Researchers all across the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus are working toward advancing knowledge and creating solutions to critical health disparities on both local and global scales. These researchers evaluate health disparities from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives, and work to find ways to address the discrepancies within medicine, child development, law, food access, education, and health communication. Each Researcher Spotlight features a health disparities researcher doing important work right here at Illinois.
Nidia Ruedas-Gracia, PhD
Assistant Professor, College of Education
Nidia Ruedas-Gracia, PhD, is an assistant professor in the College of Education, and the principal investigator of the Gracia Lab. Her research seeks to develop a nuanced understanding of what it means to "belong" and how this sense of belonging impacts life outcomes such as academic performance and mental health. Together with her research team, she focuses on exploring these concepts among culturally diverse populations, and examining how sense of belonging is associated with various social identities (gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc.). Prof. Ruedas-Gracia earned her doctoral degree from Stanford University in Developmental and Psychological Sciences.
What is your research in health disparities about?
Generally, my research lab seeks to develop a nuanced understanding of what it means to “belong” and how this sense of belonging impacts life outcomes. One goal of this research agenda is to explore the association between sense of belonging and mental health outcomes. In particular, minoritized individuals of all ages in the U.S. are disproportionally prone to experiencing mental health concerns. In addition, they are more likely to feel a lower sense of belonging to their various contexts, whether that be their workplace, their school, or their societal environment. Therefore, one of our goals is to better understand and address the association between sense of belonging and mental health disparities among minoritized populations across the developmental spectrum. In the College Experience Study we are exploring the association between sense of belonging to college and stress among first-generation/low-income college students of color (Maghsoodi, Ruedas-Gracia, & Carey, in preparation). In the Belonging in Late Life (BILL) study, we are examining the conceptualization of belongingness and how it is associated with depression and anxiety among ethnically diverse older adults. We hope findings from our projects can inform the development of culturally relevant mental health interventions and programs.
How are you conducting your research?
Our lab utilizes mixed-methodologies and data collection strategies to address our research questions. This includes one-on-one semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and survey data collection. We employ analytic techniques such as: multi-level/multivariate structural quantitative modeling and systematic thematic qualitative coding.
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
Being a part of the Illinois community allows me to grow as a scholar via collaborations with top researchers and practitioners. I have enjoyed collaborating with great scholars such as Dr. Helen Neville, Dr. Chris Napolitano, and Dr. Yan Xia on various projects. Being part of the Illinois community also means engaging with amazing graduate and undergraduate students motivated to contribute to not only academic spaces but also applied settings. Together, the Illinois community maintains an extraordinary standard of academic rigor and connection to real-world issues.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
My lab hopes that our work can inform and develop culturally relevant and sustaining interventions to improve mental health outcomes among individuals from minoritized populations, thus, mitigating disparities in mental health and disparities in access to mental health resources. My lab also hopes to reach diverse audiences by sharing our findings via diverse channels such as publications, podcasts, and blog posts.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
I came to this topic because, throughout my educational trajectory, I’ve been fascinated by how “non-cognitive” factors can impact human performance. Typically, we focus on factors such as structural and systemic inequities in educational resources, quality of curricula and instruction, etc. As a woman of color and a first-generation/low-income (FLI) college student from an immigrant family, I understood firsthand how these systemic inequities impacted my performance. However, I realized these foci missed some crucial “behind-the-scenes” inequities that I was also experiencing. That influenced my current focus toward factors that are more psychological in nature, such as stereotype threat, implicit bias, connectedness, and mental health.