Screen shot of a Zoom meeting with six SUPER fellows and Cassandra Cotton

Undergrad researchers navigate COVID-19, racism and the move to online learning

By

John Keeney

Aug. 19, 2020 will be remembered as a historic date for years to come, as it marks the day that a woman of color was first nominated to run for the second most powerful position in the American government.

As fellows participating in Arizona State University's T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics' Summer Undergraduate Program for Engaging with Research (SUPER) this last June found in their research projects, Kamala Harris’ nomination to the Democratic presidential ticket for the 2020 election will be a watershed moment for Arizona’s underrepresented youth, who are looking for political leaders who look like them.

As Cara, a young Latina who was interviewed as part of this year’s research project said, “The underrepresentation of my community (is what motivated me to become politically involved). Having leaders who represent me and want something better ... Having a voice is important.”

Increased representation is not only important in politics, it’s also important in other spaces, such as social science research, where people from nonwhite racial and ethnic groups make up less than 10% of university professors. SUPER is a program created precisely to increase the representation of people from underrepresented groups in social science research careers. In SUPER, students are exposed to research in social sciences and related careers, work on their own research projects, learn about diversity-related issues in research careers and develop their career goals. 

This year, SUPER fellows were in for a very special research experience, thanks to SUPER’s collaboration with the Arizona Youth Identity Project, a research study from the School of Social and Family Dynamics led by Nilda Flores-GonzalezAngela GonzalezEmir EstradaEdward Vargas and Nathan Martin.

This project, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation, is examining how rapidly changing economic, demographic and political dynamics shape young adults’ political identities and political participation during the months leading up to and following the 2020 U.S. elections, and amid a pandemic.

Nilda Flores-Gonzalez, professor and associate director at the School of Social and Family Dynamics, provided an accelerated hands-on research practicum on interviewing to this year’s six SUPER fellows who were tasked with testing the interview guide. SUPER fellows recruited participants, and conducted, transcribed and analyzed interviews to develop their individual research projects.

These planned changes were intensified by two pandemics that made this SUPER experience an even more exceptional one than anyone could have expected. First, just as the fellows were finding out that they had been accepted into the program, the coronavirus pandemic was making its way into the United States. As a result, a program that had previously required students to be on campus 20 hours a week for six weeks had to be redesigned and moved online in a matter of weeks.

“We selected our fellows just as ASU announced plans to go online for the spring semester, so we held out hope that we could be together in person in the summer. When it became clear that this wouldn’t be possible, we went into high-gear to figure out how to teach the fellows digital data collection techniques and how we could create a sense of community between our fellows and the broader (School of Social and Family Dynamic) community,” said Cassandra Cotton, assistant professor at the School of Social and Family Dynamics. Cotton was one of the co-organizers and instructors of SUPER, along with Assistant Research Professor Manuela Jimenez and Lecturer Casey Sechler.

Despite this unexpected change of plans, all the 2020 SUPER fellows who were initially accepted for the program remained committed and got to work with the program every Monday morning at 9 a.m.

“Even though this was a last-minute change, obviously, because of COVID, I think it was pretty cool that we still were able to have the experience and be a part of something,” said Jamie Medina, one of this year’s fellows. 

Then, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed in Minnesota. This event brought the pandemic of racism to the country’s forefront and gave way to a national racial reckoning. In an example of monumental political and civic engagement, the actions that ended in Floyd’s death led to large, nationwide protests against police brutality, particularly against Black people. These protests took place just as the SUPER fellows were interviewing local youth about their political engagement, with questions around topics such as their experiences of racial discrimination and what they consider to be the most important political issues facing the country.

Floyd’s death and the following protests highlighted the relevance of the projects that the fellows were doing as spaces that would improve our understanding of how and why youth engage with the betterment of our country, and the importance of their participation to reduce existing inequalities and transform the country.

The 2020 cohort of SUPER fellows finished the program and their projects with a new sense of urgency and social responsibility. In their final presentations to faculty, friends and family, the fellows expertly discussed projects targeting questions that ranged from how youth’s racial experiences influence their political engagement to how mixed-race adolescents experience racial conflict within their families. 

Marcella Gemelli, senior lecturer and online graduate program director of sociology in the School of Social and Family Dynamics, highlighted the poise with which the students shared their work: “I really enjoyed seeing and hearing how confident these young researchers were describing their work, reporting their findings, and answering questions.”  

Masumi Iida, associate professor at the school who attended the fellows’ final presentations, said, “I was thoroughly impressed with every one of their thoughtful projects. It is truly amazing what they can accomplish in just six weeks ... and how the course and data collection unfolded over the social justice movement. ... What an amazingly rich data in the critical juncture of the U.S. history.”

Flores-Gonzalez added, “We were able to give the fellows a significant research experience in those few weeks. Some had little or no research experience but with encouragement and guidance met the challenge head-on. We had given them feedback on their presentations and during their rehearsals, but I was in awe seeing one after another excelling in their presentations.”

As the fall semester started, the SUPER fellows were ready to bring what they learned over the summer. Despite the change to a remote program, the fellows expressed excitement about the skills they had learned and the connections they had made with faculty.

Elisa Thomas, a rising sophomore, gained confidence in her ability to create connections with faculty, something she feels is important to have learned early in her academic career.

“It’s extremely helpful to know that there’s someone there that I can turn to and it won’t feel uncomfortable. To have people that actually want to be there for me is really nice to know. I’m so glad I did this as an incoming sophomore,” Thomas said.

Though later in her academic career, Anabel Figueroa similarly felt that meeting faculty in this more informal space made her feel welcomed in reaching out later on, saying, “It opens the door for us to go talk to them, because that’s what they highly encouraged. It truly made a great impact not only on us as students, but also on building those connections with them as faculty.”

Just like Cara said in her interview about political engagement, participating in SUPER highlighted for several fellows why their voices and perspectives are important in research.

Thomas noted, “Being someone of color, I think it’s just shown me that my perspective can be beneficial.” 

Medina, too, found a place in research, in which she had previously “felt kind of left out.”

“I feel like before, it was very intimidating. Just because you see your professor up there in the front, and in a big class. And it’s just kind of intimidating because sometimes they’ll talk about their research, and I feel like ... their research is kind of for elite students. And (SUPER) made me realize that anyone who is interested in research can be a part of it.”  

Medina will continue to be engaged in research during the fall semester as a research assistant in the Arizona Youth Identity Project.