Capstone Students Meet the Challenge of Adapting Research Due to COVID-19

They quickly shifted their project on immigrant and refugee communities in Minneapolis in the wake of the pandemic
June 9, 2020
Somali Independence Day celebration in Minneapolis 2016
A Somali Independence Day celebration in Minneapolis in 2016. Humphrey School students researched services for immigrant and refugee communities in Minneapolis in 2020. Photo: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr

For master’s degree students at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, a capstone research project is typically the final step they complete before they graduate. But this spring, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions of the stay-at-home orders in Minnesota changed everything, and research teams had to quickly address new challenges to finish their work.  

Capstone projects are usually conducted by groups of three to five students who analyze a public policy or management problem for a public, nonprofit, or private-sector community client and make recommendations in a final report. One capstone team of four students that was especially effective at adapting its research methods and the entire focus of its research due to the coronavirus received special recognition from the Humphrey School for those efforts.    

Master of Human Rights (MHR) candidates Katie Burke, Tonje Boerresen, and Hannah Shireman, and Master of Development Practice (MDP) candidate Christina Licari began working with the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA) of the City of Minneapolis in late 2019. 

OIRA is a relatively new agency, and it wanted the student researchers to develop a snapshot of population estimates and needs of immigrant and refugee communities in the city, to compile a comprehensive list of organizations that assist those communities, and to ask those organizations how OIRA could better serve them.   

But that all changed when the coronavirus pandemic began affecting Minnesota in March. The stay-at-home orders and economic fallout brought a new set of challenges to immigrant communities in Minneapolis and to the organizations that serve them. 

Capstone team quickly adapted to changing situation

Composite of head shots of four female Humphrey School students
Clockwise from top left: Tonje Boerresen, Christina
Licari, Katie Burke, Hannah Shireman

"The students 'returned' from spring break to … an urgent request from OIRA that they shift the focus of their work to finding out how the pandemic was impacting these marginalized communities and the organizations that serve them, and how OIRA could best support this new reality," said their faculty advisor, Humphrey School Diplomat-in-Residence Mary Curtin. 

"The team, now isolated at home and spread across two continents, moved quickly to redo their initial survey and to alter their interview methods to seek information from organizations under stress, in order precisely to create the knowledge that OIRA needed to meet those needs."

Instead of conducting in-person interviews, the students used video calls and email surveys to collect information from eight community organizations that provide social services to immigrant and refugee communities. They wanted to understand the pressures the communities were facing, how the organizations were adapting to respond, and how OIRA could help.  

"This was a quickly evolving situation for refugee and immigrant communities in Minneapolis," said Burke. The organizations, many of them facing funding shortfalls, scrambled to help clients access various resources such as unemployment insurance, housing assistance, or health care. 

One major challenge is finding translators, since much of the information coming from government agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other sources is written in English. 

"Staff at some of these agencies said they are on hold on the phone for up to two hours to request an interpreter through the Department of Employment and Economic Development, since there’s such a shortage of them available," Burke said. 

Other challenges they noted:

  • Financial uncertainty for the organizations, many of whom have had to cancel fundraising events and outreach while spending more to support clients. 
  • An increased demand among clients for basic needs like food and shelter, largely due to high unemployment. 
  • A sharp increase in demand for legal services, especially for immigrants being held in detention or those in the process of gaining permanent residency. 
  • Challenges in communicating effectively to clients when walk-in services are suspended. 

Their research provides 'a useful starting point'

Their report, "Minneapolis Immigrant and Refugee Communities: Organization Mapping and the Impact of COVID-19," is not as complete as the capstone team wanted it to be; they weren’t able to interview as many sources as originally planned, and they would have liked to follow the organizations’ activities over a longer period of time.  

"Our findings highlight community needs at this moment in time," the report said. "This is not a complete picture, but a useful starting point to understanding the unique implications of this crisis on immigrant and refugee communities in our local context."

Their client, OIRA Director Michelle Rivero, is very happy with the students’ work. 

"This report is very timely, and is tuned in to the issues that people are facing," she said. "There is energy [in Minneapolis city government] to dedicate time to developing this further." 

In recognition of the capstone team’s success in adapting to the challenges brought on by the pandemic, the four students—who all graduated in May—received the Humphrey School's Diversity Award during its commencement celebration. The award recognizes a paper on policy issues affecting diverse populations in the United States or globally. 

"They engaged in work that is always difficult, requiring great sensitivity to the concerns of a stressed community, and requiring that they shift their focus halfway through the semester," Curtin said in nominating them for the award. "[They] produced a well-researched and thoughtful report that OIRA interns will be able to continue without interruption. This information will help the city of Minneapolis and the broader community better respond to the needs of these populations."