Community Partnerships and Real-world Data Bring Refugee Health to Life in Undergraduate Course

March 8, 2021

By Colin Birkhead, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Sociology

Colin Birkhead.Through a Collaborative Project Expedition in Summer 2020, I had the opportunity to work with Jen’nan Read to redesign her Sociology 255: Immigration and Health course. Our goal was to create hands-on, project-based learning experiences with a local community partner that would enhance in-class lectures and academic readings on immigrant and refugee health. 

Jen’nan and I partnered with Rob Callus, Director of Youth Services at World Relief Durham (WRD), a federally funded agency that assists refugees by providing academic resources, translation services, transportation and many other services to help integrate refugees into the United States and lessen the burdens of relocation.

Course Redesign

Over the summer, I worked with Jen’nan and Rob to develop five course projects designed to integrate with course readings and give undergraduates a real-world understanding of refugee experiences and WRD’s integration efforts. Each project consists of three parts:

  1. Analyzing and visualizing anonymized data from WRD to uncover broad, descriptive insights on refugee experiences
  2. Grounding WRD’s integration programs in current literature on immigration, resettlement and refugee health/mental health
  3. Applying theories to assess the efficacy of WRD’s programs, and, when appropriate, offering program recommendations  

Through these projects, undergraduates will observe real-world examples of the topics and theories they learned in the classroom. Students in the course will work with real data from WRD on refugee children, and they’ll be able to see how this data corresponds with larger sociological conclusions and policy decisions about these populations. They’ll also get to create proposals or address high priority questions that WRD works on every day, generating a learning experience that is more meaningful, educational and memorable than traditional lecture-only courses. Importantly, WRD should also benefit from students’ projects in that they’ll gain useful information about the populations the organization serves and the efficacy of its programs.  

Organization of Work and Time

In order to design these projects and ensure they would make sense for the class and our community partner, my summer of work was broken into three interrelated phases.

Information gathering and relationship building (20% of my time)

First, Jen’nan and I met multiple times to flesh out the goals of the course transformation. At the same time, I spent a few weeks getting to know WRD staff and what the organization does as a whole. I was lucky to be able to build on Jen’nan’s previous relationship with WRD, so, even before the project began, there was trust between both parties, and we all had the same general idea about how the project would unfold. 

Jen’nan’s and Rob’s investment in the project was a major reason my work was successful. Both were interested pushing the project forward and were generous with their time. Rob, in particular, was quite patient with me as I learned the ins and outs of WRD.

Data management (50% of my time)

Much of my summer was spent transforming the raw data from WRD into usable formats for the class projects. The goal was to take data from multiple sources and transform it into one large, anonymized, wide-format panel that could then be spliced for the individual projects. 

The original data came in a few different of formats (e.g., scanned PDFs of paper report cards from schools, CSVs produced from Google Forms surveys filled out by WRD employees and refugee families, and records manually entered in Excel workbooks by WRD employees), but there was little consistency within each record format and even less consistency between formats. As such, the first part of transforming the raw data from WRD was getting consistency within formats. The second part of the process included getting consistency across formats so we could track how the student refugees were faring in multiple of settings. This mainly consisted of hand-correcting typos and inconsistencies in students’ names to link records of one type to another by student. Ultimately, by the end of the process we had clean, anonymized data for students to use for their projects.

Project and syllabus development (30% of my time)

The third phase of work included developing the projects themselves and resetting the conceptual and logistical framework of the course. Once we knew what data we were using and how it could be cleaned and deployed, I worked with Jen’nan to revise the list of readings and lectures so that the course content would inform students’ work with the data. Jen’nan and I also worked to revise the timing of course content and project milestones and consider assessment and grading. 

Overcoming Challenges

While this experience was positive overall, I did experience some difficulties that I think would be applicable to any future Collaborative Project Expeditions. For example, one barrier I had to overcome was reconciling what project outcomes would be ideal (e.g., causal inference using the community partner’s data) with what was practical (e.g., descriptive analysis only). This barrier was exacerbated by the differences in how researchers use terms like “treatment” and “intervention” versus how the terms are used colloquially. We (mostly me) simply had to adjust expectations of what is possible in a single semester to overcome this barrier.

Another challenge was balancing the workload by week and coordinating the schedules of multiple busy people. The amount of work I could get done each week partially depended on whether I was waiting for information or input from my Duke and WRD partners. I think I was mostly successful in adhering to the ~7 hours of work per week average, working 10-15 hours some weeks and just 2-3 hours others. I imagine the mutual trust and generally amicable relationship between all parties made this aspect of the project less challenging.           

Personal and Professional Gains

This experience has been useful for me, and I have already gained from the project. In particular, I now have a blueprint for creating project-based courses, and I plan on applying this experience to my area of expertise to create a new course (or at least create new projects within an existing course) that ties real-world examples from a community partner with theoretical background from academic research. For example, as an organizational sociologist, I would like to develop projects that tie theories on entrepreneurship and the emergence of new organizations to the experiences of local startups or organizations in incubators like American Underground or the Research Triangle Regional Partnership.

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