Principal Investigator: Dr. Kaila Thorn

The spring of 2020 began with an event that would change lives in every corner of the world. The COVID-19 pandemic created a “public health emergency of international concern (World Health Organization, 2020a), and began to alter the social, economic, and political structures in nations big and small. With such change came many challenges and the need for communities to react to structural shifts being implemented in every country. Traditionally, the world’s youthpopulations are often the population most impacted and most resilient to such changes. Young people aged 14 24 years old represent 16% of the worlds’ population (United Nations, 2020), therefore engaging with them during the global pandemic is essential in determining ways to best support this resilient population.

One such programmatic approach to engaging youth is the UNESCO Youth as Researchers program. The program is an international youth-led research program that engages young people in identifying, researching, and addressing youth-focused community action projects. In April of 2020, a UNESCO team initiated a COVID-19 iteration of the program, where young people from across the globe applied to participate in this youth participatory action research program. Why did young people, experiencing social, economic, and political challenges from the pandemic decide to apply to the program? What motivated them? Understanding this can enable future programmers with information on how to design and implement programs that are of interest to youth change makers, particularly in times of intense stress such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through analyzing the relationship of self-determination theory’s basic needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competency to Youth as Researcher applicant’s personal motivation, this study aimed to understand the personal motivation of applicants. Furthermore, considering the intense strain and stress associated with the pandemic, this study also explored the relationship of the prosocial behavior of empathy and applicant’s personal motivations. In the winter of 2020 aFeedback Survey was administered to all 5,581 Youth as Researchers applicants from over 90 different countries, aged 18-35 years, assessing applicants’ personal motivation to join the program. In total, this study had response rate of 27% (1,546), representing 73 countries, and while not generalizable to a global youth audience, responses are indicative of a global youth audience. Through descriptive, bivariate, and multivariate analysis, this study demonstrated the importance of programs providing youth choice, the capacity to feel competent and accomplished at tasks, and relevance of creating supportive environments for the perspective taking and empathetic concern domains of empathy when engaging with prospective program participants. Incorporating these elements into programmatic designs can encourage more young people to be intrinsically motivated to participate in youth-led programs creating youth and community level actionable change.

Self-Determination Theory, Empathy, And a Global Audience: Understanding the Personal Motivations of Youth as Researchers to Apply to the Program.

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