Undergraduates Pursue Community-Engaged Research through Fellowships
Mutually-beneficial partnerships in healthcare, the sciences, environmental studies and the arts bring creativity and collaboration to the forefront of students’ experience.
By Jenny Pedraza
Over the course of the summer, four undergraduate Virginia Commonwealth University students have gained experience in community-engaged research (CEnR) through the The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). In partnership with the Office of the Provost, the Center for Community Engagement and Impact (CEI) funds the fellowships in order to contribute to students’ disciplines and strengthen the well-being of the community through collaborative community-engaged research.
Amanda Hall, Ph.D., director of community-engaged research and special projects in the CEI, refers to the university’s ONEVCU research strategic plan to “enrich the human experience and advance human health through creative, collaborative and community-engaged research” when stressing the importance of the student fellowships.
“In order to embrace this mission, we need to begin at the undergraduate level and create pathways that are equitable, accessible and inclusive – and community-engaged research is a perfect opportunity for that,” Hall said. “As a public institution for the public good, everything we do has a public purpose, and we must impart that to our students through opportunity and hands-on experience.”
Since 2014, 21 CEnR UROP fellowships have been awarded. The CEI holds an orientation training every year in May for the fellows, providing an overview of community-engaged research best practices. Topics in the training include an overview of CEnR, partnership development, methods and analysis and dissemination. Additional resources and support are also provided.
Students partner with a faculty mentor to complete a summer research project; students receive $1,500 each, and their faculty mentors receive $500.
The 2020 CEnR UROP fellows are:
- Junior Sara Debab, science major, and Dina Garcia, PhD., assistant professor in the Dept. of Health Behavior and Policy, School of Medicine. Their research involves determining community readiness to initiate efforts to address the health needs of Latinx in the Galax, Va. region.
- Senior Jessie Feng, biology/chemistry double major with a minor in psychology, and Amanda Hall, PhD., director of community-engaged research and special projects in the CEI. Their research involves exploring possible areas of medical mis/distrust between VCU Health Systems and the Richmond community.
- Senior Elijah Scaparo, arts sculpture major with an environmental studies minor, and Lily Cox-Richard, assistant professor, VCUarts. Their research involves establishing permaculture as a space for community gathering, organizing and education surrounding native flora.
- Senior Kayla Seabolt, music education-choral major, and Erin Freeman, director of choral activities in the Dept. of Music, VCUarts. Their research involves a project related to the Recovery Ally Choir.
Herbert Hill, director of undergraduate research and creative inquiry in the Office of Academic Affairs, said students and their mentors have been able to continue their research projects despite the challenges of the pandemic and current social unrest. He said even teams that lost access to their labs or research spaces were able to adapt and pivot, showing extraordinary courage and commitment.
UROP fellows present their research each spring at the Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research. Due to COVID-19, last spring’s event was moved to the fall and now has been re-imagined in a virtual format. The 2020 Undergraduate Research Poster Showcase website allows students to display their research posters, receive some much-deserved recognition and give the community easy access to the research.
“After working in support of student researchers for ten years now, the trait that characterizes them all across their diverse demographics, majors and projects is their persistence and grit,” Hill said. “I think that students sometimes are under the misimpression that research is reserved for the very smartest, or those with the highest GPAs, or only STEM majors – and that’s just not the case. The students who do well with a research experience are those who are able to persist through challenges and setbacks. Those who are able to pivot from adversity and find innovative ways to respond to it positively. If there is a secret to success in research, that is it.”