Student-Faculty Research Opportunities

Undergraduate Research Poster

BSW students are actively involved in many collaborative research projects. Research in the BSW program includes projects on foster care, child welfare & disabilities, domestic violence organizations, and the immigration experience of the Hmong community. There is funding on both campuses to support you in working with faculty and completing research. Student-faculty research collaboration provides an excellent opportunity to develop professional research, writing and presentation skills, while being mentored and developing an area of research expertise. Often, the best place to start is to talk with a faculty member who is completing research in an area that interests you. Faculty interests»

To learn more about undergraduate student research opportunities at St. Thomas, visit Grants & Research Office»

To learn more about undergraduate student research opportunities at St. Kate's, visit Collaborative Undergraduate Research»

Three social work students presented their community-based research at Oct. 6 Inquiry at UST poster session

View abstracts of recent student-faculty research funded by grants:

Fall 2016

This study explored the relationship between food security and caregiver’s financial and emotional stress levels. Caregivers are a hidden and understudied population that is profoundly impacted when a family member becomes ill. Food insecurity primarily affects low-income Americans and is further exacerbated by chronic illness. This study collaborated with Open Arms of Minnesota, which prepares and delivers free, nutritious meals to chronically ill community members and their caregivers throughout the Twin Cities metro area.

Participants included ten caregivers of family members with cancer or AIDS who received meals from Open Arms. Qualitative interviews asked caregivers to share perspectives on the financial and emotional stress that comes with caring for an ill family member, as well as the degree to which they use and value the Open Arms meals. Findings revealed that most male caregivers expressed difficulty conforming to the caregiver role, participants described Open Arms as a stable, empathetic part of their support system that provides comfort through food and relationships. They reported a 4.5-point drop in stress levels once families started receiving services, and linked their decreased financial stress to Open Arms. Services like Open Arms are able to reduce a caregiver’s stress level simply by supporting them with compassion and a basic need, food. Social service agencies are instrumental in providing support to this population and in turn reducing caregiver stress levels that allow for reallocation of their personal resources. Community agencies must continue to understand the dynamics of being a caregiver and connect clients to resources, like Open Arms, that provide support and nourishment.

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Ande Nesmith

Fall 2015

Objective: Through foster parent perspectives, the present study examines how training foster parents on brain development and the biological effects of trauma influences parenting methods.

Method: Twelve parents and eight staff were separately invited to participate in focus groups in a local foster care agency. A total of eleven households were represented. I recorded and transcribed the focus group and interviews. I looked for patterns in their stories and found keywords and phrases to identify themes. I used these themes and quotes to understand how the program influenced parenting.
Results: Analyses revealed five themes: 1) learning how to reframe and normalize behaviors, 2) not taking things personally, 3) de-escalation techniques, 4) deeper understanding of brain functions and trauma, and 5) dealing with the complexities of trauma. Although there were many key points and important information taken away from the sessions, every need was not met through the trainings and expectations were different. Overall, the training provided information and techniques required for trauma-informed parenting.

Conclusions: Many of the parents felt that this training should be mandatory for every foster parent across the board because it was that helpful. This is a slow and consistent process that requires reiteration and repetition. Changes and connections in the brain that trauma has effected does not change overnight. There has been a change in thinking and a change in their reaction to their youth in care, which is the beginning. The parents now stop and ask themselves how they would behave if they had gone through these traumatic experiences. Parents are more sensitive, empathic, and gracious. They gained a deeper understanding of the dynamics that occur between themselves and the children they work with. Parents are looking for more information in order to continually parent the youth in their care effectively.

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Andrea Nesmith

Fall 2015

I partnered with a local program, TXT4Life, which offers text-based crisis counseling to reach young people across Minnesota. Text-based crisis counseling is beneficial to adolescents and young adults in crisis who are uncomfortable with other types of crisis services. There is little research on text counseling and no qualitative studies of text transcripts like this.

I used a qualitative research design and analyzed text counseling transcripts to identify themes, and compared and contrasted the relationship between the way texters begin the conversation and how quickly they responded to counselors. Using a random sample of 24 text counseling conversations, I analyzed the data by identifying patterns in communication, using commonalities in words and phrases to define themes. I used the themes to explain the relationship between text openers and texter reactions.

A quick response was 1-4 minutes; therefore, I used this information to determine how quickly the texter’s responses were. I grouped each conversation into one of 4 categories: quick responses, slow responses, conversations with a few larger gaps, and responses change from quick to slow throughout the conversation. The first theme was that quick responses are more likely to be repeat callers. This shows that those who are repeat callers know how this service works. Another theme was that those who have some gaps within the conversation say they are suicidal. This is interesting because one would guess that someone who is suicidal would want to be on top of the conversation. The last theme was that those who present multiple issues at the start of the conversation do not have very quick responses. After reviewing texting conversations I found compelling evidence that there is indeed a correlation between the beginning of the conversation and how quickly they respond to the counselor.

