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San Diego State University

Faculty-Student Mentoring Program

Enrico Marcelli, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology



My main goal as a faculty mentor is to show students that learning how to collect and analyze quantitative data using a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach is important for improving the well-being of vulnerable communities in the United States and can provide the skills necessary for having an interesting and well-paid career. There are many enjoyable and lucrative opportunities available to students who acquire the ability to design and implement representative surveys, and who learn how to analyze statistical data. Indeed, as a recent New York Times article (Lohr, August 6th, 2009) notes, first-year annual earnings for those who understand and can manipulate data can reach as high as $125,000! These opportunities include but are not limited to working in academia as a professor; being a researcher for a state or federal government, for a think tank, for community-based organization, or for an international organization such as the International Labor Organization, World Bank or United Nations; or working as an analyst for a more traditional for-profit company such as Google. Yet my experience teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in economics, public health, public policy and sociology during the past decade in California and Massachusetts suggests that many students who care about the communities in which they live or other social problems are either unaware of how powerful mastering the ability to collect and analyze statistical data can be for swaying decision makers, or don’t think that learning to do so can improve the conditions and lives of others. Other students simply, but unfortunately, think that they cannot possibly learn how to employ quantitative data and techniques to support important community-based work. I am convinced; however, that once students – some of whom have never taken statistics or a computer programming course – are given the opportunity to work together and with a community they care about to design and implement a survey, and to systematically test various explanations for a problem of interest to them; initial fear, insecurity and skepticism fades. Students see the truth of what the late great Harvard economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, once argued – “societies never really become effectively concerned with social problems until they learn to measure them.”

Acquiring the skills needed to help produce information that will capture the attention of policymakers regarding a pressing social problem and potentially improving the lives of others is one thing. But those who study higher education (e.g., Kuh et al. 2005) have long known that sustained student-faculty contact, cooperation among students, active learning, and high expectations (as well as prompt feedback, time on task, and respect for diverse talents and ways of learning) – those things students will experience if they join the mentoring opportunity I will offer – are crucial for another reason – personal growth and long-term success. Having a year-long undergraduate research experience that emphasizes a statistical CBPR approach improves a student’s ability to think creatively, to entertain explanations for problems in a systematic rather than emotional manner, and thus to succeed in whatever professional career he or she selects. In short, acquiring the skills to do meaningful statistical work that may improve the lives of others does not necessarily require forfeiting enjoyable and well-compensated work.

The mentoring experience I will offer this year will teach students how to develop a survey that can capture information that is representative of some geographically circumscribed population (e.g. unauthorized migrants, homeless residents, SDSU undergraduates), and thus generate information that may be used to answer some contemporary policy issue. For instance, what factors explain whether undergraduate students ever participate in a rigorous research experience? How many unauthorized migrants reside in a metropolitan area? How does occupation, family situation, neighborhood environment and personal networks influence whether immigrants integrate successfully? How important is having health insurance and access to medical care for understanding disparities in health?

The survey and analytical projects we will undertake this year will aim to answer such questions. Some students will use data we have collected from legal and unauthorized Mexican, Brazilian and Dominican migrants in Los Angeles and Boston. Others may prefer to use new data we will collect from SDSU students to investigate factors influencing who participates in research as undergraduates.

Students who become involved in this mentoring opportunity will need to commit 10-15 hours per week during 2009-2010 academic year to research activities (including reading, participation in a bi-monthly seminar, fieldwork, data analysis, and writing). Students will also complete SDSU’s online human subjects’ training program, learn how to submit a proposed project to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) to obtain approval, and co-author an article with me to be submitted to an academic journal of our choice.


Dr. Marcelli

Department of Sociology

Office: NH-219
Mail Code: 4423
p. 619-594-5459
f. 619-594-1325

Curriculum Vita

Aug. 09 New York Times Article

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