By Pamela Dean

Capstone projects are the season finale of an undergraduate’s college experience. A culminating endeavor that showcases the knowledge and skills they learned during their time at CSUCI. For Sociology majors, capstone usually takes the shape of hands-on service learning done in partnership with a community agency. It is a core class in their major and the last class they take before graduating.  

When the pandemic forced the University to move the majority of classes into the virtual space, CSUCI’s Sociology faculty knew they would need to get creative in order to offer students a significant capstone experience.

“Students spend years thinking about the capstone – so we knew we had to find a way to deliver a meaningful capstone experience for them,” said Dennis Downey. “We all had to find ways to connect with the students, to guide them through the steps of designing, conducting, analyzing, and reporting on research for our partners. And our partners often rely on the research that we provide for them – all the more reason we had to make sure that the capstone moved forward.”

According to Downey, most Sociology capstone courses address a unique community-based research project. 

Downey’s students partnered with an African American advocacy group in Ventura County called Community Advocacy Coalition. The students took a survey the agency had previously conducted about issues of importance to the Coalition’s constituency and prepared a report with a full analysis of the responses. They also designed and conducted a series of micro-interviews with community leaders about issues relevant to the lives of African Americans in Ventura County. 

At first, some of Downey’s students were apprehensive about participating in such a major undertaking in the virtual sphere. 

“This semester has been chaotic to say the least, and to be honest I was extremely worried about how different my capstone experience would be under these new circumstances,” said student Amber Ruiz. “Fortunately, this semester could not have been any more beneficial. Not only did I have the opportunity to utilize the different skills that my core classes had given me, but I was also able to apply it in a real world environment.”

Leslie Abell’s capstone students partnered with the University police to assess student attitudes and perceptions of the campus Police Department as well as perceptions of safety on campus. 

According to Abell, the class conceptualized and designed all aspects of the project including developing the research questions, exploring related literature to contextualize the project, developing a student survey questionnaire, applying for Institutional Review Board approval, recruiting participants, and then analyzing the survey data. The students also wrote up a final report and presented their findings to CSUCI Police Chief Michael Morris and Lieutenant Chris Jetton via Zoom.

Abell’s students also found it tough to conduct a capstone effort virtually.

“The most challenging part about doing capstone online was not being together physically in a room,” said student Alyssa Romero. “It was challenging to do the research. Gathering all the data together was a struggle. But we managed to do it, including presentations, and I’m super happy that we got to present our findings.”

Abell hopes to publish her students’ findings in CSUCI’s open-access journal CBR@CSUCI.

Sunghee Nam had her capstone students investigate various issues related to homelessness, especially how it impacts minorities, foster care youth, the elderly and veterans. Some of her students worked on the United Way’s landlord engagement project which examines how to encourage private-market landlords' participation in the housing voucher program to reduce homelessness. To assess the local conditions and issues of homelessness, Nam’s students conducted a series of interviews with landlords and community advocates for homeless issues.  Students examined these issues in the context of the changes and economic stresses induced by COVID-19. 

Although conducting their capstone projects virtually was challenging, many students recognized its upside as well. As Ruiz noted:

“This project taught me that my education and the skillset it has provided me with can be used to make tangible change in our community. Throughout this semester, I realized that our transition to online learning was actually beneficial as it better prepared us for life going forward. Technology is becoming the new norm and having an additional six months of practice with Zoom, Microsoft Office, and SPSS [a statistical software] gives us a head start on the inevitable technological expectations we are soon to face.”

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