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The Malnourished University Student: Health from the Student Perspective


Over the first four years of college, students’ self-ratings on writing ability and motivation to perform well increase, while self-reports of physical and emotional health decrease during that same period (Astin, 1997). This qualitative investigation identifies and explains the environmental and cultural forces that shape and are shaped by health and wellness perspectives of students. Research questions for this investigation addressed students’ understandings of health and wellness and their influences. Two components of social reproduction theory, cultural capital and social capital, as well as culture theory, were utilized to understand the cultural and social origins of students’ perspectives on their ability to lead healthful lifestyles at their university. This investigation was undertaken at two large public universities in southern California where a combined total of 55 students and one staff member participated.

Findings suggest that both social and environmental factors play a significant role in students’ health behaviors. First, while educational practitioners and faculty can be a source of social capital for students (Winkle-Wagner, 2010), students at both campuses reported that campus resources associated with health and wellness, inclusive of administrative units, communications from administrative units, and campus-sponsored programs were of limited influence on students, if not completely ineffective. Second, in the absence of guidance from their universities, peer norms, which were perpetuated by social media, were influenced by and influenced student behavior. Third, the university environment (both physical and social), peer culture, and academic demands at both CRU and CCU pose significant challenges to student attempts to “get fit,” thereby resulting in a lack of agency in students’ ability to lead healthy lifestyles. Fourth, the word “health,” as conceived by students in this investigation, can more accurately be described as the ability to obtain a “fit” appearance or achieve an ideal body figure. The discourse of the body as a perpetual project was present in student conceptions of health in the university context.

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