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LibParlor Contributor Reflection

Student Workers as Research Collaborators: How to Create Mutually Beneficial Research Experiences

In our new post, Duncan Claflin reflects on his research internship with Tim Dolan. This post shares the benefits of conducting research with student workers and shares insight from their collaboration.

Duncan Claflin is a man of many hats. His lifelong passion is to challenge and redefine the standards of professionalism, allowing individuals to truly be themselves in the workplace. Graduating in June 2021 from Greenfield Community College with his associate degree in computer information systems, he plans to continue incorporating equitable philosophies discovered through his library work into all aspects of his life, spoiling his cat Pix, supporting his polycule, and performing archival research in all things paranatural and unexplained.

Duncan Clafin, from the shoulders up, is in front of a purple and blue brick background. He is wearing a black shirt and is looking directly at the camera.

Tim Dolan has been working as a librarian at GCC for 6 years. A community college graduate and a generalist by both choice and necessity, he takes a special interest in the intersection between scholarly communications and information literacy instruction. Tim is the principal investigator on the larger research project in question, and is @tdolangcc on Twitter. 

Lorena Nañez-Bonilla holds a BA in anthropology and Latin American and Latino/a studies from Smith College and has been working as the access services library assistant at the GCC library for 2 years. Some of their interests include advocating for privacy and privacy literacy, in addition to oral history research.   


Authors’ Note: In this article, Duncan, a student intern, reflects on his 18-month research internship in the library at Greenfield Community College, and provides suggestions for how researchers can structure internships to be mutually beneficial to the student and the researcher. Tim worked closely with Duncan to develop the main points and recommendations. Lorena served as editor and advocate, helping to ensure that Duncan’s voice remained at the center in spite of the power dynamics of a supervisor/supervisee relationship. 


I: Context for the Internship Experience

Internships are an important part of an education; experiences like this strengthen students’ confidence by encouraging autonomy while also teaching and reinforcing project management and research skills.

I have had the opportunity to take advantage of several student internships, most recently as a research assistant for a project evaluating student use of scholarly articles led by Tim Dolan. This research internship allowed me to participate in every step of the project, forced me to wrestle with primary data, and exposed me to complex project management styles. Internships are an important part of an education; experiences like this strengthen students’ confidence by encouraging autonomy while also teaching and reinforcing project management and research skills. 

Greenfield Community College is a small college in Western Massachusetts. Enrollment during the 2018-2019 academic year totaled 2517 students (1053 FTE), a diverse mix that includes older students, dual-enrolled high school students, and students pursuing a second career. Of these students, 80 sought services from the internship coordinator, Bob Barba, and 44 of those found internships. Of those 44, 38 students were compensated, either by the employer or from a donor-funded account that the college maintains for this purpose. These numbers highlight the reality that the vast majority of community college students don’t take part in meaningful internship opportunities, even when the institution offers funding and support for those opportunities. 

When Tim was designing this project in 2019, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to perform the labor-intensive data processing on his own. Rather than just hiring a student, he decided to experiment with enlisting a student as a partner and co-author. This decision challenged both of us as we managed a pandemic in addition to the normal ups-and-downs of research. In the end, we were able to accomplish two goals at once: we completed a project that will help our library be responsive to student needs in the long term, and also created a real-world research experience that challenged me and expanded upon my formal education.

II: Barriers to Student Internships

As a computer information systems major, I have only completed a small handful of research assignments at GCC. Having access to this in-depth primary research internship has fostered critical thinking and project management skills, experiences that can translate to future academic and professional opportunities. There are a variety of factors that limit a student’s ability to take advantage of an internship: limited institutional resources to coordinate opportunities, lack of compensation, time commitments that are unrealistic given the complex lives of students, and imposter syndrome. These barriers lead to a lack of opportunities, which in turn hinders the development of skills and confidence, and contributes to stigma against community college students and graduates. 

While supervisors have little control over institutional resources or compensation rates, they do have control over how they interact with students and how they structure opportunities, and can use this power to create more equitable opportunities. To do so, supervisors must act with empathy and understanding regarding the complexity of students’ lives. We have to juggle so much that some of us may not feel that we are able to take on internships. Personally, I have had to manage multiple classes, my mental and physical health, my partners’ schedules, transportation, and an off-campus job, all on top of an internship or two during any given semester. All of this is, of course, even more complicated thanks to the instability that the pandemic brought.

Our degrees often aren’t equivalent to necessary career-based licenses or certificates for technical fields; diverse internship experiences help fill work experience gaps that are necessary to secure the first crucial job after graduation.

