Some students arrive at AU already set on the research they want to pursue.
Others, like third-year student Kelci Reiss, make new discoveries throughout their time in the program that shape their focus and drive their Student Research Project (SRP).
While Kelci knew all along that her SRP would draw on her interest in social justice on behalf of immigrant communities, she wasn’t sure which project would suit the needs of her current life situation. She had been dealing with some health issues and commuting to DC from Baltimore for classes, and the trip was starting to feel strenuous.
Kelci found the perfect solution through her MAPA network. Her colleague David Riesche (whose work we featured last December) connected Kelci with his mother, a pro bono lawyer who works with Baltimore’s Esperanza Center. The match was perfect. The Esperanza Center is a nonprofit that supports immigrants – especially from Central America – with services such as ESL education, healthcare, and low-cost legal services, and Kelci found that her backgrounds and skills overlapped with the needs of the Center.
“This is a new and exciting thing for me, because I’m about to work on something I completely didn’t expect to be doing,” Kelci said.
How the unexpected can shape students’ research
Even after connecting with the Esperanza Center, Kelci’s plans continued to evolve. She had originally intended to focus on the Esperanza Center’s health clinic, which is designed to serve people who are deemed uninsurable by the state – primarily undocumented immigrants.
“I was very interested in chronic illness because I myself deal with chronic illness, and it’s really hard navigating the health system and insurance even as someone who is documented,” she said. “I was very interested in developing more understanding and improving programs to help those who are considered uninsurable, who may not have regular healthcare access and benefits.”
However, as Kelci began to set up her work with the clinic, she began volunteering with the youth ESL program, which took her work in a new direction. “I fell in love with the kids I was working with!” she said. “They’re between ages of thirteen and eighteen, and I decided to develop my SRP research with them. They are so smart and so inspiring, and I am just really looking forward to getting to work with them.”
Kelci hopes to use her time, in part, to provide insight into how the ESL program can improve. In particular, she wants to learn more about how students’ lives outside the classroom impact their progress at school.
“I’ve already seen quite a few ways that outside situations – family life and everyday outside aspects – have affected their learning in the center,” she said. “We can alter the programs to better meet their needs and to specifically address some of these issues. This touches on legal status, so I need to be very careful because of the vulnerabilities of the students’ status and age.”
Drawing on MAPA coursework in the SRP
A secondary element of Kelci’s project will draw from her training and experience in documentary work. Earlier this year, Kelci contributed to the production of a documentary for the School of the Americas Watch promoting Spring Days of Action, a week-long program including protests, public activities, and public education events about U.S. military involvement in Latin America. Now, she plans to apply those skills to create a documentary the Esperanza Center can use as an educational tool in their community.
While the Center is enthusiastic about her idea, she knows she may face challenges in the production. “There are ethical concerns, so I’ll be constantly double-checking what I’m doing so as not to expose anything that could make problems for the kids,” she said.
Kelci credits a joint course between the AU anthropology and communications departments with giving her the skill she needs to carry out effective documentary work. “As anthropologists, we understand story and story composition well, but understanding how to put the visuals to together and create something visually and auditorily compelling is something very different,” she said.
While she now has the know-how she needs to move forward, she also knows she can reach out to her professors for help with layout and composition.
“I have a really great support system within my department as well as in the communications department, which is very supportive of anthropology films. They understand that film is a tool for social justice,” Kelci said. “We have a really wonderful partnership between the two departments.”
Kelci has been given particular guidance by Adrienne Pine and Nina Shapiro-Perl. “They have shaped how I look at everything now and I wouldn’t have made it this far without their knowledge and shared experiences,” she said.
Where will the project go from here?
We’ll all just have to stay tuned for the final outcome! Like most projects, Kelci’s SRP will continue to sharpen and change form as she learns from the communities with which she’ll work.
Her experiences exemplify how the MAPA program accommodates students’ changing needs and allows students’ interests to develop, leading to unexpected places.