Connection Cards – Spring 2024 Scholarship Runner-Up

Lee Freeman is the runner-up of our Spring 2024 scholarship essay contest. Lee is 35 years old and attends University of the Southwest. Lee’s essay, “Connection Cards” seeks to help alleviate the rates of mental health disorders among college students by facilitating connections between individuals through the use of prompt cards.

I first noticed it during passing periods. When I started teaching high school, one of the most important skills for me to learn was how to calm a chaotic mass of teenagers once the bell rang. Every student who came into my classroom added a few decibels as they greeted friends and dove into conversation. I often had to remind them to sit in their assigned seats because, without this admonishment, they would sit by their most talkative friends and get nothing done. As much as this routine sometimes annoyed me, it was as it should be.

Some years in, I noticed a shift. Passing periods were getting quieter. At first, I thought it was just because I was getting so good and getting them focused. Then Covid-19 accelerated the trend. When school met in person again, the silence of passing period was only broken by the bell and my artificially cheerful voice welcoming them to class. It was like their souls had been sucked out. More often than not, students would silently filter into the room and then immediately pull out their phones, a room full of addicts alone together, without either the confidence or skill or desire to connect.

It is heartbreaking. Now these students are in college. Studies from a decade ago showed that at least one third of undergraduates exhibit symptoms of mental health disorders, and the consensus is that has steadily and significantly increased (Francis et al., 2022). Smartphone addiction, depression, and loneliness are prevalent and highly correlated among college students (Shi et al., 2023). Loneliness has also been found to be a significant predictor of suicide (Chang et al., 2019). Fortunately, there is hope. Feeling a sense of belonging has been found to decrease loneliness and improve well-being (Arslan, 2021). This sense of belonging can come from within or from others; those around lonely individuals can have an important impact on the loneliness of their peers (Besse et al., 2022).

While it will take intentional action, connection is like water to the parched earth of a lonely soul. In fact, connectedness has been found to provide a myriad of mental and physical health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease (Smith & Baucom, 2017). Therefore, perhaps the best response to growing isolation is building programs that teach and facilitate connection between individuals.

What follows is a proposal for such a program, a simple initiative called “Connection Cards,” easily and affordably introduced to any college campus. They can be small, 2-3” square. The cards should have backgrounds of different colors so it is clear to users that they hold different content, encouraging them to employ as many as they wish. Designed to be visually engaging and provoke use, one side enigmatically says “Connect” with a symbolic circle. The other side then invites the holder to ask a friend or stranger a question that ventures beyond empty small talk to facilitate connection.

Connection Cards

Connection Cards

Another critical detail is the incorporation of touch at the bottom of the card. Under the guise of choosing who answers first, the card prompts some sort of safe touch, which can facilitate connection and familiarity. Of course, if individuals are uncomfortable with this, they can propose an alternative; however, even thinking about touching the other person can have benefits to facilitate friendship.

The questions can range and should occupy a conversational middle ground, deep and meaningful without being too vulnerable. The first pictured example below examines family traditions, which is personal but safe, allowing the answerer to choose any tradition they like. However, it also relates to a person’s culture; the process of sharing this and then receiving a positive and reciprocal response is designed to increase a sense of acceptance.

The second example invites sharing about a loved one. This subtly portrays the speaker as being lovable and loving. The listener will naturally identify with any traits they have in common with the person being described, endearing them to the speaker.

The third example relates specifically to belonging on campus. In the tradition of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, it presupposes the speaker makes positive contributions and invites them to share how. Even someone who struggles to answer will likely receive encouragement from the listener, which will build their rapport. In typical social interactions, people avoid sharing their own strengths, but this card conveniently subverts this social expectation in a delightful way allowing two individuals to see and respond to the best in one another while building their own sense of belonging.

Finally, the fourth example allows the conversationalists to share their dreams with one another. Even if they do not have these aspirations in common, passion is catching. The topic allows people to think positively, openly, and creatively, which stands in direct opposition to anxiety and insecurity that many people struggle with in social situations.

Any college campus could benefit from Connection Cards, which would ideally be placed generously in all dining, lounge, and common areas. Its greatest success would be achieved through a comprehensive, grassroots campaign supported by leadership and spread by all. Common communication channels could cast a positive vision for it, such as, “We’re going to be the healthiest, most connect campus in the state!” Contests could be run to create the prompts. Hashtags could be utilized to create online challenges spreading it beyond the reach of the cards. However, each campus must feel a profound sense of ownership and importance. A revolution in mental health is possible, and connection is the sustenance on which it will feed.

References

Arslan, G. (2021). Loneliness, college belongingness, subjective vitality, and psychological adjustment during Coronavirus pandemic: Development of the College Belongingness Questionnaire. Journal of Positive School Psychology, 5(1), 17–31. https://doiorg.ezproxy.usw.edu/10.47602/jpsp.v5i1.240

Besse, R., Whitaker, W. K., & Brannon, L. A. (2022). Loneliness among college students: The influence of targeted messages on befriending. Psychological Reports, 125(2), 1121–1144. https://doiorg.ezproxy.usw.edu/10.1177/0033294121993067

Chang, E. C., Chang, O. D., Lucas, A. G., Li, M., Beavan, C. B., Eisner, R. S., McManamon, B. M., Rodriguez, N. S., Katamanin, O. M., Bourke, E. C., de la Fuente, A., Cardeñoso, O., Wu, K., Yu, E. A., Jeglic, E. L., & Hirsch, J. K. (2019). Depression, loneliness, and suicide risk among Latino college students: A test of a psychosocial interaction model. Social Work, 64(1), 51–60. https://doiorg.ezproxy.usw.edu/10.1093/sw/swy052

Francis, G. L., Duke, J. M., & Fujita, M. (2022). Experiences of college students with disabilities and mental health disorders: Informing college transition and retention. Psychology in the Schools, 59(4), 661–677. https://doiorg.ezproxy.usw.edu/10.1002/pits.22637

Shi, X., Wang, A., & Zhu, Y. (2023). Longitudinal associations among smartphone addiction, loneliness, and depressive symptoms in college students: Disentangling between– And within–person associations. Addictive Behaviors, 142, N.PAG. https://doiorg.ezproxy.usw.edu/10.1016/j.addbeh.2023.107676

Smith, T. W., & Baucom, B. R. W. (2017). Intimate relationships, individual adjustment, and coronary heart disease: Implications of overlapping associations in psychosocial risk. American Psychologist, 72(6), 578–589. https://doiorg.ezproxy.usw.edu/10.1037/amp0000123

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