LOGAN — A group of Utah State University researchers from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHaSS) was one of two teams in the state selected to participate in the 2022-23 Scholars Transforming Through Research (STR) Program. According to the Council on Undergraduate Research website, “These teams represent 62 institutions from 28 states and are made up of 75 Campus Representatives and 124 undergraduate researchers.”
Assistant Professor of Social Work Jayme Walters and undergraduate student researchers Jaxon Didericksen and Kylee Tidwell will represent USU in this competitive national event, formerly Posters on the Hill.
The CHaSS faculty-student team has been conducting a study on generational poverty in rural communities. While the project focused on Pulaski County, Illinois, the team hopes this data will be relevant in Utah, where 24 out of 29 counties are classified as either rural (fewer than 99 people per square mile) or frontier (fewer than 6 people per square mile).
“Focusing on one community helps to give more context to the intricacies of rural poverty,” Tidwell said. “We were looking at how people get their needs met, what are the unmet needs, and … what it looks like for resources to be available or not available in the community.”
Tidwell underscored that the study examined both positive and negative outcomes for Pulaski County and that while there were challenges like access to health care, there were also positives like the support residents got from one another. In seeing what it would look like to support rural Illinois, they hope to better understand how to support rural Utah as well.
“It just made sense that we would take what we were doing to try to translate it to here,” said Walters, who often studies areas outside of the state due to previous professional connections.
Tidwell was the first to work with Walters. Social work major Didericksen was researching another project when he was asked to join the team.
“My project directly translates to the role that a nonprofit organization could play in a persistently poor community,” Didericksen said, but “there’s only so much legislation you can make around that.”
“For the purposes of the STR program, we wanted something that we could advocate directly to the legislators,” he said.
As part of this six-month program, USU’s institutional team traveled to Alexandria, Virginia, for in-person training last October. Since then, Didericksen, Tidwell and Walters have participated in ongoing online engagement and will conduct advocacy meetings with Utah’s representatives this month. The research will then be summarized during a congressional showcase in April.
“I am certain that Dr. Walters and her students … will be powerful voices for USU’s national significance as an undergraduate research institution,” said Alexa Sand, associate vice president in the USU Office of Research. “I am incredibly proud of them for having been selected.”
On Jan. 20, 50 undergraduate researchers gathered in the State Capitol rotunda to showcase their work at Research on Capitol Hill. Didericksen and Tidwell were among the students to represent CHaSS. This annual event in Salt Lake City brings students together from Utah’s R1 institutions, the University of Utah and Utah State University.
CHaSS projects covered a range of research areas and majors: social work, international studies, sociology, political science and liberal arts, with topics focused on the environment, social services, nonprofit management, and national security. With six student representatives, CHaSS was second only to the College of Science, which sent nine students to the event.
The college has had a strong showing at research events in 2022 and 2023. This year’s Utah Conference on Undergraduate Research on Feb. 17 included 16 presenters from CHaSS — the highest participation of any college at USU. The humanities and social sciences also dominated at the Fall Research Symposium held this past December.
“As an undergraduate, you really don’t know that you can do research,” Didericksen said. “I was grateful that Dr. Walters encouraged me as part of a class project to take it to the next level and conduct an undergraduate research study.”
The rural poverty project has yielded “a ton of data,” Walters said, and she and Tidwell, who graduated in December, expect to translate it into several journal articles. Didericksen is likewise working on a manuscript for publication and hopes the project will point him toward the key areas to focus on.
“Overall, my involvement has helped me realize that I do want to go to graduate school,” said Tidwell, who majored in communication studies. “Getting involved in research was a great way to start practicing that thinking process.”
Between them, Didericksen and Tidwell are the recipients of several awards, including an Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities grant and a Peak Summer Research Fellowship, as well as a Faculty-Student Summer Mentorship Grant from the college, which Tidwell and Walters received in 2022.
Walters says it is exciting to see students acquire new skills and discover their interests while collaborating on a project.
“I was a first-gen student, and my goal was just to get a degree. But to have somebody come behind and say, you have the potential to do more with this and here’s how you can do that was really an entry point,” said Walters, who tries to emulate the mentors who helped her apply for funding, seek out opportunities to present, and get involved in larger associations when she was an undergraduate. “I want to give that back.”
A cornerstone of Utah State University, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences brings together faculty members engaged in original research and creative activities to teach and mentor students who aspire to be leaders in their professions and communities. Degrees in humanities and social sciences cultivate highly-adaptable professional skills in students through teaching effective communication, research, data analysis, and creative problem-solving.
College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Assistant Professor of Social Work
Transforming Communities Institute
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