Seniors Lauren Olson, Claire Smart and Alison Paz were the last group to work on Dr. Ande Nesmith’s three-year research study on youth transitioning out of foster care. Olson said while they worked on it, she could feel the pieces coming together – not only on the study, but also on the culmination of their social work education.
“At the beginning, it seemed daunting to do research. It seemed like this kind of shadowy, monstrous thing, which it really wasn’t,” Olson said. “It was certainly challenging and difficult … (but) seeing the impact of it was really cool. (I saw) myself really grow and change along the way too.”
Nesmith led seven students total (including Kaitlin Christophersen B.S.W. ’14, Danielle Kuka M.S.W. ’13, Ruth Patton M.S.W. ’14 and Jessica Skilling) on a study that explored how effective the "Transitions" framework was in helping youths age out of foster care. Transitions, created by William Bridges, was intended originally for businesses going through change. It was adapted to help foster care children develop tools to manage and understand the changes they’re going through and the resulting emotions, particularly grief and loss. These tools should then help them live independently after leaving foster care.
Nesmith said this work is particularly important because many foster care youths enter their adult lives with few connections and support, which can put them at higher risk for ending up homeless or unemployed.
“We can’t just let youths exit the foster care system and say, ‘Our time with you is done,’” Nesmith said. “It is our job as a state or county system to say we’re going to take you in and parent you, and parents don’t just abandon their children when they’re young adults. We need to pay attention to what happens as they leave and enter young adulthood.”
Studying the impact of Transitions
The study was for a private, nonprofit foster care agency. The agency did Transitions training for their staff, foster parents and the young adults who would age out of the system.
Nesmith’s teams collected a vast amount of data, including interviews used for qualitative data, information collected by the agency and quantitative information. Data was gathered from foster youth, foster parents, and social workers.
Olson, Smart and Paz, who joined in spring 2014, were responsible for analyzing everything the previous groups collected. The results were compiled and returned to the agency in a report that highlighted what the program did well and where improvements could be made.
The degree of impact the Transitions project had on the foster youth stuck with all three women.
“One of (the themes) was emotional clarity and awareness,” Olson said. “A lot of the youth talked about being able to recognize and understand their emotions better, and themselves in relation to other people. … We all react differently and in different ways.”
“Another was realizing their feelings are normal,” Smart added. “Other kids are going through similar situations, like anger, grief. … They were glad to know they weren’t the only ones.”
Nesmith said all of this is important because everyone goes through external changes that we don’t have control of, but we can make sense of the internal experience. This is particularly important for foster care children who have gone through trauma.
“Frankly, these kids were desperate for some way to understand why they felt the way they did,” Nesmith said. “They were desperate to understand why they’re supposed to be feeling good now that they’re not in an abusive home anymore, and yet they don’t feel good at all.”
The importance of research
Nesmith emphasized how important it is for students to do research as undergraduates, pointing out that it is one way to scientifically substantiate the value of social work practice models. She strives to bring her students to the point where they’re comfortable doing research, which includes conducting interviews, collecting information, writing research proposals and critically evaluating their results.
Those elements certainly came across to Olson, Smart and Paz. Paz said Nesmith encouraged them to try new things and learn.
“There were a couple of times I would just start playing around with the data we had and seeing if I could find something significant,” Paz said.
All three also highlighted how important working on a team was: They shared responsibilities and often learned from each other.
“If I got stuck, I could get help,” Smart said. “But that was always important: just trying things, and if it didn’t work, it wasn’t the end of the world, because I have help in the end.”
“Working on a team (allowed us to) find value and support with different people and different perspectives,” Olson said.
Nesmith particularly praised the group for questioning results.
“(They would say,) ‘This result doesn’t seem right, we better go back and check the data, because these numbers don’t make sense,’” Nesmith said. “That’s how I want them to be as researchers and just in general as practitioners.”
Christophersen, who now works at HIRED, a Twin Cities-based organization that helps the unemployed overcome barriers to find employment, said she uses the analytical skills she gained from doing research every day.
“I could not be more thankful I went to St. Thomas,” Christophersen said. “I feel I should email this professor or that and thank them for teaching me. … I got my full-time job and I was ready to go. Compared to others from different programs, I feel like they were a little bit on a different level in terms of being ready.”
Nesmith is working on publishing the results and also applied to present (with Christophersen) at a conference in Denver.
Meanwhile, Olson, Smart and Paz are preparing for a change of their own: graduation. Olson, who also has a psychology minor, said she feels flexible in what she could do, although she hopes to work with children. Smart, who said her social work major has helped foster her passion, also wants to work with children. (Her dream job would be with KIPP North Star Academy.) Paz, who will be moving to Wisconsin, is looking at getting licensed there. As a Catholic studies double major she would like to combine both areas, perhaps doing work within the parish or the diocese.
“I feel like St. Thomas has prepared me in the variety of what I could do,” Paz said.