Interesting People Doing Important Work, Nicole Brocato, Ph.D.

Dr. Nicole Brocato is helping schools improve the wellbeing of their students.

Brocato is the Director of Wake Forest University’s Wellbeing Collaborative, a multidisciplinary, multi-institution effort that promotes college student wellbeing. The Collaborative is at its core a research group, but that’s just the start. They also help translate their research into practice – adapting and advising schools on how to engage in evidence-informed programming.

The Collaborative, Dr. Brocato says, provides a framework for the “translational research” the group conducts. For participating schools, the Collaborative provides interactive data reporting and a suite of tools that help colleges turn their data into evidence-informed programming. The group holds conversations on the subject that explain what it is, why it matters, and how to engage in it, and answers questions like, “How do you get your stakeholders? And how do you communicate to them about your data?”

Through a survey, called the Wellbeing Assessment, the research team evaluates if students at a participating institution are well, and whether they have the “pathways” (or the skills, resources, and conditions) they need to be well. This frame is derived from the Engine Model of Well-being proposed by Jayawickreme, Forgeard, & Seligman. “The engine model is like a framework for wellbeing that then lets you create a definition of wellbeing,” says Dr. Brocato. “However, the way we have structured the Wellbeing Assessment and the framework, we actually leave schools with a lot of room for flexibility for defining wellbeing for their own.”

The assessment came first, stemming from a 2014 grant from the Reynolds American Foundation. Wake Forest had been developing wellbeing programming for their students, and wanted verification that the programs were effective. They brought together a team of leaders across various departments at their own school including Campus Life, Innovation and Career Development, Institutional Research, and the departments of Psychology, Philosophy, and Politics and International Studies among others. With the help of the grant, they were able to develop a measure that would be accessible and usable beyond Wake Forest. 

Dr. Brocato, who was brought on in late 2014 to help put the measure together, said that “the hope was always that other institutions would be interested in participating in the measure,” but that, “It took a couple of years of working to gain partnerships with other schools and making sure that we were understanding other schools’ wellbeing and assessment needs before we were able to put the Wellbeing Collaborative in place.” Since 2017, the assessment has been administered at 70 colleges and universities across the country. 

The Assessment gathers information about students’ wellbeing “outcomes” across dimensions like happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, depression, anxiety, sense of purpose, belonging, academic engagement, and civic engagement, as well as students’ access to “pathways” ”—knowledge, skills, social supports, programs, resources, and other conditions—they need to be well in those dimensions. 

Dr. Brocato is a researcher who has had a lifelong interest in wellbeing and in “understanding the human condition,” an interest that she wasn’t always sure translated into a career. “By the time I was nine or 10,” she says, “I was reading old religious texts and trying to understand the meaning of life and [asking] ‘what does it mean to lead a good life?’” Growing up in a military family that moved around a lot, Dr. Brocato was exposed to many different cultures which fostered an open, curious mind. A winding path led to undergraduate studies in philosophy, with some economics and political science mixed in. Before arriving at Wake Forest, Dr. Brocato earned her doctoral degree in Human Services Psychology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, completed dissertation work in applied psychometrics, and worked in clinical settings

Given her background, it fits that the Collaborative’s definition of wellbeing is flexible and inclusive. When working with schools to create their wellbeing measure, Dr. Brocato told us that, “Rather than saying, ‘Here is the definition and your model of wellbeing has to have all the parts that are in our model,’ we say something like, ‘Here’s this giant group of components that are informed by our belief that wellbeing should have eudaimonic, objective, and subjective components. However, you get to choose and we are not going to tell you what’s right or wrong about your own particular definition of wellbeing.”

In recent years, the Collaborative has added inclusion and equity measures to their framework. This fall, they are offering a special administration of assessment that will include revisions that specifically assess effects of the coronavirus pandemic on student wellbeing, including content about the illness itself, changes in learning contexts, and COVID-19 prevention measures. The fall assessment will also measure stress from discrimination and national/global events, standing up to racial discrimination, and basic needs.

Personally, Brocato says she hopes that the changes brought on by the pandemic will cause those in higher education to pay closer attention to the differing needs of students, and rethink some outdated cultural norms. “If there’s one thing that I hope we have learned, it’s that you just can’t assume that everybody needs the same thing or even everybody in the same ‘group’ needs the same thing,” she said. “There’s just so many intersectional identities and unique needs. And that doesn’t mean that you have to build a whole separate suite of programs for everybody… It could just be tweaks to things that you’re doing already but it does involve I think, some better listening.” 

Listening and learning about unique student needs is something she hopes will be carried over into post-COVID life. And maybe, Brocato says, that will lead to, “A little bit of a kinder, gentler environment.  Rather than ‘College is hard, suck it up.’”

Dr. Brocato said she’s seen a change to the way institutions across the country view wellbeing, even before the pandemic hit. “I am starting to hear just in the last year, maybe two years, from leadership stakeholders and public health folks that universities are starting to be more aware that mental health and wellbeing isn’t a student deficit issue,” she said. “If a student is struggling, it’s not simply because the student doesn’t have enough knowledge, skills, and abilities. That there is a mutual responsibility between the institution and the student and I think that I’m starting to hear more of those themes, which makes me very happy.”

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