U survey: Many college students dealt with adverse childhood experiences

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Jeremiah Dean had a tough childhood. He grew up without a father around. He was bullied. He struggled in school. To get a new start, his mother moved them out of north Minneapolis to the suburbs when he was around 11 years old.

"So we move into a more suburban area but we're still poor, so we're confined on where we can live and the apartment complex we moved into was just saturated with meth," he said. "And the kids I started to hang out with, their brothers either made it, or their fathers. It just became the thing to do."

By the time he turned 16, he had dropped out of high school and began a years-long struggle with drugs. In 2007 he was arrested. It was a wake up call that started a journey toward getting clean. Someone with the College of St. Scholastica urged him to consider college and he enrolled.

"And I failed everything my first semester and dropped out, because again, I'm a poor reader. I had no idea how to write academically. I've got 19-year-old students running circles around me," he said. "I'm 33, 32 at this time. And I just felt completely inadequate."

But in that dark moment he heard something unfamiliar.

"I explained this to them in an exiting interview, and they were like, 'You know Jeremiah, you haven't failed anything. It was us who failed you,'" Dean recalled. "And that was very powerful to me because it was almost the first time that I wasn't blamed for my failures."

In an effort to better understand what students like Dean have been through at colleges across the state, the University of Minnesota added questions about adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, to a health survey it sends to students at 17 public and private schools in the state.

"This is the first time we've ever released this information about adverse childhood experiences," said Dave Golden, the director of public health and communications at the U's Boynton Health Services. "And the first time we know of anywhere related to college students and academic success, which we think is pretty important."

The results show such experiences are relatively common — 43 percent of students experienced emotional abuse as a child. Thirty-one percent grew up in a household where someone suffered from mental illness and 23 percent grew up in a house where someone had drinking problems. Nearly half of all female students surveyed had two or more ACEs.

The hope now is to help colleges see where students might need the most support, said Golden.

"For example, how do students with ACEs look as far as even overall GPA? How do they look related to resiliency skills? How do they look when it comes to other behaviors that we usually look at as maybe being not the best for college completion? Like high risk drinking, or other factors that might play a part in the success of students," he said.

And the more ACEs a student has, the tougher it gets. Students are more likely to use tobacco, stress goes up and so do the number of days a month of poor mental health. Financial difficulties also worsen.

The University of Minnesota and other schools hope all these findings help them better understand their students.

"Having meaning and purpose in life, is important. Having close relationships with people who care about you, is important," said Ann Masten, a University of Minnesota Regents Professor of Child Development. Masten has studied this area for years.

"What is under-recognized is that making it and overcoming great adversity, even in the land of opportunity, requires a lot of support from other people and from a community," she said.

Dean, who came close to dropping out of St. Scholastica, did go back to school. He graduated last year and is now a grad student at the University of Minnesota. He said mentors at St. Scholastica urged him to study abroad during his time there, which changed his life. He studied in Ireland, Morocco and Singapore.

"I'm studying comparative international development education," he said. "At first I was going to study human resource development, but then when I learned about this international program, it was just too intriguing. I had to give it a shot."

Some of the data from the university's study related to ACEs was releaesd Friday. Researchers and administrators hope it will guide the way the University of Minnesota and other schools in the state to think about supporting students going forward.

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