions, and schools can then choose to pay for custom questions to be added to their school’s survey in order to measure other aspects of students’ health. Berkenwald worked with other Student Affairs departments on campus to develop this year’s custom questions, which address “resiliency, belonging, body image and food security” on campus. Berkenwald explained the importance of these questions: “The University is investing a lot in a new food pantry on campus, and so we’re excited to have some baseline data and then be able to every two years measure our impact and our need.” 

More broadly, the NCHA survey helps “inform decision making around how we allocate resources” on campus and “what types of health and wellness initiatives to try,” she explained. She noted that the survey results can also give campus departments justification for funding requests.

For example, the Brandeis Counseling Center used previous surveys’ data to advocate for increased funding for resources that foster a sense of “belonging,” she said. She added that survey results were also “influential in advocating for the new community therapy program.”

Similarly, the Health Center also drew on this data to advocate for expanded sexually transmitted infections testing services and increased access to contraceptive services. Additionally, she explained, after seeing survey results relating to sleep, the Health Center improved and increased their sleep-related resources for students.

Berkenwald uses this data “to help correct misperceptions around alcohol and drug use” in the University community. Having the “real data” is important, she explained, because “people typically overestimate the amount of alcohol and drug use that happens on college campuses, which can create an artificial sense of peer pressure.” New Student Orientation is one of the University programs that uses the NCHA data in this way.

Berkenwald explained that the University provides the ACHA with a list of student emails and first names to administer the survey. This allows the ACHA to create unique links for each participant to ensure that each student takes the survey once. Although these email addresses are connected to individual responses for a brief period of time, the identifying information is destroyed when the survey is completed. This makes the survey confidential, as the raw data that Brandeis receives “cannot be tied to any particular individual,” she said.

Additionally, the University’s Institutional Review Board, an “ethical watchdog” tasked with approving campus research studies, reviewed and approved various aspects of the survey, including its confidentiality, Berkenwald said.

The University sent the survey to 5236 students this year, according to Berkenwald. She said her goal for this year’s survey is a 40 percent response rate, or about 2100 students. In 2014, the survey had a 22 percent response rate, while 2016 had a 36 percent response rate.

As of Oct. 17, Berkenwald reported they had received 1118 responses, or about halfway to the goal. 

In order to incentivize students to take the survey, the HAWP is offering 116 prizes, which will be given to participants randomly chosen by the ACHA. Berkenwald worked with the Student Health Advisory Committee to choose prizes that would appeal to a diverse range of students. Different Waltham restaurants and businesses, as well as different departments on campus, made “generous donations” to ensure the University could offer a wide variety of prizes without spending large amounts of money.

University Director of Media Relations Julie Jette, who was also present at the interview, stressed the importance of student participation. “The more students who participate, the more actionable this data is,” she said. 

Students often wonder how resources are allocated on campus, she added. “This is an opportunity to have pretty direct impact on how services are delivered.”