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This College Class is Bringing Generations Together To Reduce Loneliness

By Sarah McKinney Gibson | Jan 11, 2023

Nina Kleinberg (left) and Liya Liang (right).

Photo caption: Nina Kleinberg (left) and Liya Liang (right).

“I think we all experienced some degree of loneliness during the pandemic,” says Liya Liang, a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “But I had no idea that loneliness can have such a big impact on physical and mental health.” 

Liang learned a lot in a new course, “The Epidemic of Loneliness: On Connecting, Belonging, and Public Health,” created and taught by UMass senior lecturer Gloria DiFulvio.

“A really central part of health is social connection — that feeling of belonging and that sense that you matter in the world,” DiFulvio says. “I felt it was a very important class to add to our curriculum. And I didn’t want us to just sit around and talk about the issues. I wanted the students to connect with people in the community who are more susceptible to experiencing social isolation.”

DiFulvio pairs students from the Public Health Sciences Program with elders from Northampton Neighbors (an affiliate of the Village Network) for intergenerational storytelling. Over the course of 13 weeks, the pairs meet weekly – by phone or Zoom – to learn about each other and capture oral and written histories. 

DiFulvio says storytelling helps them build connections, bridge divides and find shared humanity, noting that many of the pairs have stayed in touch long after the semester ends. 

That’s true for Liang, 23, and Nina Kleinberg, 76. 

“We really clicked around career goals,” says Kleinberg, who worked in the film industry for nine years before returning to her passion for healthcare and becoming a nurse-midwife. Upon learning that Liang wants to become an OB-GYN, she jumped into action.

“I put her in touch with this wonderful OB-GYN that I worked with for 20 years,” Kleinberg says. “I adored this one female doctor and I knew she’d be inspired by Liya, and how she wants to make a better world for Asian American women.”

Liang lives with her family in Lowell, the second largest Cambodian community in the country. Her college thesis was about the intergenerational trauma of second-generation Cambodian Americans. “I’m second gen and my dad is a refugee,” says Liang. “All my friends are second gen and everyone knows someone who has been affected by the genocide.” 

Liang appreciated the introduction — and so much more. “Nina listened to my story and told me I’d be a great addition to the field,” recalls Liang. “That really boosted my confidence and meant so much to me.” 

The class was positive for Kleinberg, too, who was accustomed to being around college kids, having rented a room in her home to graduate students for 14 years before the pandemic hit. “My son left for college in 2006, so the past few years are the only time I’ve lived alone,” she says. “I’ve always enjoyed working with and being around young people, so the opportunity to participate in this intergenerational storytelling class caught my eye.” 

Strengthening community connection was one of professor DiFulvio’s biggest goals. “We live in a very individualistic society that tells us we have to do it all alone and that all these great individuals throughout history did it alone, when really they didn’t do it alone and we can’t do it alone,” she says. “We are a community, community matters, and we need to care about one another — to remember that we actually exist communally.” 

Although the course ended, Liang and Kleinberg are still in touch by text and email. “I felt like she really invested in my journey and cared,” Liang says, “so maintaining communication with her is important to me.” 

Read or listen to some of the stories the UMass students, both older and younger, created here