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Volume 51 Number 3 Summer 2018
Edited by Lauren F. Lichty, Co-chair, Community Psychology Practice in Undergraduate Settings Interest Group; University of Washington Bothell
Undergraduate Research and Mentoring: Lessons Learned from Two Teams
On April 13, 2018, the Community Psychology Practice in Undergraduate Settings Interest Group hosted its inaugural Undergraduate Mentoring and Research Webinar with two teams of undergraduate students and their faculty mentors, one from SUNY Old Westbury and one from Rhodes College. Below, each team summarizes their context and practices. The teams then jointly present shared challenges and recommendations for developing meaningful community psychology undergraduate research and mentoring opportunities. The webinar can be viewed in full on the SCRA website. If you are interested in sharing your research and mentoring practices alongside your students, please contact Interest Group Co-chairs, Lauren Lichty (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Jen Wallin-Ruschman (email@example.com).
CASE 1: Approaches to Mentoring at SUNY Old Westbury
Written by Oluwandara Ogunbo, Rhayna Prado, Magi Aziz, and Ashlee Lien, Ph.D.
As an assistant professor in psychology at SUNY Old Westbury, my role as a mentor has varied to fit within my institutional context, address student needs, and fit my personality. SUNY Old Westbury is one of the most diverse liberal arts college in the United States, has a sizable number of first-generation college students, and varies significantly in student economic backgrounds. There are three primary contexts where I mentor students: facilitating a formal mentoring program, informal mentoring through class and advising, and mentoring in research. In each, I provide opportunities for leadership, support for independent decision-making, and a safe environment for students.
Formal Mentoring: Research Aligned Mentorship Program
I am the assistant coordinator for the innovative Research Aligned Mentorship (RAM) Program, funded by the Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education Grant. Each year we accept a new cohort of 100 students who receive mentoring, targeted advising, workshops, and applied learning experiences. Serving in this role allows me to support campus practice and cultivate a culture of undergraduate research and learning aligned with community psychology values. The mentoring component of the program has received positive reviews from both mentors and students.
Student experience. My experience with RAM is beyond amazing. Coming into college I was scared: no one in my family went to college so I basically had to figure it out on my own. Through the RAM program I was required to meet with my mentor, Gina. In the beginning, I was confused and a little nervous. My mentor and I would talk about everything that confused and scared me, and she helped me adjust to college in so many different ways. She helped me with my classes, picking professors and even sometimes understanding assignments. The mental and emotional support I got can’t be explained in words, but without the help and support I got from her and the coordinators of the RAM Program, I would not have made it this far.
Informal Mentoring: Class Projects
Faculty mentors can encourage students to pursue their interests and apply social change principles through informal mentoring opportunities. Each of my classes has an applied learning component where students are asked to identify an issue of importance and do something to make a change. Students may select any topic that is important to them, and my role is to assist in identifying opportunities and processes to make small changes.
Student experience. With my community psychology classmates (all freshmen), we hosted an open mic event for our final project. The event was created after the results of the U.S. presidential election were announced. In class, we were able to discuss the election. I heard a lot of fear and worry and saw tears in some of my classmates’ faces. When I saw that I knew something had to be done and I discussed my idea with my professor. The entire class decided to work on one project of creating a safe space for people to discuss their fears and trying to bridge the divide we saw emerge on campus.
At our open mic event, people came in to discuss their point of view and their worries. Several of the administrators even came to show support for the students and want to work with us to continue the project more than a year later. My project motivated me to do more and to take leadership on campus. For once I felt like I could help and change something for the better. From that moment, I knew all it took to make a change is just one person pushing for change.
Mentoring through Research: First Generation College Student Research Team
The First-Generation College Student (FGCS) Research Team conducts qualitative research exploring what may contribute to academic success among FGCS. Students engage in collaborative thematic data analysis multiple times each week, both face-to-face and virtually, and meet bi-weekly as a whole team to review emerging findings. Mentoring students in research can be challenging, but I use it to encourage teamwork, independence, and provide guidance as needed.
