USF receives funding for research on students sense of purpose

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Posted: Friday, August 1, 2014 8:03 am

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee has been awarded a $289,336 sub-award through Clark University as part of a 1.45 million dollar grant funded by the John Templeton Foundation, to study how universities around the world can help students find a strong sense of purpose. 

Jenni Menon Mariano, associate professor in the College of Education, oversees the USFSM sub-award and is co-principal investigator on the larger grant with principal investigator Seana Moran, research assistant professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts.

The research will survey hundreds of students in six countries to learn how college can be made meaningful and relevant to them in a way that also helps students make a positive difference in their communities. The work will start an international conversation on optimizing higher education’s contribution to purpose development by engaging scholars in the U.S. and abroad in research and field-building activities over a three-year period.

Part of the USFSM award supports research that will engage both instructors and students in courses across the university system in collaboration with the USF Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships. The award will also partially fund students to engage in the research process where they will learn valuable research skills.

“I think this type of education –where there aren’t borders between one’s life and one’s formal education –can really inspire social innovation,” said USF Sarasota-Manatee’s Mariano. “These are things the next generation needs and the world needs from the next generation. This research will investigate how college experiences can provide direction to youths’ lives, as well as the knowledge, skills, and momentum to contribute positively to the community. So little research has been done on how education and one’s life purpose connect. The University of South Florida is an ideal place to launch a study of this type because the university provides so many opportunities for students to engage in real-world and community-engaged learning venues. USFSM is increasingly known for its work with community partners, and the USF system in general is distinguished for its community-engaged focus. Also, faculty at USFSM conduct high quality research that is both basic and applied.  We are a diverse group of scholars who I think demonstrate that the academic world and real-world venues are not at odds with each other, but that there is actually a solid, natural, and necessary connection between the two.  There is a real concern at USFSM for having a positive social impact through scholarship, which is what this particular research study is all about.”

The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the big questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. The foundation supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. They encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.

“We hope to promote experiences in higher education that help develop purpose both here in the United States and around the world, said Mariano. “We’re fortunate to be working with several distinguished partners in other countries who think this goal is as important as we do, and we look forward to a mutually beneficial partnership with our collaborators.”

Mariano has worked extensively in community development and research including coordinating a peace-building program in post-war Bosnia in response to the United Nations International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World. She teaches courses on positive human development and community and school engagement and has published widely on the topics of purpose, how people achieve excellent and ethical work, and positive youth development. She holds a PhD from Stanford University in psychology and education and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto. Her research on how people and communities thrive spans several years in which she has interviewed and surveyed hundreds of young people across the United States and Canada. Mariano’s framework rests on the idea that the development of a noble life purpose is a foundation to our well-being, dignity, and equality.

Seana Moran’s work addresses how individuals contribute to their various communities and how they become more aware and intentional of the effects of those contributions on others. She researches and teaches courses on purpose development, creativity, collaboration, and wise decision-making. She holds master and doctorate degrees in human development and psychology from Harvard University, an MBA from the University of New Mexico and a BA from the University of Southern California.

“We are fortunate to be able to assist many highly gifted people and distinguished institutions around the world,” explains Jack Templeton on the Templeton Foundation’s official website. “Whenever possible, we try to get involved early enough in people’s careers that we can make a big difference in their work and allow them to realize their fullest potential.”

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