Emma Kennedy, '23, stands by a flowering tree on campus

Emma Kennedy, '23

April 6, 2023

The data is conclusive: Teens who participate in sports are healthier than those who don’t. But who reaps greater health benefits from participation in sports—immigrant or native-born youth? Emma Kennedy, ’23, seeks to answer this question in her senior honors thesis.

“When deciding upon this thesis, I asked, who am I? What am I passionate about? How can I contribute the most?” Kennedy said. “My research combines my identities as an athlete, a second-generation immigrant, and a pre-health student.”

Specifically, Kennedy is a Spider Women's Soccer midfielder and team leader and the daughter of a first-generation immigrant from South Korea. With her majors in leadership studies and biology, she is also a Science Leadership Scholar.

The Jepson School of Leadership Studies named her its 2022-23 Fredric M. Jablin Undergraduate Research Fellow, an honor that came with $5,000 in research funding. Assistant professor of leadership studies Volha Chykina serves as her faculty advisor.

Much of her research entails poring over data from the Add Health Survey, Kennedy said. This study focuses on the health of a nationally representative sample of over 20,000 adolescents who were in grades 7-12 during the 1994-95 school year and have been tracked in five survey waves to date, most recently in 2016-18.

“After analyzing 10 health-related variables included in the survey, I concluded that sports participation leads to better general health for both adolescents and adults,” she said. “Benefits include a lower frequency of illness and a lower rate of chronic physical and mental health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, depression, and anxiety. Immigrant teenagers experience a greater positive impact from sports participation than do native-born teenagers, but they don’t keep this advantage as young adults.

“The one variable that showed a negative correlation between sports participation and health was alcohol use. Teens who participate in sports are more likely to adopt unhealthy drinking habits, and this is especially true of immigrant youth. I am in the process of looking at why.”

Kennedy will present her research at the Jepson Research Symposium on April 14. In general, her findings support her personal experience as a Division 1 scholar-athlete who has played soccer since age five.

“Increased physical activity is so important for your mental health,” the Spider soccer player said. “Playing sports teaches you the value of taking care of your body in order to maximize your potential on the field. The life lessons you learn in discipline, teamwork, and time management set you up for success in life.”

Kennedy hopes to apply these life lessons, her research, the interdisciplinary problem-solving skills she learned at the Jepson School, and her biology education to a future career as a physical therapist in her hometown of Blacksburg, Virginia. Having volunteered in excess of 1,000 hours at a Blacksburg hospital, she said she is all too familiar with health care disparities, especially those affecting rural Southwest Virginia’s immigrant population.

“I want to help find solutions to bridge the gaps in health care access,” she said. “I want to help people in a holistic way, help them gain a better appreciation of how to use movement to improve their physical and mental health.”