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Blugold social work major's research helping change lives

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire senior Julieta Murillo is thrilled that she’s already making an impact on people’s lives and the field of social work thanks to an undergraduate student research project she’s working on with her professor. She’s part of a multiyear project that supports area youth who are from historically marginalized and economically disadvantaged populations by gathering data about what is going well for them at home and school as well as areas they need more support in. Last summer, Murillo conducted interviews with participants in the study and used other assessment tools to gather data and information about the teens’ lives and well-being. (Photo by Shane Opatz)

Julieta Murillo has always known that her future career would involve helping youth and their families, but the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior didn’t expect to make an impact on people’s lives and the field of social work before she even graduates from college.

However, that’s exactly what Murillo is doing through her work as an undergraduate student researcher.

The Blugold is among the UW-Eau Claire undergraduate students assisting Dr. Leah Olson-McBride, professor of social work and chair of the social work department, with a multiyear research project that supports area youth from historically marginalized and economically disadvantaged populations by gathering data about what is going well for them at home and school as well as areas they need more support in.

“Our goal with this research project is to connect with youth from marginalized groups who participate in pre-college summer programs in Eau Claire and to learn more about their environment,” says Murillo, a social work major from Blair.

The student researchers conduct interviews with participants in the study and use other assessment tools to gather data and information about the teens’ lives and well-being.

Their findings will benefit the youth, but also will help social workers evaluate the effectiveness of their practices, Murillo says.

About the research

Initially, the research project was slated to identify areas of concern among the youth, such as mental health issues, academic struggles and substance use, Olson-McBride says. The idea was to help pre-college program staff provide targeted and individualized support to youth who were deemed “at-risk” after an assessment.

However, the student researchers, many of whom come from marginalized groups and had participated in pre-college programs, determined that many traditional risk assessments were deficit-focused and contributed to further marginalization, Olson-McBride says. So, they chose to “re-imagine” their approach to the project and focus on participants’ family, social, academic and personal strengths, she says.

“This project is unique because it focuses on what is going well in the lives of youth from marginalized groups rather than taking the traditional approach of focusing on problems and deficiencies,” Olson-McBride says. “The project now is part of a slow but steady movement toward a strengths-based approach to social science research involving children and youth.”

The assessments are centered on the participants’ neighborhood, school experience and what a typical day might look for them at home, Olson-McBride says. Through the assessments, researchers can gain more insight into the participants’ lived experiences, she says.

When the project began in 2018, social work students identified the themes and developed the questions used in the assessments, Olson-McBride says. Murillo and Emma Velazquez, a senior social work major from Elroy, used those same questions and assessment tools in their work this summer.

This year was the third year that students collected data for the project, Olson-McBride says. Data was collected for two years pre-COVID (2018 and 2019) and then this past summer. A total of 13 student researchers have worked on the project, meeting with 58 teens during the three summers.

Making a difference

Murillo says she’s “gained a lot of takeaways” from being a part of the research team.

“You sit down with someone, and you learn so much about them even in a 30-minute timespan,” Murillo says of interviewing youth participants this summer. “When it came down to documenting the data, I was able to pick up on those who are struggling and how it was affecting different parts of their lives.”

Their data shows there has been a shift in the teens’ well-being since the pandemic began, Murillo says. Compared to data collected in 2019, “kids now are struggling more with social and academic aspects” of their lives, Murillo says of the differences the researchers see in youth pre- and post-COVID. This year, participants also had more issues with racism in school than in the previous years, she says.

“However, our findings made it possible to provide the youth who said they were struggling with additional support, such as mentors,” Murillo says. “Knowing that our research can help someone has made it that much more valuable and intriguing.”

A career in social work

Murillo knew since she was in high school that she wanted to be a social worker, a career path that aligns well with her interests and strengths.

“I have always loved working with children, and I knew that would be included in the career I chose,” Murillo says. “I also wanted to work with parents, so that is when social work became an option. Once I started at UWEC, my passion for this profession only grew stronger.”

Her experiences as a student researcher gave her new skills and understanding, things that will help her in her future career as a social worker, Murillo says.

“This research project has allowed me to extend my learning beyond the classroom,” Murillo says. “I gained experience and was able to be hands-on. These kinds of experiences are essential to my education and provide me with great insight.”

She joined the research team because it focuses on an area of social work that she’s eager to learn more about, says Murillo, who hopes to work in Child Protective Services after she graduates. She also plans to continue her social work education.

Her new understanding of and appreciation for research will help her be more successful in graduate school and in her career, Murillo says.

“This research will most definitely be beneficial to my future,” Murillo says. “Research allows social workers to evaluate the effectiveness of their practices and programs. In addition, research provides an in-depth understanding of the way people come to understand, act and manage their day-to-day situations. These are important concepts that I will use in social work regardless of what path I take.”

Murillo encourages students from all majors to take advantage of the research opportunities UW-Eau Claire offers. Through the experience “you will learn something that is applicable to your life in one way or another,” she says.

Murillo and her research team hope to present their project at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, which will be held at UW-Eau Claire in April.