Thursday, September 27, 2018

Thank Goodness for Sociologists!

Sociologists look at our world, identify our human habits, trends, or issues, and like archaeologists they dig deeper. The “shovel” of their trade is research. Sociologists use formal, step-by-step research to confirm or deny their observations or questions. Unlike archaeologists, sociologists can’t just order their shovels online. Sociologists must learn and develop their research skills through education and application.

Reynolds Professor of Sociology Dr. Gayle D’Andrea knows excellent research skills are essential for the success of her students. She also knows how excellent research skills and solid data can be used to unearth our most pressing human needs and lay the groundwork for solutions and change. 

So, in 2017 when she was looking for a project to challenge her Honors students, build their research skills, AND help them comprehend how their intended profession could change the world, like a true sociologist she posed a question . . . a question embedded deeply in her students’ world.

Do the trends of Reynolds students match those of other college students throughout the US? A major national research study found students experiencing food and housing insecurity had lower academic success than students without those pressures. Dr. D’Andrea challenged her students to use their sociology “shovels” and dig out an answer: were the pressures of student life at Reynolds the same as those of students in California, Texas, Missouri or Maine?

Her students began to dig. Following a standard research model they reviewed the literature, got permission from the college for their study, developed a survey instrument, put together a student sample, and conducted their research. The answer: yes, Reynolds student success was affected by food and housing insecurities in the same way as other students across the country.

But that wasn’t all. Dr. D’Andrea’s students compiled their data into a presentation delivered at the Faculty Symposium. Their work was so sound, Dr. D’Andrea then submitted their findings for publication to the VCCS academic journal, Inquiry. The paper is currently under review.

Aside from the excitement, the learning, and the full circle completion of the project, there was another important outcome. Not just one for the students, but an outcome for the whole of the Reynolds community: awareness of an issue. Then the question became, if food and housing insecurity affect enrollment and retention, what can we do to address these challenges?

In the fall of 2018 Dr. D’Andrea posed a new question to her next group of Honors students. A follow up national study had found that mental health and substance abuse also affected the success of college students. Was this true at Reynolds as well? Again, the students were challenged to follow the rigors of academic research to find an answer. Again, it was a resounding “yes”: Reynolds students experienced the same pressures.

And again the students prepared a presentation and delivered it, along with their professor, at the annual Faculty Symposium. Dr. D’Andrea remembered their comments: “I can’t believe I am doing this! I can’t believe teachers are listening to US!” For them, the project wasn’t just something to list on their resumes, they were excited that their efforts had an impact, and they understood for the first time on a visceral level that the academic process is relevant and can be used to influence change.

Indeed, what the students discovered – that food and housing insecurity, mental health and substance abuse impact the success of Reynolds students – could not have come at a better time. With the decline in enrollment and retention, the college administration is looking at all factors that contribute to student success and well-being, and like Dr. D’Andrea, they are asking questions: What can we do differently? How can we change? How can we use our knowledge and resources to help our students?

Thanks goodness for sociologists! With the help of Dr. D’Andrea, and the diligence and digging of her students, meaningful answers to these questions are beginning to surface.

(Dr. Gayle D' Andrea is pictured above, bottom row center, with her students. Back row left to right is Mary Fishwick, Grace Swal, Stephanie Cull, and Charles Raum. Bottom row left is Sarah Brown, bottow row right is Donald Cooper.)