Student experience learning about research: Before joining the FGCS Research Team I had little to no idea of what being on a research team entailed or if I would have the required skill set. Being on the team, I learned that I love qualitative research and had misconceptions about being on a research team as an undergraduate. I learned that anyone can be on a research team as long as there is genuine interest in the research and dedication from the team member.
There were opportunities to work on different projects within the research team. One research member presented on motivators and barriers that FGCS face in college, and I presented on the experience of doing research as an undergraduate student and what it was like to attend the SCRA Biennial. We helped each other through phone calls and text messages, providing reassurance and opinions on how to make our projects more cohesive. The research team has definitely changed the direction of my future plans because it gave me insight into a different side of psychology and made me realize that I would like to work in community psychology.
Student experience with teamwork. I think research is a fundamental part of learning. My research experience with the FGCS team has been very beneficial, and I have learned several tools that will help me as I further my educational career. In particular, I learned how to work effectively in a group even when schedule conflicts became an issue. While this was the case with my research team, we overcame this barrier by implementing the use of technology with Skype or Facetime calls. This small change made a big difference as we were able to work better and get a lot more work done. A typical research meeting consisted of at least three team members meeting virtually or in person, where we read through and themed transcripts of previously recorded interviews.
At times, my personal bias influenced my decision when theming. However, my team members helped me resolve this issue by informing me when they believed my personal biases played a role in my decision. I am grateful for my experiences as a researcher on the FGCS team. As a group, I believe we worked together effectively. Our mentor directly worked with us, ensuring that we were on the right track and provided any assistance we needed.
CASE 2: The Community Narrative Research Project at Rhodes College
Written by Anna Baker-Olson, Junior Political Science and Psychology Major; Bianca Branch, Senior Psychology Major; Karina Henderson, Senior Bonner Scholar and English Major; Anna Manoogian, Senior Psychology Major; Remi Parker, Sophomore Bonner Scholar and Psychology Major; and Elizabeth Thomas, Ph.D., Plough Chair of Urban Studies & Associate Professor of Psychology
The Community Narrative Research Project (CNRP) is an undergraduate action research initiative focused on undergraduate students’ experiences of community engagement over time. CNRP goals include contributing to scholarship in the field of community psychology, as well as advancing organizational learning and institutional change in our local context, Rhodes College.
Rhodes is a national liberal arts college located in Memphis. It is largely residential, with 75% of its 2000 students living on campus. The majority of students are traditional-aged college students, and approximately 30% are students of color. Rhodes carries the Carnegie Community Engagement Designation, and many of our students are engaged in community service. While we are known for our service, we are still working to strengthen our models of service and to better integrate engaged learning with our academic program.
At the center of our research project is the collection and analysis of narratives written by Bonner Scholars at Rhodes College over their four years working in Memphis communities as part of their scholarship. The Bonner Scholars Program aims to provide college access to students with a passion for service and social justice. Fifteen students are admitted each year; 85% of each class must have an EFC at or below $6,000 and twice as many students of color are in each Bonner class compared to the Rhodes class as a whole. Bonner scholars have a service requirement of 10 hours per week during the school year and two full summers of service.
We have chosen a narrative approach to our research with the Bonner Scholars, as it enables authors to tell their own stories and position themselves within relationships and communities. Twice a year at Bonner retreats, we have asked students to write and share narratives in response to prompts (i.e., please write about a situation related to your community service that felt particularly meaningful to you, or a situation that felt particularly awkward). After four years of data collection, we have multiple stories from approximately 120 Bonners.
Our team works as a community of practice that meets weekly for tea and roundtable discussions. During these weekly meetings, team members propose potential research questions that have emerged through close reading and analysis of the stories. The questions that have emerged in our community of practice represent multiple interpretations of our data set and originate from a variety of theoretical backgrounds.
By creating the space for collaborative work and power-sharing, professors engage in authentic mentoring. Additionally, an emphasis on mentoring relationships between 2nd and 4th year students provides a sense of continuity as the direction of the research project adapts to the ever-shifting makeup of the team. Individual student projects are often influenced by earlier student projects. Student researchers on the team participate in a research practicum in the Psychology department, which brings together students from a variety of labs. Often, researchers from the CNRP represent the only projects that use qualitative, longitudinal, and interdisciplinary methods. Our ongoing work as a community of practice has led to greater support and understanding for the role of qualitative research within the Psychology department.
