Wofford Students Conduct Research to Find Better Ways of Serving Community

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Sandra López, a junior finance major at Wofford College, loved listening to the stories of residents in Spartanburg’s Latinx community this summer as part of her summer research with a team of six students and two professors.

“I loved being able to listen to each person’s story – learning about their lives and what make them, them,” says López, who is from Enoree, South Carolina. “I loved finding similarities between my story and the people that I interviewed, even though we started out as complete strangers.”

López and the other students on the team set out to better understand how children and youth in Spartanburg County spend their out-of-school time in an effort to provide community partners with information for doing their work inclusively and effectively.

The 10-week project, “Community-Engaged Qualitative Research: Improving Outcomes for Children and Youth in Spartanburg, S.C.,” focused on understanding experiences through the use of phenomenological observation and semi-structured interviews. Students conducted observation in public areas like parks, community centers, buses and sidewalks, as well as  private spaces, like homes, into which residents invited them. The interviewing began with a very broad question, “What is a typical day like for you?,” and the student researchers asked follow-up questions based upon the respondent’s answers. The project used the same methodology for the two focus areas: (1) two census tracts in the City of Spartanburg, with a special interest in early childhood life, and (2) out-of-school time for Latinx youth in the 29303 ZIP code.

Leading the research were Dr. Laura Barbas Rhoden, professor of Spanish, and Dr. Christine Sorrell Dinkins, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Philosophy. Other student researchers on the team were Mayra Lomeli-Garcia, a junior psychology major from Charleston, South Carolina; Mariana González, a junior psychology major from Hickory, North Carolina; Hector Ortiz, a sophomore biology and Spanish major from Spartanburg; Naya Taylor, a junior biology and Spanish major from Boiling Springs, South Carolina; and Jay Stevens, a junior finance and Spanish major from Spartanburg.

The opportunity gave Stevens a new perspective. “Even though I have lived here almost 20 years, I discovered so much about Spartanburg that I had never seen before,” he says, adding that he now feels more in touch with his hometown. “This project was important, in part, because it gave me the opportunity to work toward development and progress in my town.”

Lomeli-Garcia says the experience showed her that everyone wants similar things for their families, “whether it be healthy and welcoming spaces for the family around Spartanburg or programs that would provide engaging and educational interactions to help in the development of their children’s growing experiences.

“One of the important things I learned was that a community isn’t a community when people are left out and aren’t provided the proper tools to have an equal chance of contributing their knowledge, diversity and value,” she adds. “I wanted to make sure that everyone has the same opportunity no matter their background.”

The research on early childhood was initiated by leaders in the Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM), who asked Dinkins and Barbas Rhoden to conduct qualitative research related to Early Development Instrument (EDI) data after hearing of the professors’ 2018 research, “Inclusive Placemaking in Spartanburg, S.C.: Amplifying Latinx Youth Voices through Community-Based Research.” This research study can be found at digitalcommons.wofford.edu/community/1/.

SAM is a nonprofit organization and community movement adopted in 2013 as a partnership of education, business, government, foundation, community and faith leaders across Spartanburg County, working in the pursuit of high levels of academic success for all of the county’s children.

“SAM had presented the EDI data countywide to different groups, and leaders in two neighborhoods came forward and said they wanted to take next steps,” Barbas Rhoden says. “SAM selected those neighborhoods as the focus areas for the qualitative work our team conducted.”

In addition to interest in early childhood, SAM and other organizations are working to better support Latinx adolescents and youth. Census data shows that the Latinx demographic represents 6 percent of the population and makes up more than 10 percent of the population aged 0 to 14 and 7.5 percent of the population aged 15 to 24.

“Spartanburg County organizations have engaged in coalition-driven, evidence-based, data-informed work for over a decade in efforts related to adolescent health,” their research report explains. “The success of their work in this area, and especially as it relates to teen pregnancy, has been exceptional. Nonetheless, staff members identified some areas of interest and wished to understand them better.”

For example, the Spartanburg Racial Equity Index (REI) identifies differences across groups for a wide range of areas, from health to education to employment and more. “Two data points of significance for our project are the decline of enrollment by Latinx youth in college and that Latinx residents have a consistently higher employment rate compared to non-Hispanic whites and blacks,” Barbas Rhoden says. “If area organizations want to encourage more college attainment, those two data points merit inquiry so that any strategies taken are responsive to the diverse experiences of youth in school and work in our county.”

Students on the research team – three of whom are lifelong residents of Spartanburg County – used their own connections, and SAM connected the team with neighborhood leaders, to help advance the work. The team went to public places in the community to observe and ask individuals for interviews. Those who were interviewed connected the team with others to participate. The team also held an open even in a neighborhood during which residents came for a meal and, if they were willing, participated in an interview.

“The research was about listening deeply, observing attentively and acknowledging the potential that students and residents have to build a more thriving place,” Barbas Rhoden says.

According to Dinkins, the students gathered nearly 300 pages of raw data, which they then coded and analyzed. “The data – a combination of interview participants’ voices and the students’ own observations in public spaces – is robust and complex and will serve well to inform ongoing work of our community partners.”

Savannah Ray, director of educational engagement and partnerships at SAM, adds, “We believed their approach to gathering qualitative data could be extremely beneficial in guiding research to answer the question of why the data looks the way it does and further inform action steps around how we can continue working together to improve neighborhood outcomes.”

Preliminary analysis of the research data has been shared with SAM, the Way to Wellville staff, leaders with the Bethlehem Center and United Way, community leaders in Forest Park and the principal and teachers at Meeting Street Academy, with full data scheduled to be released in early 2020. The student researchers also presented at the recent SoCon Undergraduate Research Forum held at Wofford.

Prepared by Wofford College.