Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 14, 1997

Undergrad Research
Earns High Mark

An Undergraduate Life:
A Gazette series offering
a first-person account
of a freshman experience

Stacey Patton
Editorial Intern

One of the best things about being an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins is the opportunity to engage in research no matter what field of study one pursues. There are many points in our lives-- for academics especially--when we pick up books with statistics and theories about subjects that directly or indirectly affect our work in some way. Making sense of it all often can be difficult. Too often secondary sources present conflicting information. Being able to do firsthand research has been the best way for me to learn and sharpen my knowledge about people and the world.

Before coming to Johns Hopkins last autumn I planned to major in English and political science. Not surprisingly, that has all changed. As a writer and a person who is curious about the nature of people and what makes them work, I have decided to major in the Writing Seminars and anthropology. Writing makes sense to me, but I never figured anthropology would spark my interests.

Last semester I took a course called Welfare, Carefare, What's Fair? I learned in depth about the many aspects of the American welfare system past and present. Throughout the semester I had the opportunity to conduct my own research project on one specific aspect of that system, focusing on children of the welfare system. Going into group homes and youth shelters and conducting interviews with children put me into their world and helped me understand life from their perspective. I became too well aware of their plights and life circumstances.

This semester I am taking a course called Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves, Outsiders in Urban Society. In this class we have closely examined the lives of gypsies, prostitutes, the homeless and other socially deemed "outsiders." For example: What is life like for these people? What makes them different from the dominant mainstream society? Why are they viewed as threats to the status quo?

The assigned research project for the semester is to choose an outsider group and look at their lives and determine what makes them outsiders. I chose to study black males. I have been reading a great deal of literature full of statistics about black males and homicide, drugs, suicide, infant mortality and a whole range of other social ills. None of the literature had any realistic solutions looming on the horizon. I never expected research to be so frustrating. But I soon realized that I was approaching the project the wrong way.

One of my Writing Seminars professors once said that in the writing of literature there are conflicts and resolutions. Meaning that at the beginning of the story there is a problem or something a character wants but life or some person is denying the character whatever that is. And at the end of the story there is a resolution. The character either makes peace and lives on or ultimately dies. However, conducting primary research has taught me that in nonfiction, there are always conflicts but not always resolutions. When I began my research on black males, I rigorously searched for solutions, but all I found were more and more problems.

So I decided to take a step back for the sake of objectivity and my own sanity. I stopped seeking answers. I started asking questions. My goal was to better understand the lives of black males. Stepping into another person's shoes can be quite a difficult task, especially if the shoes are too tight or too loose. The key is to be flexible, and that is one important thing I have learned from this project.

In the last phase of my project I have begun to interview black males on the Homewood campus. I have asked what life is like for them in a predominantly white environment. I have even asked security guards and professors and others how they perceive black males.

The results of my interviews have brought me to the conclusion that even in a place like Hopkins there are issues with no resolutions. Conducting my own research as a freshman has been important because it has elevated my awareness that the plight of black males and other outsiders in society has diminished my own confidence and vision of America's possibilities. This is not the perfect resolution; it's reality. Now that I have come to terms with this idea, I can better approach the next project and many more projects that I will conduct in the future as an undergraduate.

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