Research | Seattle Life | Student Life | Subjects

Internship leads to research and presentation on homelessness for student Emily Nye ’19

When I began my senior year with an internship in 2018, conducting original research was not on my radar.

Nine months later, I found myself at a regional conference presenting my research on homelessness in Seattle’s Latinx communities. My journey to the conference and my experience there, taught me about the challenges facing people who experience homelessness in Seattle. I also learned many things about conducting and presenting research.

My senior research project started when I met Karen Snedker, my internship faculty supervisor and an associate professor of sociology. She helped me to process experiences and information from my internship with Casa Latina, a worker’s organization that helps people find employment and access employment-related resources.

emily and her professor

The center’s goal was to find long-term employment for people in our program. My job was to find employers. I explained to potential employers that we did case management for individuals experiencing homelessness and either connected these individuals with open job positions or kept relationships with employers so they could keep us on their radar until something opened up. When I wasn’t making phone calls and sending emails, I was organizing databases on jobs and required qualifications so we could find the best matches for our participants.

Every day, I saw how challenging it was for people without homes; for people without documentation of their immigration status; and for members of minority ethnic groups. For example, because many people I worked with did not have a legally-documented right to work in the U.S., their employers paid them in cash “under the table,” or off the record. This meant no state or federal laws protected their wages or treatment. Sometimes, employers chose not to pay their employees, resulting in missed rent. Eventually, they would resort to living in shelters. I was curious how Casa Latina factored in the unique challenges that Latinx face in relation to homelessness. I was also curious as to how that differed (or didn’t) from other organizations in Seattle.

“The classes I’ve taken as a sociology major have been essential to help me understand what it means to advocate for those whose voices are often overlooked.”

As we talked about these challenges, Dr. Snedker said it sounded like I had a research project on my hands. She helped me plan out a project that would answer some of my questions.

My research is on homelessness in the Latinx community here in Seattle and how everyday ways of talking about the issue, or discourses, influence organizational responses. My project was qualitative, so I interviewed staff at Casa Latina and analyzed the interviews for recurring themes, comparing their approach to other Seattle organizations.

I found that Casa Latina’s approach is unique among organizations challenging inequalities that lead to homelessness in Seattle. The organization acknowledges all its members, including those experiencing homelessness. It does this by focusing on popular education—a model of leadership and education that allows an entire community to govern itself and make its own decisions. Casa Latina also is civically engaged through community organizing and frequently focuses on the economic inequalities that affect the Latinx community. It was exciting to see the organization’s non-traditional approach because it opens so many possibilities for the future of social service organizations.

“The major gaps in the research surrounding Latin homelessness was frustrating. The gaps point to why this research project is important.”

The classes I’ve taken as a sociology major have been essential to help me understand what it means to advocate for those whose voices are often overlooked. Between my internship supervisors and my SPU faculty advisor, I had all the tools needed to gather information on my topic. I even collected my own data, carrying out interviews with staff members of the organization to take a deeper look at how its response to homelessness is formulated.

The research process itself was more time-consuming and difficult than I expected. Scheduling interviews, transcribing, and coding felt like it would never end. The time spent reading through the existing literature was both inspiring and discouraging—both of which kept me going. I was eager to keep learning about the topic, but the major gaps in the research surrounding Latinx homelessness was frustrating. The gaps point to why this research project is important.

Toward the end of the year, I got the opportunity to present my research findings at the Pacific Sociological Association’s annual conference. This is the first time sociology students at SPU attended the conference, which was supported by a SERVE grant and undergraduate research grant from Dr. Bruce Congdon’s STEM-Social Science office. That was meaningful for me specifically because I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend and present at the conference.

group photo

When the PSA conference finally rolled around, I had been working on my project for almost eight months. It was held in Oakland, Calif., and it was cathartic to finally board the plane with a finished project. Giving my presentation was surprisingly fun! It was insightful and encouraging to talk through my research with a room of people who were genuinely interested. They provided important feedback and applauded what I had done so far. The rest of my time at the conference was spent watching and listening to other presentations. There was also time to explore the city and try good food. It was such a unique time to sit in on presentations by other students and professionals and spend time with my classmates and professors.

“I’ve seen firsthand how sociology research driven by personal values will produce important contributions to add to existing literature.”

During one of the sessions, I met someone who had done ethnographic field work with individuals experiencing homelessness in two different countries. Their presentation was fascinating, and I learned we had read a lot of the same research and theory about homelessness. This shared context let us have a long conversation, and we were able to give each other insight for our projects. These types of interactions are what conferences are for.

This year, I learned a lot about taking risks and opportunities that present themselves. I learned the research process is long, and there will always be setbacks. I’ve seen firsthand how sociology research driven by personal values will produce important contributions to add to existing literature.

In the end, it was exhilarating to know I accomplished something I valued so much while contributing to previous research.

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