Assessing the Impact of Campus Friends: Reflections from a Unique Project
In September of 2019, the Research Shop partnered with Community Living Guelph Wellington to assess the impact of their Campus Friends (CF) program. Following a mentorship-style format, CF connects University of Guelph student volunteers (mentors) with adults who have a developmental disability (students), providing them with an opportunity to experience campus life. The goal of this project was to assess the extent to which CF was meeting the intended goals of the program, as well as to offer insights for ongoing improvement.
This collaboration stands out from the majority of projects carried out in the Research Shop, as it had a much longer data collection period, a significant number of data collection points, and perhaps most importantly, fostered close relationships between the researchers and participants. It was carried out by three Research Shop students: Project Manager Jordan Daniels (Anthropology), and Research Assistants Syvanne Avitzur (International Development and Neuroscience) and Patricia Butt (Rural Planning and Development).
Jordan, Syvanne and Patricia shared their experiences working on this unique project below, including success and challenges, what was most rewarding, and their advice for anyone taking on a similar project in the future. To learn more about this project, please see the final report and summary.
What were the similarities and differences between this project and other projects you have worked on, at the Research Shop or elsewhere?
Patricia: The project was similar to other projects in the Research Shop in terms of team structure, workplan, pace of work, etc. It was unique in terms of the methods used – other projects I have been on typically involved one method, such as a survey or interview, but not a combination of the two in addition to other tools (such as the feelings chart and graffiti wall used on this project).
Jordan: This project involved a lot more time [compared to other projects] collaborating with the community partner as we saw them on a weekly basis for data collection. This made it very easy to bring up any issues and discuss the progress of the project regularly. This project also necessitated a lot more involvement with participants than previous projects I had worked on. This allowed the research team a chance to build rapport with participants which was important given the population we were working with.
Syvanne: Because CF focused on working with people with developmental disabilities, we wanted to ensure that we could build rapport with the participants to make them more comfortable throughout the research project. This was done quite naturally through meeting them on a weekly basis and asking them how they felt about CF, their mood, and what activities they did that day through the feeling chart and graffiti wall. I believe this project took a much more participatory approach, meaning we worked very closely with the students, mentors and coordinator of the program every step of the way to ensure its success.
What was the most challenging part of the project?
Jordan: At the beginning of this project, I definitely felt overwhelmed. We knew that if we were going to fully understand the impact of CF on both its mentors and students, then we were going to need to engage in various methods across various time frames. We also had to keep the scale of the project manageable, especially considering the already-busy schedules of the members of the research team. This balance was hard to achieve at first.
The most challenging part of this project was keeping track of the different data that was collected and organizing the logistics of various methods at one time. This was made especially challenging given that we were working with people with developmental disabilities because for every data collection tool, there was an extra step of ensuring what we were doing was accessible and appropriate for the population we were working with. There was a lot of learning as we went and asking our community partner for help as needed.
Patricia: I found the interviews to be the most challenging component of the data collection. Everything from formulating the questions, to creating a comfortable environment for the students and the actual interviewing process was complex and took a great deal of consideration. Each student has a unique skill set and there is a wide range of capabilities between them, so we couldn’t take a uniform approach to the process. We worked to accommodate the needs of each student on an individual basis and worked with our community partner to develop a process that we hoped would be most comfortable and accessible to them.
I personally would have benefitted from support or additional resources on best practices around research involving individuals with developmental disabilities. I think some of our tools/ strategies could have been improved to yield more meaningful results overall. While we did collect some very rich and detailed data, this was not the case throughout. In some cases, I felt the interview experience for the students was not as comfortable as it could have been. I would have liked to have more support around better accommodating the needs of the students.
What was the most rewarding part of the project?
Syvanne: Finding themes/trends in our results after analyzing the data for so many weeks while working as a research team. Though it’s challenging to analyze various methods, it made me a much better researcher overall. Further, when we presented our findings to the CF students, it was amazing to see how engaged and interested they were in research.
Jordan: Getting to know the participants and seeing their growth first-hand. Since we were engaging with the participants on a weekly basis, we were able to observe the impact that CF had on them.
Patricia: From the beginning, I was excited to be a part of the project – both because of the work of CF and for the opportunity to further develop my research skills. Working on the project was an incredible learning experience that will contribute immensely to my own research and academic career in general.
Despite the interruptions related to COVID-19, I was glad we were able to complete the work and produce the deliverables we set out to achieve. I really enjoyed the opportunity to present the results to the students and felt it was a great way to wrap up the project.
The most rewarding part was connecting with the students. It was an honour to be welcomed into the CF space and it was such a special experience to be able to get to know the students through the project. It was privilege to witness firsthand the impacts of CF on the students and their personal growth over time.
What advice would you have for someone conducting a similar project in the future?
Syvanne: My main tip would be to constantly reflect and evaluate the effectiveness of your research methods. I would also highly recommend checking in with the partner and participants as often as possible to see if you could improve the data collection process in any way. While the project was a success, the CF students may have been more engaged if we had taken a more participatory approach from the start.
Jordan: My advice for someone conducting a similar project is to be very patient and flexible. With such a long-term project, it’s easy to get so absorbed that you lose sight of what the goals really are. It is important to constantly check-in with community partners to remind yourself what the goals are and to ensure that the data you are collecting will provide insight into what you are trying to reveal through the project.
 Participants in this study included U of G mentors and CF students.