Carolina student-led team ‘The Whole Student’ advances to global finals at Oxford University competition

The team used systems thinking to discover and understand the elements that contribute to mental health challenges among college students – including those at Carolina.

Six students standing outside.
(Sarah Daniels/Innovate Carolina)

Mental health is an ever-growing challenge for college students, but one group of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students is tackling this challenge through Map the System, a global systems competition focused on exploring the wider context of social and environmental issues. The competition enables students to explore an issue in-depth with the goal of finding levers for positive change.

The Whole Student – a team of six Carolina graduate and undergraduate students – has been selected as one of only 15 teams across the world to advance to the MTS global finals at the University of Oxford. The team used systems thinking to discover and understand the elements that contribute to mental health challenges amongst college students – including those at Carolina – by mapping forces that uphold this system at Carolina.

The Whole Student is an interdisciplinary group of six student researchers:

  • Aaron Carpenter, MPH candidate
  • Lily Goldberg, MPH candidate
  • Riley Harper, undergraduate in statistics and analytics
  • Deborah Shoola, MPH candidate
  • Rachel Smith, MPH candidate
  • Hanqi Xiao, undergraduate

“Competing in Map the System is a true testament to the students’ passion and hard work,” says Kimi Yingling, Innovate Carolina’s assistant director of innovation hubs. “With a background in counseling and experience in higher education, I could not be prouder of the complex problem of mental health on college campuses they chose to research. The deliverables involved are extensive and detailed and the timeframe is short– this team put in a ton of hours understanding the problem and its wider context, which is what Map the System is all about!”

“Mental health is the perfect outlet for systems thinking due to its sheer mess and lack of coordination,” says Rachel Smith. “Mental health very much influences human behavior, which influences system behavior…so it’s all quite compatible and interconnected. Systems thinking integrates mixed methods data seamlessly, so I’ve enjoyed implementing the qualitative aspect. Communicating nuanced information with a group of six individuals with widely different backgrounds, lived experiences and working styles is a very dynamic experience that has fueled my growth, strength and flexibility.”

“I had done plenty of leadership work for businesses and 501(c)(3) nonprofits before participating in Map the Systems but had always wanted to give research a try,” adds Riley Harper. “Through this competition, I’ve discovered my passion for research centered on a design thinking approach. My goal for our team is to refine our research upon completion of the global finals to publish our research and further the impactful field of student mental health in a positive way.”

Through their research, the team discovered many students found difficulty adjusting to the academic rigors of college life as well as developing new social networks. Compounded with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students experience mental health challenges and face barriers when trying to seek help. An overwhelming majority of Carolina students (96%) reported experiencing academic stress, followed by anxiety (87%), loneliness (68%) and depression (64%).

“Taking a deep look at an important problem that is very much part of our personal experiences has allowed us to untangle the complexities and gradually work towards a solution,” says Hanqi Xiao. “When you’re just suffering from the effects of a system that perpetrates negative outcomes, the frustration bottles up and its entirely opaque why things are the way they are. By mapping the system, we discover the reasons why, and we find points of hope.”

Carolina’s MTS campus competition is open to all UNC-Chapel Hill students and asks participants to create systems maps. These maps give students tools for exploring complex problems, uncovering knowledge gaps, identifying intervention points and presenting insight that can shape systemic environmental and social impact. Systems mapping was a new approach for the team and helped the students explore connections and insights they otherwise may not have discovered.

“We have been very fortunate enough to be able to talk with several stakeholders across the student mental health landscape and have incorporated their voices and perspectives into much of our research,” says Deborah Shoola. “Listening and learning from the lived experiences of students has been really powerful and extremely necessary if you are doing any kind of participatory research or human-centered design work with communities.”

In mapping the mental health challenge for students, The Whole Student team identified multiple drivers and root causes within systems that contribute to an ecosystem of mental health challenges at Carolina. The team examined this complex web of factors through five sectors that add up to make a whole student: individual student factors, student social networks, the classroom, culture, attitudes and beliefs and barriers to accessing mental health support.

“As a public health professional, I found that systems thinking provides comprehensive understandings of public health challenges and comes with a set of tools that can be used when designing interventions for wicked social problems,” adds Shoola. “Tools such as the iceberg model or the root cause analysis allow you to dig deeper into seeing beyond what is obvious with public health issues, and helps you realize a lot of problems are the result of deeply rooted structural determinants of health.”

The team created a system map that presents the problems, factors, variables and structures that contribute to the mental health crisis on college campuses with Carolina acting as a case study. The team also explored the current solution landscape and gaps or levers of change. By participating in Map the System, the team quickly learned how to work together toward a common goal while leveraging Carolina mentors and resources.

“UNC has so many stakeholders involved with the systems behind undergraduate mental health,” says Harper. “While the topic is taboo, we were greeted with open arms when reaching out to relevant faculty and student leaders on campus.”

“I am so thankful for the planning committee, graduate student intern Hiba Fatima, faculty mentors, system thinking advisors, and judges involved from all over our campus and the community,” says Yingling. “We also would not be able to participate in such a fabulous program or support the students’ travel to the final competition without help from generous donors who believe in Carolina students and social entrepreneurship. It was a true Carolina collaboration and I believe the campus, not just the individual students, will benefit from the results of their research.”

Advancing to the global finals at the University of Oxford presents The Whole Student team with a tremendous opportunity to bring attention to mental health challenges among college students.

“I am looking forward to taking full advantage of the many opportunities to meet and learn from other student innovators, professors, business and policy leaders, and changemakers from all over the world,” says Shoola. “Additionally, I am looking forward to presenting our research to bring attention to this issue on a global stage and contribute to a larger conversation surrounding mental health. As representatives of UNC, our project’s unique approach to addressing student mental health challenges make it a crucial case study that other universities could learn from.”

Learn more about the Map the System program at UNC-Chapel Hill