David Moore didn’t have any professional academic or scientific experience, but when the then-23 year-old heard about a job opportunity to assist with a research project on youth homelessness, he thought he could contribute. “I’d never done that kind of work before,” Moore says, “but I had a bit of experience with the subject of the work. I could relate.”
That’s exactly what Don Schweitzer, a professor at Pacific University in Oregon, was counting on. Schweitzer had just completed a series of focus groups with formerly homeless young people on the topic of youth engagement—specifically their reasons for seeking help in a runaway and homeless youth program.–But when it came time to analyze the interviews, Schweitzer stopped to think about his approach.
“It didn’t make sense to draw conclusions based on where I’m at and where I am” in my life, he says. “I wondered, ‘Can we get young adults with similar experiences to analyze the data?’” Schweitzer found five youth analysts, including Moore, by posting a job opportunity at local basic center and transitional living programs. Moore says that the introduction to data and teamwork was inspiring. “It made me want to try harder to get into college,” he says.
“Conceptually, I always understood the value of youth participation” says Schweitzer, who worked for years as a social worker before focusing on academia. “But I had never done anything like it at this level. Now I know it’s the right way to do this work. We’ve got to find meaningful participation for young people” in order to provide the best services possible.
Schweitzer says his project was helped immeasurably when his young collaborators recognized slang and other subtleties in the testimonies they analyzed. He’s one of many academics who now look out for ways to include at-risk or transition-age youth, providing them with a new set of skills and valuable professional experience as he improves his own research.
Pauline Jivanjee is another. An associate professor of social work at Portland State University, Jivanjee posted signs around campus asking for people between 18 and 24 years old who were interested in leading focus groups of transition-age youth with mental health problems. She felt that her young interviewees would be more forthcoming if someone with a similar background led their conversations, and picked a young woman who had overcome mental health issues of her own.
Like Schweitzer, she didn’t require that her youth partners be trained in research methods or even interested in a career in the field. “We were looking for good writers with good empathy and people skills,” Jivanjee says. “They needed enough assertiveness to manage a group discussion. As long as people have good thinking skills, curiosity and openness to learning, we can teach them the technical skills.”
Both Jivanjee and Schweitzer trained their assistants in basic academic practices like research ethics, focus group facilitation, bias control and data collection. Training took place on the job, in the first few weekly meetings for their respective projects.
Beyond their payment (both Jivanjee and Schweiter paid their assistants a standard researcher wage), the young people in these projects gained a variety of professional skills. “She described herself as a shy person and learned the skill of speaking in public in front of a national conference audience,” says Jivanjee of her assistant, who co-presented their research at four conferences. “She learned qualitative analysis software, and proved to be very savvy with technology.”
Schweitzer agrees. “One of my participants said he’d never read this much in his life,” he says. His five assistants now “have an understanding of how to read and analyze at a deeper level, which has profound consequences for any young person.”