Jenna Powers is a Ph.D. student at UConn School of Social Work (SSW) and an instructor of Master of Social Work (MSW) courses in policy and research. After attending the SSW’s Campaign School for Social Workers she decided to pursue her doctorate here.
How would you describe your research interests?
A: I have two separate but similar areas of research, both based on the idea that the people with lived experiences of the social issues we’re studying as social workers are the experts. My research focuses on engaging them as experts in informing our practices and our policies.
One area of my research is political social work. That involves social workers and their clients being involved in political decisions, whether that’s social workers running for political office or being engaged in voting and engaging their clients in voting as well. The other area of research is engaging foster youth in the programs and policies around child welfare.
One study that I’m working on with Assistant Professor Nate Okpych is CalYOUTH, a longitudinal study in California. My research with that project looks at youth involvement in case planning decisions. Are their case workers involving them in decisions about their future goals and how to achieve those goals? Who’s being engaged in those conversations and why? How can we make it so all youth are involved in case-planning decisions?
What is the focus of your dissertation?
A: This idea of foster youth being engaged in decisions is a very new area of research. My dissertation is the third case study looking at what’s called a youth advisory board. Almost every state has a youth advisory board, and the goals are to engage foster youth in program development and policy-making decisions. I’m looking at Maine’s advisory board, which has a unique structure. They don’t call it a youth advisory board but an advisory team because they’re focused on youth being equal partners with adults and how youth voices are engaged in decision-making processes.
A key finding is the idea of all youth having access to a seat at the table. That structure in and of itself opens access for youth who might not be your stereotypical leader or might not even know that they are yet interested in leadership positions. It really meets the youth where they’re at, and provides opportunities for them to be involved, which changes how programs and policies are shaped because more youth and youth from more diverse backgrounds are engaged in those decisions.
How are you exploring that and what is it that you hope to learn?
A: This is such an understudied area, there are more questions than answers at this point. I would like to see more of a model across the United States that works toward a best practice and evidence-based program development.
Speaking to the methods, I conducted qualitative interviews with participants with a variety of perspectives and expertise, including youth who attended Maine’s youth advisory board, former youth who have remained engaged in the program, and the staff. With the youth participants, I used this under-utilized method of qualitative research, which is called direct scribing. I’m the fourth researcher that I know of to use and evaluate this method of interviewing. What it involves is youth being more in the driver’s seat in the interviews rather than the researcher coming with specific questions and expertise. It allows youth to tell their story from their own voice and perspective. They also are heavily involved in informing my analysis as well.
What are your future career goals and how do they relate to your dissertation?
A: I have accepted an offer as an Assistant Professor in the Western Carolina University Department of Social Work. A major thing that I was looking for when applying to schools and what informed my decision to accept their offer is that I want my work to be meaningful and to create change. I want my research to better the lives of the populations I’m studying, and there is space built into my position so I have the ability to use my research to impact change. I’m just as much a scholar as I am a community member in this department, which is really important to me.
Why did you choose UConn School of Social Work?
A: UConn was my top school because of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work. I was an MSW student at the University of New England (UNE). By chance I learned about the Humphreys Institute’s Campaign School through an independent study. I attended as part of my independent study and it was completely life changing. That was the first time I was taught about the importance of social workers and their clients being involved in political decisions. That really changed my career path. It is what brought me to UConn to get my Ph.D. and study with the other researchers involved with the Institute and move that area of social work forward.
After I was an MSW student I stayed at UNE as a staff member. A huge part of what I did was bring the Campaign School up to Maine and that was the first time that the Campaign School was replicated in another state. Fast forward seven years later, it’s been replicated all over the country, which is exciting.
What advice would you give students interested in pursuing their Ph.D. in social work here?
A: My advice would be the same advice that I give my BSW and MSW students: take advantage of your role as a student and remain open minded about what your interests might be. In the beginning of the program, don’t rule out anything because you don’t know what you don’t know. Remain open to all possibilities because you never know where your true passion and expertise might lie.
I also have to say Impostor Syndrome is a huge thing in graduate school. What UConn specifically offers is finding your people and your support system. Those people can help build your confidence and be cheerleaders that you can trust and be vulnerable with. They’ll have your back and they are right there with you to help you get to the finish line.