Our data analysis is done within that community of practice, as well. We first read the stories individually, and see what themes or patterns stand out to us. We then reconvene and discuss the stories that we’ve read, going over the points that seemed important to each of us. By analyzing our data in this way, we take advantage of our different experiences and forms of expertise. Our current project dealing with agency and power was developed through this process: each of us had noticed something slightly different in the stories, but they all seemed to follow a theme of what the authors felt they were able, competent, or allowed to do in some way.
Confidentiality is something we take very seriously when we do this work. The identities of the authors are confidential. Stories are stripped of the author’s name and assigned a number instead. Additionally, students on the research team read the stories on a time delay, so that the stories we are reading are not written by students currently on campus with us.
The greatest aspect of the CNRP is the diversity of the team. It is important to have Bonner Scholars on the research team, especially Bonners who hold positions in leadership, such as the Bonner senior interns. Not only do Bonners provide nuanced insight into the program, but they use the CNRP data to inform how they make steps to improve the Bonner Scholars program as a whole. Since the Bonner program at Rhodes recently hired a new director, collaboration with the CNRP will give the new director a sturdy foundation.
Collaboration in the future will stress the importance of maintaining relationships with Rhodes’s community partners. Patterns in data have already indicated that there are common themes of satisfaction and dissatisfaction within specific service sites. Support from the CNRP data on service sites has, and may continue to, improve the Bonner Scholars program’s relationships with its partners. Finally, through the support of the CNRP, the college has evidence of the importance of the Bonner Scholars to the campus and the greater Memphis community.
Challenges and Recommendations
Sustaining undergraduate research can be a challenge, as undergraduate students are often introduced to research or find their own interests in research as juniors or seniors. To faculty and students alike, it can feel like just as we get going, it is time for graduation. We are challenged to make sure that knowledge and skills that are developed in the team are passed down through peer mentoring and training. In the CNRP, for example, students on the team develop nuanced understandings around coding written narratives, and they come to make expert judgments around reliability issues. This expertise must be passed down in structured and regular practice between students to be a sustainable model for research. Equally important is the rapport between team members. In the FGCS Team, rapport is paramount for challenging biases that may impact judgments made by team members and must be maintained even when team members change.
Strong undergraduate research teams also require early and broad recruitment, and we are still working on ways to do this well. We are still learning about dissemination of our practice: how do students find out about research opportunities related to social justice, and the value of research for setting and social change? How can we make research more visible in the curriculum, so it isn’t just a chance conversation with an advisor that makes research opportunities known? We know that undergraduate research is a high impact practice and one of the best ways for professors and students to learn together. We are challenged to make this opportunity more visible and accessible.
Larger institutional barriers to undergraduate action research exist as well. Colleges and universities are hierarchical, and our work through research or informal class projects may present challenges to existing structures. As community psychologists, we work in ways that include power sharing between professors and students and encourage collaboration over individual competition. There are challenges at times when we turn the lens of our action research on our own campus. At Old Westbury, class projects intended to promote campus change can quickly encounter institutional barriers and resistance to change. It is important to acknowledge the barriers while providing solutions in order to empower students to make ongoing changes. In the CNRP, even as we generate insights that are deemed useful by stakeholders on the campus, there are role tensions when evaluating and offering recommendations. In our psychology departments, faculty have not always been familiar with action research models or qualitative research more generally. It has been a challenge at times for students and faculty to communicate the value and practice of our work.
Recommendations based on Lessons Learned
There are certainly ongoing challenges and barriers to address. Yet we are rewarded in our research and mentoring practice as students and faculty, and we are committed to sustaining and building this work for the future. We offer the following recommendations:
We see the conversation around undergraduate research and mentoring as an exciting innovation in community psychology, and we are grateful to contribute to the dialogue. It is exciting to recognize undergraduate students in community psychology as knowledge producers, change agents, and leaders on campus, in communities, and in the field.