CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — Two Penn State professors are taking a closer look at alcohol consumption among students at rural colleges. Nicole Ryerson, assistant professor of psychology at Penn State Lehigh Valley (PSU-LV), and Jessica Saalfield, assistant professor of psychology and assistant coordinator for the honors program at Penn State Schuylkill, were awarded an early career grant for their research from the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at University Park in April. This semester, both were invited to join the center as faculty affiliates.
“Most research on alcohol consumption is done on large suburban-urban campuses,” Ryerson said. “There’s a dearth of research on small rural campuses, and as a result, there are fewer protective resources for those students, like treatment programs and guidance on protective strategies.”
Ryerson and Saalfield are investigating current drinking habits of students at small rural campuses through Zoom focus groups across Penn State’s different Commonwealth Campuses.
“We’re doing a pre-screening survey and then having students come together virtually to discuss their unique challenges and experiences," Ryerson said, noting that the researchers plan to continue their focus groups through the semester. "It’s been interesting to see their interrelatedness. We’re looking at ways to turn the data from the focus group sessions into a survey supplement. We’re looking for ways to tap into this under-represented group—the more we know about their needs, the more we can meet them.”
Students at small rural campuses typically have high levels of alcohol consumption but less access to services like ride-sharing programs and preventative resources. Ryerson said she hopes that, through their work with focus groups, she and Saalfield can gain a better understanding of these behaviors to address students’ needs.
“We’re engaging in foundational research to better learn about students in small rural settings so we can inform the tailoring of programmatic offerings,” Ryerson said. “This group is largely under-represented by the science community. Their established drinking habits may continue into their adult lives due to a lack of resources and treatment, and they will continue to be members of an underserved population.”
In their role as faculty affiliates with the Edna Bennett Pierce Center, Ryerson and Saalfield will be part of a network of research scientists and will be able to coordinate efforts in prevention science.
“We are extremely excited to join this amazing network of researchers pursuing efforts in prevention science,” Ryerson said. “The center has many focus areas that are directly related to my active program of research — engaging in foundational science, promoting human flourishing, et cetera. However, I am most excited about their dedication to training the next generation of prevention scientists. I look forward to contributing to this important tenet of the center by continuing to involve Penn State Lehigh Valley students in research efforts here on our campus."