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Summer Field School Program Opens Community Doors: Graduate Students Gain Expertise in Actual Research Settings

Graduate Field Studies in Sustainable Community Research Faculty Participants:

  • Mary Armstrong (FMHI/Social Work),
  • Sara Green (Sociology),
  • Susan Greenbaum (Anthropology),
  • Antoinette Jackson (Anthropology),
  • Maggie Kusenbach (Sociology),
  • Teresa Nesman (FMHI/Anthropology),
  • Joko Sengova (FMHI/Linguistics), Barbara Shircliffe (Education),
  • Marc Tasse (FMHI/Psychology),
  • Graham Tobin (Geography),
  • Amy Vargo (FMHI/Anthropology),
  • Beverly Ward (FMHI/Anthropology)

FMHI faculty and USF graduate students have wrapped up an intensive training program aimed at assessing and ultimately improving the condition of current and future communities. Funding provided by the USF Graduate School enabled students to participate in the “Graduate Field Studies in Sustainable Community Research” program, offered for this first time this summer. Students earned credits by completing two courses and participating in research projects currently conducted by USF faculty aimed at helping communities build on a variety of strengths and resources to provide positive and productive environments for their members.

The program engaged students from various fields of study in team research and provided guidance by interdepartmental faculty teams from departments including anthropology, sociology, geography, education and child and family studies.

Of the six interdisciplinary faculty teams formed for the program, four teams included FMHI faculty. The team of Drs. Teresa Nesman and Joko Sengova, both from FMHI, worked with students interested in research on mental health and education-related challenges among African-American and Latino youth, their families, and their communities. Students focused on the educational success of disadvantaged high school students participating in the federally funded Gear Up (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program) program, housed at Hillsborough High School.

“ The summer field school provided students with a great opportunity to gain expertise in actual research settings,” said Teresa Nesman. “They were able to build critical research and evaluation skills necessary to become leading experts in community sustainability issues.”

Caroline Parrish, a Social Science Secondary Education MAT student, worked with the Gear Up students during English II and English III summer remedial classes. She was interested in finding ways to enhance the proficiency in reading and writing necessary to successfully learn in a number of disciplines that require large amounts of reading.

“ Before the classes began, all the students had failed their English subjects,” said Caroline. “After the classes were over, a 100% failure rate changed to an 82% success rate. It was clear that having more individualized attention and less distraction during this summer program played a large part in this success.”

Gear Up student Caroline realized the importance of having a wide variety of strategies available for all students. “After observing the classes and interviewing most of the Gear UP personnel and school staff, I was able to see how it does take a community to make successful learning a reality for every student,” said Caroline. “I learned that students want teachers to pull the information out of the textbooks and make it real and relevant to their lives. I realized that students have different backgrounds, so everyone involved in their education needs to know what's going on outside the classroom in order to provide the best environment for what's going on inside the classroom. The Gear Up Summer Program definitely needs to be sustained!”

“ Although I had been in a research setting before, the field school opened new doors as it made me aware of the realities in a U.S. high school,” said Arland Nguema, PhD Student, Applied Anthropology who also worked with the Gear Up program. “I was struck by the professionalism and dedication of GEAR UP personnel. They always had ears and eyes for the kids.”

“ I think the field school was an excellent opportunity to work and exchange ideas with students in other disciplines,” added Jessica Mazza, MSPH student in Behavioral Health. Jessica was teamed up with FMHI’s Associate Professor Marc Tasse (along with Dr. Sara Green from the Department of Sociology) to study ways in which individuals with disabilities and their families feel a sense of community in the face of stigma that often accompanies the disability. Jessica interviewed parents and discussed their 18-year-old son, whose severe developmental disability left him non-verbal and completely reliant on others for his personal care.

“ This couple had absolutely no respite in the care of their son, and community-based supports in their area were practically non-existent,” said Jessica. “Knowing their son would receive the kind of care that they themselves could not provide, the parents were forced to place him in a residential school about an hour away from their home – an extremely painful and difficult decision for them. It is my hope that we can help strengthen the service array here in our own local area, and coordinate these services in such a way that families are not forced to make the painful decision of having to place their child in residential treatment in order to obtain appropriate services.”

“ Our students gained tremendous insight into family life for parents who have raised a son or daughter with a disability,” said Dr. Tasse. “They gained a better understanding of disabilities, family issues dealing with someone who has a disability, availability or lack thereof – of resources in the community and choices families make of where to move – largely driven by issues specific to their child’s disability and what the perspective community might have to offer in terms of supports.”

FMHI Drs. Amy Vargo and Mary Armstrong mentored students interested in learning how policy analysis can shape services for children who have been or are at risk of being abused or neglected. Students worked with the Community-Based Care and IV-E Waiver Evaluation project teams, participating in focus groups with state level child welfare administrators, private, not for profit lead agency administrative teams, and child protection investigators.

“ The focus groups for child protective investigators provided much needed information about investigators’ understanding of the child welfare system, its strengths and weaknesses, and their attitudes regarding the risk factors of poverty, race/ethnicity, and issues like substance abuse,” said graduate student Amanda Terry.

“ Students examined issues such as the public private partnership, policy implementation, differences between investigations conducted by the Department of Children and Families compared to local Sheriff's Offices, and consideration of cultural issues within the context of a child abuse investigation,” said Amy Vargo. “The experience has enabled them to be more aware of legislatively-mandated areas of cost efficiency, quality of care, and child level outcomes such as safety, permanency and wellbeing.”

“ I was overwhelmed by the students,” said Beverly Ward, who along with Susan Greenbaum from Anthropology mentored students selected to help research the impact of relocations from public housing demolitions in Tampa. The faculty team also mentored students who selected individual research projects ¬ some directly related to their dissertation research ¬ that could contribute to the faculty’s larger goals of research. Projects included a longitudinal study of African American high school athletes, a community heritage study, youth in public housing, and disaster recovery. “This was for many their first exposure to qualitative research and rapid assessment, and from the feedback I’ve received, the experience was very beneficial for them.”

Looking back over the first summer field school experience, Beverly Ward hopes additional programs in sustainable community research will follow. “Students were taught the tools necessary to conduct research and were able to experience the immediacy of using them,” said Ward. “It was a full experience, and one all graduate students should be given the opportunity.”

For additional information, contact Beverly Ward at 813-974-9773.

(Photo above: Arland Nguema, PhD (right) student in Applied Anthropology spends time with Gear Up student Jamalial Bultron, who was enrolled in English II this summer and earned a final grade of B.)

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