Students interested in partnering with faculty members on research projects should reach out to faculty or visit our faculty research page to find an area of interest.
The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a whirlwind of global challenges. Along with myriad critical health concerns, it wreaked havoc on livelihoods, costing people their incomes, jobs, businesses, and, in some cases, their passion for their work.
But how was it impacting those working in the nonprofit sector? O’Neill Assistant Professor Dr. Marlene Walk was already engaged in research looking at career paths for those who earn nonprofit degrees. But she and colleagues Dr. Kerry Kuenzi and Dr. Amanda J. Stewart wondered how the pandemic was affecting those working in the sector.
To find the answers, Walk opened a new portion of their project to students, inviting them to be involved in her research. Emily Peterson (Master of Public Affairs in Nonprofit Management), Abby Klippel (Management, Accelerated Master’s Program for MPA), and Ashabul Alam (Policy Studies) answered that call.
Peterson was Walk’s full-time graduate research assistant, while Klippel and Alam had connected with her in class. The trio took this new challenge knowing that it would have an impact on the community and their own careers.
Klippel plans to go into the nonprofit field and knew the project would provide valuable insight for her career.
“I really like learning how to research,” she explains. “It’s going to be important, no matter what I do, that I’m going to research and conduct interviews, especially in the nonprofit sector.”
Alam saw it as a two-fold opportunity, including as a stepping stone toward a Ph.D.
“In order to get to that large goal, you have to think about the smaller steps,” Alam says. “This research experience would help me learn new skills, but it also allowed me to apply that knowledge to a project that actually helps communities around the country.”
As the team began their work, they weren’t sure if COVID would present extra challenges. Peterson took on the task of setting up interviews for the study. Klippel says they didn’t encounter any hesitancy from participants.
“I feel like people were so excited to talk to others,” she says. “A lot of them had been working from home, but every person I interviewed was so excited to tell me what they had been doing.”
The team wanted to know whether changes like working from home and others related to the pandemic had affected participants’ commitment to the sector.
“The pandemic provided the perfect scenario to ask ‘What if?’” Peterson says. “What if you lose your job? Are you still going to be as committed to the nonprofit sector?”
The data showed their commitment hadn’t waivered in the face of adversity.
“We found that people in the nonprofit sector are still committed,” Alam explains. “They’re actually more encouraged and more eager to tackle challenges related to COVID-19. They’re willing to work even harder to support programs to help people in need. I think that’s really special—it proves that resilience in the nonprofit sector is still strong.”
Those findings provide hope for the sector, for those in need, and for the students’ futures as well.
“Everyone was so passionate about their jobs that it made me very excited to find an organization that I will be this passionate about,” Klippel says. “It showed me that it’s about where their heart is at versus how much money they’ll make. They’re committed to making a difference.”
Ultimately, Klippel, Alam, and Peterson all say they’ve gained encouragement and experience through this research—from participating in interviews to doing literature reviews to analyzing data. And they say Walk has supported them through the entire process.
“Opportunities like this are great for students,” Peterson says, smiling. “In reality, Dr. Walk could run all of this data in a matter of seconds, but that’s not the point. Our professors understand that this is a learning opportunity for us.”
Alam says Walk made it clear from the beginning that this was a learning experience for students just as much as it was a research project for her.
“I remember my first meeting with Dr. Walk,” he recalls. “Her very first words were ‘I’m dedicated to making this experience work the best for you.’ An applied research experience not only builds your resume and skillset, it also builds connections to people who want to support you. If there’s anyone who exemplifies that, it’s Dr. Walk. After working with her for more than a year, I can really tell she’s dedicated to her students and their success.”
The team is still digging through the data, but Walk says the full report will be released later in the spring. The student researchers also highly recommend their peers seek out similar opportunities to work with O’Neill faculty on research projects.
“Part of the reason I’ve always loved O’Neill and switched my major is that O’Neill professors really want you to interact with them,” Klippel explains. “I’ve never had a professor who acted like they didn’t have time for me.”
“If you want to work with a professor who really is dedicated to your success, you want to apply those skills to community, and put ‘Majoring in Making a Difference’ into action, then I think participating in a faculty research project is a great way to do that,” Alam says.