On her first visit to China, between her freshman and sophomore years, Heather Campbell tried very hard to get permission to get inside an orphanage to observe conditions in one of these controversial institutions, but all her efforts went for naught. Officials, in the end, simply said no.
It wasn't all that surprising because the Chinese government had closed off most foreign access to orphanages in the wake of reports that deplorable conditions existed for the children living in them.
"I was extremely frustrated," said Campbell, now a junior, of that trip to China in June 2000. "I thought I worked really hard and had very little results. I ran through pretty much every avenue to get into the orphanage, and toward the end, I felt, well, maybe this just isn't a doable research project."
Campbell, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, said she wanted to do a project on China because she has a relative who is Chinese and got the idea to research orphanages after a discussion with Steven David, the associate dean for academic affairs who runs the Wilson program.
Established in 1999 by the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program fosters original research by undergraduates. Each fellow works closely with a faculty mentor and receives a stipend of $10,000, distributed over four years, to support research costs.
Matthew Crenson, a professor of political science who is serving as Campbell's adviser, said, "This is a very ambitious, almost courageous project. She works under extraordinary conditions. For an undergraduate, this is really quite a task that she's taken on. I'm very impressed with her and the energy she brings to the work."
After Campbell's failed first efforts to get inside an orphanage, she began to think she might have to switch topics, and she prepared a list of backup research projects before she went to Shanghai in the summer of 2001.
But before she gave up, she decided to give it one more try. Having gone through all the official channels the first time, Campbell decided to take a different tack: This time, she just showed up at an orphanage and offered her services as a volunteer.
It worked. The staff at the Shanghai Social Welfare Institute orphanage were only too happy to have an American volunteer to help them out during the summer vacation months, when they are short-staffed.
For two months, Campbell traveled to the orphanage three to four times a week, enduring a three-hour commute from one part to another of Shanghai, a city of some 16 million, just to spend two hours with the children. But the effort was rewarding and helped further her research project.
"My main objective for going was to just take in as much as possible, maybe try to analyze it later, but just experience as much of the orphanage as I could," she said, "and when I'd go home, I'd take notes."
Campbell noted that her mere presence on the streets near the orphanage--nestled in a fairly crowded and impoverished corner of Shanghai--usually produced a sensation among residents, many of whom smiled and stared at her.
The orphanage itself, which provided home and care to about 500 orphans, was brightly painted and cheerful-looking on the outside and featured a school, a medical wing and a building just for the many infants age 2 or younger.
Because of both the government's "one child" policy and a still-prevalent desire among primarily rural families to have a boy to help work the farm and carry on the family name, most of the infants at the orphanage are healthy girls or boys and girls with deformities.
After having spent weeks in the orphanage, Campbell believes that the staff really cared for the children and that they tried hard but were limited in what they could do because of having too many children and not enough money or staff.
Children were fed and received medical care, but, Campbell observed, "The orphanage is not a place where I would want to grow up, [although] it wasn't as horrible as I thought it would be. From what I expected, it was nice. But for a place for a child to grow up, it was not nice."
One of the biggest problems, she said, was that infants were left in their cribs 20 out of 24 hours a day, and more than a few developed bed sores or bald patches as a result. More upsetting to Campbell was that many of the children seemed starved for attention, and so she spent much of her volunteer time playing with them, singing American nursery rhymes and cuddling. Typically, some of the children would not respond at first, but after persistent attention, they would begin to smile and giggle, she recalled.
"What I tried to do with the babies was hold two on my lap, but then I'd have one lying on the floor right next to me on the mat," she said. "I rubbed that one's belly and played with the other ones in my arms."
Working in the orphanage was a rewarding experience in itself, she said. But Campbell is continuing with her research and plans to go back to observe other orphanages, if she can.
"I think I'd like to write a paper showing that China is a developing country and it seems to be doing better [with orphanages] than we did when we were a developing country," she said.
To learn more about Heather Campbell's project, check out a video at www.jhu.edu/news_info/news/audio-video/campbell.html.