Anthropology students turn research into results for local nonprofit

Frances Thompson(right) is a Senior Companion for Doris Thomas.

Frances Thompson(right) is a Senior Companion for Doris Thomas.

Before the start of the fall 2010 semester, Dr. Chad Morris, assistant professor of anthropology at Roanoke College, learned of an opportunity he was eager to share with his students. The Foundation for Roanoke Valley had contacted Dr. Harry Wilson, director of the Roanoke College Institute for Policy and Opinion Research, to ask the college to partner with the Foundation to evaluate its Belonging Initiative, a multi-year grants program to keep local older adults healthy, safe and connected. Wilson contacted Morris, who saw the task as a fit for his fall course "Creating Community Change: Applied Anthropology." Morris knew conducting a program evaluation would be beneficial to his students and useful in life after college.

The course was offered at Roanoke for the first time in the fall of 2010, and Morris was eager for his students to have an opportunity to use anthropology skills to create positive, sustainable change. After Morris confirmed that the opportunity and his course would work well together, he and Wilson talked to different organizations that are part of the Foundation's initiative and identified one program, the Senior Companion Program of the Local Office on Aging in Roanoke. It needed data on the experiences of local seniors who have been selected to assist their senior peers in routine home tasks, thus promoting independence.

Volunteers with the Senior Companion Program, age 55 and older, assist people who are near to their own age with problems associated with aging. The companions provide words of encouragement and listen to the people with whom they are working.

"Senior companions told us that they see the program as personally beneficial," Morris said. "Companions value the opportunity to interact with others while performing a service to the community."

Once Morris selected this program, it was time for his students to step in and get involved with the evaluation. For the student-driven project, students researched, used census data to identify community need for this type of organization in the Roanoke area, developed themes for interview questions and wrote questions. They also worked with the Roanoke College Institutional Review Board to approve the research.

Each student in the course interviewed two senior companions, and 20 were interviewed total. Once the interviews were complete, the students performed a thematic analysis and compiled a report assessing how the program is impacting senior companions themselves and by extension, the community. The report was shared with both the Foundation for Roanoke Valley and the Local Office on Aging.

Alan Ronk, a 1979 graduate of Roanoke College and executive director of the Foundation for Roanoke Valley, said the Foundation felt the college was a natural fit as a partner in The Belonging Initiative.

"While we are investing approximately $1.5 million in this effort to touch the lives of thousands of older adults in our community, we are especially delighted that this 'in the field' research opportunity for students developed the way it did," he said.

One student in the course, Kelly Mortland, who graduated from Roanoke in 2011, won third place in the graduate and undergraduate poster competition at the 2011 annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology.  Her poster, "Assessing the Needs of Roanoke Valley Senior Companions," was done in collaboration with other students from the course.  

Student Alexandra Alli, a 2011 Roanoke graduate, said the course also was beneficial to her.

"While I've learned much throughout my educational career, I often find myself trying to find ways to bridge the gap between simple book knowledge and its application through life experience," Alli said. "Dr. Morris challenged us to bridge this gap in his course by incorporating interview work with the Senior Companion Program. This educational approach allowed my book knowledge to be supported by meaningful experiences, which I consider to be a more authentic approach to learning."

Morris saw the hands-on learning experience as effective. He plans to teach the same course in the fall with a new community project.

"I am grateful to the Foundation for Roanoke Valley and the Senior Companion Program for allowing our students to learn this way," he said. "Everyone benefits when the college and the community are able to work so closely together."