by Sara Kuehlhorn Friedman
Students and the Center for Public Service go hand-in-hand.
CPS strives to connect theory to practice, promote public good, and search for solutions, and the organization is uniquely situated to reach these goals through drawing on the skills, experience, and interests of students in academic programs at Portland State University (PSU). CPS provides clients with a breadth of talent not easily found in the consulting world, while providing students learning opportunities and experience not found when limited to a classroom.
When Professor Masami Nishishiba agreed to complete a study for the Oregon Board of Massage Therapy (OBMT) that focused on “Examining Reasons for License Non-Compliance among Asian-Pacific Islander Community Members” in the state of Oregon, she knew that assistance would be necessary. Most significantly, Nishishiba, who speaks Japanese and English, would need research assistants who could communicate with the Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Lao speakers who were the focus of the study. Connecting with the university’s student body was the perfect solution.
Nishishiba recruited four graduate students from the Hatfield School of Government and the School of Social Work: Anh P Nguyen, Lu Pang, Sirisak (Paulo) Laochankham, and Thitisak (Tony) Duadsuntia. The students’ language backgrounds matched Nishishba’s needs, but each student’s specific interest in and dedication to public service and social policy also made the research team what it needed to be. At the end of the project, we asked these students to share what they learned, and the results provide worthwhile insight into the value of working with students on CPS projects.
As can be expected, experiencing the research process and working as part of a team were benefits that all four students found valuable. The OBMT study involved qualitative research, which few students typically have the opportunity to experience beyond classroom discussion. Furthermore, the students learned to navigate the IRB process together; they also developed the survey, analyzed data, generated outcomes, and stated recommendations with Nishishiba’s guidance.
In addition to gaining a more developed sense of the research process and working as a team member in the research context, the students each expressed more direct—and more personal—effects that participating in the project had on them, including a fuller understanding of the value and importance of research more generally, a better understanding of equity and equality in the policy world, and a stronger awareness of strategies employed by individual immigrant groups in the Portland area.
In describing her realization of the meaning and value of research, Nguyen states “I have learnt that research involves restraint.” Explaining further, Nguyen describes her new awareness of the importance of questioning assumptions and hypotheses. She knows now that there is no question too small because while working on a project, one really cannot tell where the process will lead. In the end, the students were surprised by the outcomes of the study, so learning to ‘stand back’ and allow the data to speak for itself was significant.
Students highlighted a second significant gain from working on the OBMT project, which is a deeper understanding of the challenges of equity and equality. Pang states “there is no such thing as small issues through the lens of social justice and equity.” This study revealed a number of challenges to licensing which are endemic to speakers of other languages in the Portland area, and students had the opportunity to ask the question: “In a just society, is equality enough?”
The benefit of facing tough questions about society in the context of a research project like the OBMT while continuing to consider similar questions in the classroom provides an excellent opportunity for students to explore topics significant to public service on a deeper level. Nguyen now believes that equal treatment erases our differences and promotes privilege, and that it does not really help everybody in society achieve success and their goals in life. With a more defined understanding of her values relating to equality, and with experience to support her point of view, Nguyen will enter the professional world with a level of confidence she wouldn’t have had without this research experience.
Finally, all of the students emphasized that working with the South East Asian population in the Portland area was a unique and valuable experience on multiple levels. Laochankham pointed out that the team strategy required that they build personal relationships with interviewees. The team did this first by approaching the participants through their customers, but the research team found that the population was happy to share their experiences with massage licensing in Oregon.
As a result of their outreach, Duadsuntia said, students working on this project learned that different members of the South East Asian population employ different strategies to live in and adapt to the U.S. culture when migrating to the country. Furthermore, the team worked together so closely that they learned more about one another’s cultures as well.
The OBMT project exemplifies the ways in which students assist in achieving project goals otherwise very challenging without their unique backgrounds and skills. This example of connecting projects to students and students to projects is not unique at CPS. Indeed, most projects that come through the Center are completed with the assistance of students, which makes CPS an integral player in the education and training of future public servants.