Given our stacked schedules, it’s no surprise that we have little space to reflect on our skills and achievements. Imposter syndrome is common when learning new skills or taking on new responsibilities. It can, however, also impact the opportunities that a person pursues. Through my time at GCC, I discovered that I learned skills outside the classic, classroom-based setting: how to play to my strengths and improve other areas of myself. Our degrees often aren’t equivalent to necessary career-based licenses or certificates for technical fields; diverse internship experiences help fill work experience gaps that are necessary to secure the first crucial job after graduation.

III: Compensation

Students such as myself have financial responsibilities that cannot be put off, especially during the pandemic. To me, a successful internship experience depends not only on a high level of personal involvement on all sides, but also on appropriate compensation. Students ought to be fairly financially compensated for our work and time. Currently, GCC students that pursue internships face three fates: go financially uncompensated, earn state minimum wage, or earn more than state minimum wage if an employer chooses to offer more. Lack of financial compensation for internships creates barriers for students who need to prioritize paid work over unpaid opportunities, even if these experiences provide essential skills for securing employment and long term career success. 

Lack of financial compensation for internships creates barriers for students who need to prioritize paid work over unpaid opportunities

Fortunately for this internship, Tim was able to combine the library’s federal work-study allotment with a donor-funded internship program to pay me for every hour of work on the project, in addition to the academic credit that I earned. Finding an unpaid intern for a project like this at our institution wasn’t a viable option; time is money for students. A paycheck helps to make the project a priority as we navigate complex lives and find ourselves pulled in multiple directions.

IV: Creating a Structure

Tim and I took the time to establish a learning plan that consisted of concrete expectations and tangible results in relation to the internship. Mr. Barba has incorporated this step into the internship on-boarding process at GCC. This works not only as a foundation to build upon, but also as a scaffold for the final question that everybody asks at the end of internships: Did what we accomplish align with the learning outcomes?

The other important move that Tim made was to create a clear division of labor from the beginning and set appropriate boundaries. Most importantly, his initial proposal included policies for managing privacy issues. I processed a large amount of student data, but we had procedural firewalls in place to ensure that I never saw the names of other students and couldn’t identify particular course sections. This meant that Tim took charge of several steps during the data collection phase, while also keeping me apprised of the process and using it as an opportunity to talk about research ethics and privacy. On the other side, Tim encouraged as much autonomy as possible while completing my portions of work. I established my own workflow and timeline and had to troubleshoot a number of problems, including at least one structural issue in the initial research design, with guidance when needed. Good planning and documentation put us on the same page, focused us on a common goal, and helped us trust each other.

V: Conclusion: What Worked

Tim’s commitment to help me thrive during this internship was invaluable. We established clear, constant communication channels that allowed us to discuss complications that occurred at nearly every step. We also strived to be flexible with one another, encouraging honesty between all parties, which allowed us to balance the workload appropriately. If a supervisor doesn’t maintain this level of communication and flexibility, the pool of applicants will likely shift towards those that already maintain a higher level of privilege. 

Treat your students with respect and empathy, ensure that they are being compensated fairly for their time, and establish genuine relationships with them where you encourage them to work with you, not for you.

We were also able to manage my cases of imposter syndrome by allowing and encouraging me to actively participate as a partner at every step. Tim committed from the beginning to honor my contributions by offering full credit as a co-author of the final manuscript, and wove in opportunities that allowed me to reflect, write, and present about this project, including in this article. To have these accomplishments under my name as I finish my associate degree has had an exponentially positive impact on my professional self-esteem. At the end of it all, we have an opportunity to push back against the exclusion that is often found in academia and create ways in which more students can participate in research internship opportunities. Treat your students with respect and empathy, ensure that they are being compensated fairly for their time, and establish genuine relationships with them where you encourage them to work with you, not for you.  


Featured image by Gradienta on Unsplash and photo of Duncan supplied by himself.


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of the writers do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

1 comment on “Student Workers as Research Collaborators: How to Create Mutually Beneficial Research Experiences

  1. Julie Pozsonyi

    thank you awesome!!

    On Tue, Jun 15, 2021 at 1:02 PM The Librarian Parlor wrote:

    > libparlorcontributor posted: ” Duncan Claflin is a man of many hats. His > lifelong passion is to challenge and redefine the standards of > professionalism, allowing individuals to truly be themselves in the > workplace. Graduating in June 2021 from Greenfield Community College with > his ” >

    Like

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