Community Psychology Practice in Undergraduate Settings
Edited by Elizabeth Thomas, Rhodes College and Sheree Bielecki, Pacific Oaks College
Undergraduate Reflections on SCRA
Written by Laurel Weiss, Virginia Harness, Stephanie Hamilton-Rubio, Spencer Fox, The College of Idaho, Northern Arizona University
From the perspective of these undergraduate students, it is apparent that academia often does not include undergraduate students in its conceptualizations of what it means to be a valuable member of the academic community. At research conferences, the undergraduate student can be utterly invisible, working behind the scenes of research only to be mentioned as an aside. This seems to be a critical error. If academic associations hope to draw in new generations of members, it is important to note that many students do not start their academic life in graduate school. Community psychologists have made significant strides in attempting to address this issue for their undergraduate members at professional conferences. They have also tackled barriers of initial entry into the field. In 2017, the Undergraduate CP Practice Interest Group was formed, and as a result of their work, the 2019 SCRA Biennial conference had a student orientation session and a networking event. In addition to that, an open-access textbook for community psychology is now available. Moreover, SCRA membership for undergraduates is currently free (although this change came after registration for the 2019 biennial).
In light of the work that has been done to improve inclusivity for undergraduate students at the SCRA biennial, undergraduate students from The College of Idaho and Northern Arizona University who attended the 2019 SCRA biennial conference formed a partnership in order to provide our own feedback. We reflected on our experiences through qualitative interviews and presented our findings at Community Research and Action in the West (CRA-W) regional conference, where we held a discussion session to consolidate suggestions for further action with insight from undergraduate students and educators, as well as SCRA leaders. We believe that SCRA is well situated to take further action towards the inclusion of undergraduate researchers due to their current efforts and explicit values of diversity and inclusion.
What We Did
With the encouragement and guidance of our advisors, Dr. Jen Wallin-Ruschman and Dr. Eylin Palamaro Munsell, our group of six undergraduates became both researchers and participants. We paired up to interview each other about our experiences at the biennial, then analyzed the transcripts in larger groups. The themes that emerged focused on both the benefits and challenges of being an undergraduate attendee at the SCRA Biennial conference. The positive outcomes we named as themes were:
- Exposure to research and new skills
- Validation of interest in a social justice career
- Empowerment and confidence
- Being around like-minded people with shared values
These benefits did not come without barriers, however. Our interviews also revealed shared challenges, which we categorized into three broad topics:
- Financial Difficulties: Most of us noted the financial inaccessibility of research conferences for undergraduate students. Only one of our two universities allowed for (a markedly delayed) reimbursement for travel expenses, which exacerbated the fact that we, as young people without career-level jobs, are already less able to afford travel to a conference. At the time of our application for the conference, there was no financial support available from SCRA specifically for undergraduate researchers. While there is a travel grant that undergraduates can apply for, they must compete against graduate students. There were no fee waivers available, with the exception of volunteering at the conference for a retroactively-applied discount in attendance costs. We were also not offered discounted lodging. For those of us who had to pay rent while missing work, this was a major barrier to accessibility.
- Conference Culture: We noted feeling underprepared to engage with others at the conference, in addition to feeling that the conference was not designed with us in mind. At the time of the conference, we did not feel that SCRA had gained the critical mass of undergraduates for most attendees to feel we were worthy of consideration. We were utterly intimidated by the dinner that was hosted at the Art Institute of Chicago, where this culture was most salient. We also did not find help through the mentorship program available to undergraduate students because due to the large demand, they were not able to accept any of us as mentees. Additionally, most of the mentors were faculty-level individuals with very specific interests, which disallowed undergraduate students with more general interests to match well with a mentor. If students were able to sift through the mass emails to figure out that mentorship was available, we were also intimidated by the concept of asking for mentorship from more experienced SCRA members without guidance. Also, amongst the emails was the invitation to an undergraduate orientation and undergraduate student lunch. Some of us were able to attend the lunch because our research advisor was participating in it and were able to engage in helpful and informational discussions with graduate students. None of us knew about the undergraduate orientation. Finally, there was a “student” mixer one evening, which we later found out was aimed largely at graduate students, though in the end, most of us were not comfortable attending because of our inexperience in conference gatherings. We ended up relying solely on our research advisors for guidance on how to behave, dress, and network. Though we were listened to attentively by others when we spoke during roundtable sessions, some of us also experienced others’ surprise in us being able to contribute at all, receiving comments such as, “You ladies are very eloquent, for undergraduates”.
- The Poster Session: Those of us who presented posters found that the structure did not allow for presenters’ work to be viewed, considered, and discussed thoroughly. The poster sessions were only scheduled during lunch, in a dim and tightly crowded space. This felt like a dismissal of our work as there were networking events scheduled at the same time. Of those who presented a poster, none of us had more than two people visit our posters. The trip to Chicago was over 1500 miles, only for us to experience an utter lack of interest in our work. This left us feeling discouraged and questioning the value of our contributions.
We presented these themes at CRA-W and then held a discussion to develop suggestions for SCRA leadership. We were grateful to have support and feedback from people who are involved in SCRA.
- Poster Sessions: We found from discussions that, resoundingly, the most important thing to change in poster sessions in the future is to set aside time in the schedule for them, instead of scheduling both networking sessions and lunch concurrently. We also propose organizing posters by theme in order to generate more interest in the topics. Some people experienced other conferences which had more successful poster sessions with structures in place such as judges who award prizes and volunteers who circulated and asked questions.
- Mentorship: Suggestions for changing this focused on having more graduate students, rather than faculty members, available to mentor undergraduates. It would also be valuable to clearly communicate through email about functions intended for undergraduate students.
- Undergraduate-Specific Functions: In discussion, it became clear that undergraduate students would have benefited from additional opportunities to meet and support each other. Well-advertised events aimed at undergraduates would have made individual mentoring sessions less necessary. This was modelled well at CRA-W, where a session led by graduate students about entering graduate school created an opportunity for people to ask the questions that may have felt “trivial” or “stupid” elsewhere. It also provided time and space for undergraduates to connect with each other.
- Funding: It is apparent that more support is required for undergraduate students to be able to financially access SCRA events. In discussion, some attendees mentioned that other conferences provide scholarships specifically for undergraduate students as well as aid for travel expenses. Aide and scholarships have both benefits and drawbacks as they would likely not be available for every student. Therefore, they could potentially contribute to exclusion of some students given that the establishment would decide what work is most valuable. We also discussed the necessity of having discounted lodging available that is safe and close to the conference.
In summation, the undergraduate researchers who participated in this work together felt that attending SCRA was beneficial in many ways but was also not perfectly inclusive. We have been delighted to witness and be a part of the energy in this division that works towards a more diverse and inclusive future. By the time that we are on the “other side” of the undergraduate experience, we hope that we will have made a tangible contribution for the experiences of future undergraduates to ensure they receive the most beneficial experience possible at these conferences.