Listening to teens strengthens research

Rachel Sumner, PRYDE Postdoctoral Fellow

Rachel Sumner, PRYDE Postdoctoral Fellow

The vast majority of the emails I get about work are pretty boring, sent by adults, and focused on logistics. In the past few months, however, I’ve received two emails that were thoughtful, brimming with curiosity and enthusiasm, and so remarkable that I re-read each one several times.

As a postdoc with the Program for Research on Youth Development and Engagement (PRYDE), much of the data I collect comes from surveys completed by adolescents participating in New York State’s 4-H programs and, for many people, the experience of taking a survey is pretty boring (kind of like reading 99.9% of work-related emails). I keep my expectations low, hoping only that participants will actually read the questions and answer honestly. I recently administered a series of three surveys asking about purpose in life, identity, and diversity (the three main topics I study), and I included at the end a place where participants could indicate that they’d like to talk to someone about the survey, “like because the questions made you curious or upset about something.” Only a handful of participants checked that box, some because they didn’t realize it was optional, some because they didn’t understand a question on the survey.

But one participant checked that box because she had a lot of questions and thoughts to share with me. She felt like the survey questions about purpose in life were the most interesting ones; she wondered whether it’s even possible for a teenager to find a purpose in life; she asked me to clarify exactly how I define “purpose in life” because knowing this might help her think about her school’s assessment tools, meant to guide students’ career choices; she wanted to know about my hypothesis and how it guides my research study. In a subsequent email following her participation in my second survey, she again posed interesting questions:

  • How might the lack of conversation about purpose in high schools leave teens feeling adrift?
  • Could purpose help young people get into college or find meaningful work?
  • Had I considered observing teens’ interactions in a 4-H program to see how their survey answers about diversity aligned with their behaviors in intergroup interactions?

Her ideas about purpose in life were both far-reaching and thoroughly grounded in her own experiences.  I am so grateful that she shared them with me. As someone who has studied purpose in life for over five years, my own thinking about this topic had become thoroughly grounded in existing empirical research. The questions I chose to study primarily stemmed from asking myself, “How can I build on the findings described in this study I just read about?” Since getting these emails, I am now asking myself, “How can I build opportunities in PRYDE for adolescents to help me figure out what to study and how to study it?” I am confident that including more participant perspectives throughout the research process, a key element of translational research, is going to lead to research that is more interesting and relevant.

I finished administering the third survey last week, and this participant again indicated that she’d like to talk to someone about it. As I write this, I keep glancing at my inbox, selfishly hoping that she’s taken the time to write another email in which she generously shares her curiosity and enthusiasm with me.