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Andrea Nesmith

Fall 2015

My research project looked into programs that help foster youth gain socio-emotional success as they transition to independent living. To do so, I partnered with Connections to Independence, an agency in Minneapolis that provides services to help current foster youth and former foster youth as they gain independence. My aim was to develop a logic model depicting how the programs at Connections to Independence are intended to bring about positive socio- emotional outcomes for the youth they work with. This model also explains the connection between their services, philosophy, and ways of working with youth toward specific outcomes. To accomplish this, I collected information about their current programming and service goals through document analysis and meetings with the program director and executive director of the agency. I also conducted interviews with agency staff to learn how they run programs and how they interact with their clients. Finally, I interviewed young adults to learn their perspectives on how the organization helps them achieve socio-emotional success. Using this information, I compiled the results into a visual model so the agency can see how they directly impact youth. This model was then given to the agency for use at conferences, presentations to funders and for professional development.

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Andrea Nesmith

Spring 2015

Foster youth aging out of care are particularly vulnerable as they transition to adulthood. While still in care, they experience high rates of disrupted education, teen pregnancy, and frequent placement moves. After discharge, they experience significant problems achieving steady employment and stable housing. The recurring transitions these youth endure are especially challenging. This three-year longitudinal study examines the effectiveness of the Bridges’ Transitions Framework at helping adolescents in foster care cope with their past transitions, their impending transition to adulthood as they exit care, and measures of well-being post-discharge. This study builds on previous work assessing the utility of the framework with this population. Working with a local foster care agency, data were gathered over four points in time over three years. Sixty-three foster youth, 7 foster parents, and 10 social workers participated in the study. A mixed-methods design was used to assess the effectiveness of the framework on critical well-being outcomes including housing, employment, education, social support, and coping with change. Youth perceptions about transitions improved significantly from pre- to post-tests. They were significantly more likely to report that they were confident, they could make positive changes in their lives, were able to learn about themselves by reflecting on their lives, and could count on another person to support them. At discharge, youth exposed to the framework were more likely to be living independently (43%) and hold a high school diploma or GED (86%) than the comparison group (28% and 64%, respectively). Qualitatively, the youth presented very positive and lasting reactions to the framework. They saw it as a turning point in their lives toward better communication with others and held a clearer understanding of their feelings and reactions. Social workers and foster parents also provided a positive review of the framework’s utility and ease of use.

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Andrea Nesmith

Article from Inquiry at UST, Fall 2014:

Claire Smart, Alison Paz, and Lauren Olson are three UST seniors who’ve had the opportunity to collaborate while getting their feet wet in research. Together, the three are working under the guidance of social work professor Dr. Ande Nesmith on an ongoing study about foster youth transitions.

“The Transitions program was originally created to help businesses transition through changes,” Smart said, explaining the principles behind the project. In its original form, the Transitions program prepared employees who were going through corporate change by telling them what to expect at each stage. “We’re analyzing how well the program works for kids that are transitioning out of foster care,” Smart said.

Funding for this three-year study was provided by an external grant from the Andrus Family Fund, and data was collected from Family Alternatives—a Minneapolis-based foster care and adoption agency—via qualitative and quantitative surveys, with other UST graduate and undergraduate students taking part in the research along the way.

Smart, Paz and Olson all joined the study as research assistants in 2014. They’ve worked as a team to pull together and analyze the study’s different data sets, sharing responsibilities as they go. All three of the women have appreciated the opportunity to work together on this project. “There is value in other perspectives, especially in research, and having that has been really interesting,” Olson said.

Working together now also helps to prepare them for the way it will be in the future, according to Smart. “In social work, you’re often working on a team,” she said. “It helps to be able to bounce ideas o each other.”
For Paz, the hands-on experience helped bring her classroom learning to life. “I didn’t know a lot about the foster care system before this project, so this made it very real,” Paz said. “I also think the experience has been rewarding in learning how I work and by developing my work ethic.”

Olson also found overcoming the challenges of the project to be rewarding.

It was difficult to go through and read a lot of different interviews and be able to pull out themes, common threads among them,” she said. “Working with Excel and with data analysis has also been hard, but it’s been rewarding to see my own personal progress.”

Throughout the process, Olson’s teammates were there for support. “Working on a team is great—we always start o our meetings with a check in, which I appreciate,” Smart said. “I think it helps our work too, knowing that we’re not just here to get the work done but we’re also here to support each other.”

