UCCS research team studies racism at universities in aftermath of George Floyd

The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 had monumental impacts across the country, but one UCCS student is working to quantify its effect on college campuses.

Senior Aja Zamundu partnered with associate professor Heather Littleton to study racism on campus in the aftermath of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. The primary goal was to evaluate the experiences of racial and ethnic minority students with racial discrimination, minority stress and institutional betrayal during fall 2020.

Over the summer, Zamundu dedicated 200 hours to the project, focused on learning quantitative data analytic methods, increasing her familiarity with academic literature reviews and learning scientific writing under Littleton’s mentorship.

“It’s a trial by fire,” Zamundu said.

In an email, Littleton said that Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests “resulted in individuals of color experiencing dual pandemics — COVID as well as the enduring impacts of racism at the societal and individual level.”

Littleton is an associate professor of psychology and the director of research operations for the Lyda Hill Institute for Human Resilience. Her research spans clinical, health, social and trauma psychology, according to her biography.

During the fall 2020 semester, Zamundu and Littleton recruited 108 racial and ethnic minority college students to complete a study regarding their experiences on campuses nationwide. This study asked them about their campus climates, what resources their universities offered and how their universities responded to George Floyd’s murder and the BLM protests.

While their project is incomplete, Littleton said they found that the universities’ responses to the events differed significantly, with many students reporting they were disappointed with their university’s response. They also found that students who were in universities with fewer resources for students of color reported experiencing more instances of discrimination and feelings of depression.

Though initially intimidated about taking on the research, Zamundu said she received valuable mentorship during the process. She compared it to learning how to play a sport from a professional athlete, saying it felt like “someone plays a sport, teaches you how to play it and then they come to watch your game.”

Zamundu’s favorite part of the process was the relationship she developed with her mentor. She said, “[Littleton is] a really good mentor because she actually cares about your academic outcome.”

Zamundu and Littleton will write their research papers individually, but Zamundu said that Littleton guides her through the process to reach a conclusion based on the data.

“[The research is] an iterative process, where you work on one thing until it’s where [your mentor] wants it to be, and you understand why it needs to be there,” Zamundu said. She encouraged interested students to apply for the Undergraduate Research Academy and to use this opportunity to learn as they go. She said it’s also important to develop a relationship with a professor before applying.

Zamundu will present the full results of the study on Mountain Lion Research Day in December and at a psychology conference in the spring. She said after she completes this research, she wants to do a more focused study on younger populations and the relation of microaggressions to anxiety and depression in racial and ethnic minorities.

Mountain Lion Research Day will be on Dec. 2 from 12-4 p.m. The location is still to be announced.

Senior Aja Zamundu has conducted research under the mentorship of Heather Littleton. Photo by Meghan Germain.