When Professor Cheryl Grills talks about the difference her students have made in the lives of others, her eyes well up. It is not a sentimental display, but one of profound meaning: Her long-term project to understand and analyze a homeless services operation has involved many students. They learn an array of professional research methods, but even more, these research experiences have deepened their empathy.
“People living in poverty, and the underserved, often create their own communities,” explains Grills. “My students in this project no longer saw the homeless as stereotypes, but saw their humanity. Equally important, the students also saw their own capacity to be part of a solution as a partner, not as an outside expert.”
The research methods project involved classes from several disciplines, including sociology, mathematics, and community psychology. The focus was the Refresh Spot, which offers hygiene services, mental and physical health support, and community engagement/resource navigation for the homeless on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. About 125 students have been involved in aspects of the project, including creating and distributing surveys, conducting interviews, and recording their observations. Two of the classes collected, analyzed, and presented the data; the following semester’s classes made updates, refined the data, and made more presentations.
Refresh Spot has utilized and benefited from the feedback Grills’ students offered. The staff and volunteers used the data to expand their services, make refinements in their operation, and eventually move to a bigger space. Refresh Spot now serves as many as 17,000 people per week.
Students gained by what they learned “being on the ground,” as Grills phrased it; “Textbooks are important, but they weren’t adequate to capture what the students witnessed. They also saw the value of both quantitative and qualitative research and close observations.”
Grills’ classes in methods and community psychology typify much that makes a liberal arts education at LMU special: undergraduates doing real-world research; and a professor working alongside students and community partners to put the university’s ethos of compassionate minds and educated hearts into practice to make Los Angeles a better place.