All three women recommend getting involved in research as a way to get hands-on experience in the field before graduation.

“It wasn’t until this past year that I really understood that being a research assistant was an opportunity available to me,” Olson said. “There is really important research being done in social work, so this kind of opportunity is valuable for students—and everyone else.”

Fall 2014

This research project focused on examining the impact the Link’s Juvenile Supervision Center (JSC) has on juvenile crime rates in Minneapolis. The JSC is used to divert youth away from the detention centers to community-based organizations. The JSC assists youth in connecting them to resources in their community. The project attempted to evaluate the efficacy of the JSC’s interventions, using both quantitative and qualitative methods. There were two components used in the project. The first was analyzing police data from the city of Minneapolis. We examined the crime rates in each precinct in Minneapolis for two years before the JSC was implemented, and four years after the JSC was implemented. We ran correlations of the two to figure out if the JSC has helped to decrease crime in Minneapolis, and the results were inconclusive. The qualitative component of this project involved interviews with professionals that interact with the JSC, and it was found that the JSC has made a great impact on the communities in Minneapolis. For example, many of the professionals agreed the JSC does a great job connecting youth to community resources, getting the youth on track in school, and preventing the youth who use the JSC from getting deeper involved in the justice system.

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Katharine Hill

Spring 2014

This project assesses the utility and effectiveness of a foster care model designed to improve youth transitions to adulthood. The model engages the youth’s social network, helps youth to develop supportive, ongoing relationships with adults, and is heavily focused on youth empowerment. A three-year evaluation of 88 foster youth revealed that youth exposed to the model felt they had more power over their lives, had a wider variety of supportive adults in their lives, and could better regulate their emotions than those in a comparison group.

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Ande Nesmith

Spring 2014

This research project focused on the connections between social work and the environment. This research project involved conducting individual interviews of social work students in order to see what they knew about environmental problems, how they thought environmental problems impact their social work careers, and if they thought incorporating environmental issues into the social work curriculum would be beneficial for their future careers. The results from the interviews showed that social work students did not know very much about environmental issues, but they felt like these issues impact their clients and their work as social workers.

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Ande Nesmith

Spring 2014

The current situation for girls today is that seven out of ten believe that they are not good enough or don’t measure up in some way, including their looks. Supported by past research, the struggle of teenage girls today is defining their deep identity and expressing it outwardly. Clothing is one way that girls express themselves and their image outwardly. Research is the past has not spoken directly to teenage girls about the problems that they face. Thus, I developed my research around focus groups. I wanted to hear what the girls had to say about this issue. Their thoughts are not only surprising but express much truth.

Understanding the struggles of teenage girls is a two-part process. First, you must allow them to define the issue. I asked the girls, how do you see the issue? Responses ranged from trying to fit in with others to being the hardest critiques on themselves. Second, give them space to define the solutions. What does it mean to be confident? To love who you are and to let that shine was one such answer. What a girl wears says something about who she is at the core: her heart, what she honors, and her personality. It is important to ask girls questions and allow them to figure out the solutions on their own. How would you describe your clothing? Let them think about how they define themselves because a girl’s clothing is her own just like her identity. The result is girls knowing what is already there, being authentic, and ignoring pressures to conform. In other words teenage girls learn to be independent and dress for themselves, not others. And ultimately this transformation shines onto other girls and encourages them to outwardly express their true selves.

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Ande Nesmith

Spring 2014

Despite widespread international success of microenterprise, scholars question whether this approach is viable for poverty alleviation in the US. Existing research indicates that, given the highly regulated and competitive economic environment in the U.S., people with fewer resources, education, and social networks are particularly challenged to start and maintain a small business. We evaluated the effectiveness of a microenterprise development program initiated in 2010 by a St. Paul based non-profit organization which adapted a model commonly used in the developing world to provide microloans and training to potential entrepreneurs in one urban and one rural setting in Minnesota. We conducted 26 semi-structured interviews and an online survey with program stakeholders to investigate the impact of this program. The urban microenterprise initiative has repaid all outstanding loans, continues to cover costs of business, and has recruited 80 consigners. Despite no significant increase to entrepreneurs’ individual incomes, this initiative was successful in increasing entrepreneurs’ business skills and bolstering social networks. Participants in the rural initiative, which used an individual lending approach, reported high satisfaction with training, but none applied for a loan. Further, shame and stigma around poverty emerged as a strong theme in both urban and rural interviews. Our research demonstrates that microenterprise is a feasible undertaking when individuals with diverse skills and resources come together, as was the case with the urban initiative. Our research furthers scholarship in a critique of microenterprise as an individual intervention for a systemic problem.

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Richa Dhanju