For a student so engaged in the Rockbridge area, taking on a community-based research (CBR) project was the ideal way for Lainey Johnson '16 to expand her research skills while supporting a local agency's need for a well-conducted program assessment.
Johnson's project was embedded in a Psychology independent study and supported by the Community-Academic Research Alliance (CARA), which nurtures research partnerships between W&L students and faculty, and non-profits in the community to address pressing challenges.
Last fall, Johnson interned at the Eagle's Nest Clubhouse, a community-based mental health facility in Buena Vista that utilizes the clubhouse model to support people with severe and persistent mental illnesses. Clubhouse participants are referred to as "members" and take part in restorative activities that focus on their strengths and abilities, not their illness.
"I decided that this project would be the best culmination of my Shepherd internship and my psychology research experience," said Johnson, a psychology major and poverty minor. "Interning at Eagle's Nest, creating and conducting my own research project, and complementing the academic training I received with hands-on experience was the perfect combination of service and research."
The goal of Johnson's community-based research project was to complete a consumer satisfaction report of four primary aspects of the Eagle's Nest: personal experience in the program, overall program satisfaction, satisfaction with clubhouse staff, and personal growth, empowerment, and contribution.
Johnson worked with Eagle's Nest Program Director Phil Floyd to determine aspects of the survey that would be especially helpful for him and the program. Dr. Karla Murdock, Johnson's mentor in the psychology department, provided suggestions for developing the survey and methodology for conducting research with a vulnerable population.
During the five hours each week she spent at Eagle's Nest, Johnson enjoyed productive, one-on-one conversations with program participants, an experience that allowed her to learn more about the intricacies of conducting off-campus research with populations that require special care and intention.
"Reading about and researching the benefits of mental health facilities and treatment using the clubhouse model was fascinating, but hearing from program participants themselves about how they perceived the benefits of clubhouse participation was more meaningful than any research study or article," said Johnson. "Completing this project alongside my direct service at Eagle's Nest helped the project to be intentional and productive, too."
Johnson hopes Floyd and his Eagle's Nest colleagues will benefit from the information she gathered from participants in the program. Her final report included suggestions for program enhancements, slight changes she hopes will make a significant difference for clubhouse members.
There is no doubt that partnering with Eagle's Nest on a CBR has had a profound impact on Johnson. "I feel such a powerful sense of gratitude to Phil Floyd and members of the Eagle's Nest community for helping to train and mentor W&L students like Lainey," said Murdock. "Multiple generations of W&L students have been given the opportunity to intern at the Eagle's Nest, a luxury which has launched them into their future lives of service with a multidimensional perspective of issues surrounding mental health, mental illness, and rehabilitation."
Because of the time spent with the Eagle's Nest members, Johnson became more than a researcher but also a friend. The depth of the community she experienced at Eagle's Nest demonstrated to her the importance and effectiveness of the clubhouse experience to those who take part. Johnson said she also realized the important role CARA plays in providing students with rich experiential learning as researchers and consultants, while also having meaningful impact in the community.
"This is the beauty of CBR," explained Alessandra Dickovick, who helps coordinate CARA projects. "Community-based research allows students to apply skills they've learned in their classes and service work to very concrete situations with real-world nuances. It gives depth to a student's academic and professional experience, while also addressing a community-identified need."