Keenan McKenley, an international relations major at Buffalo State College, has long had an interest in immigrant and refugee communities.
“My father is from Jamaica, so it’s close to my heart,” said McKenley, who recently worked with immigrants and refugees as an intern and employment caseworker with the International Institute of Buffalo. “Hearing their stories sealed my passion.”
For six weeks this summer, McKenley will explore the impact of COVID-19 on refugees in Buffalo.
“I know many of the refugees who come to Buffalo don’t have access to technology and don’t speak English,” he said. “They need a lot of assistance. I wondered how the coronavirus pandemic and this new world affected this community.”
McKenley was one of 13 Buffalo State students to receive a $2,500 stipend to delve into research projects through the college’s Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship (USRF) program.
Students from 12 academic disciplines are working on projects ranging from the scientific, “Identifying Patterns in Small and Larger-Scale Fluctuations in Water Levels in the Buffalo River” (Eric Lipps, childhood education major, working with Jill Singer, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Earth Sciences), to the esoteric, “Can Music Alone Cause an Emotion? An Investigation into Jenefer Robinson’s Deeper than Reason” (Nicholas Stanford, music education and philosophy major, working with Leigh Duffy, assistant professor of philosophy).
The number of projects this summer is down from the typical 20 to 25, something M. Scott Goodman, professor of chemistry and director of undergraduate research, partially attributes to the pandemic. An impressive number of students still competed for the fellowships with thoughtful projects, he said.
“Students should be commended for their level of engagement, considering some have had to conduct their research and meetings with their advisers over Zoom,” Goodman said. “This also shows that faculty are still engaging with our students in meaningful ways.”
This is definitely the case with McKenley’s adviser, Vida Vanchan, professor of geography and planning, who also has a passion for the refugee community. Years ago, she worked for a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts that aided immigrants and refugees, and she continues to conduct research in this area.
McKenley took her Geography of Asia course last spring. After she shared her research and teaching interests with the class, McKenley approached her about helping with ongoing research.
“Keenan already had impressed me with his research on slow fashion and how it helps promote work by women around the world,” Vanchan said. “It’s eco-friendly, including but not limited to saving raw materials and water. I suggested he apply for the summer fellowship.”
McKenley is taking a two-pronged approach for his summer project, he explained.
“I’m sending surveys to individuals in the refugee community and to the local organizations that serve them,” he said. “Once I get the results and find out if there is a correlation between refugees not being able to get services during the pandemic and higher rates of COVID or poverty, I’ll write a paper on it.”
“We’re also looking at what organizations can take from those findings,” he added, “how they can plan for the future and put new policies in place in case something like this happens again, which it most likely will.”
Not only is the fellowship a unique opportunity for undergraduates to conduct research, but they also get paid.
“The hope is that students have a meaningful experience in the field while receiving compensation in lieu of a summer job,” Goodman said. “They’re starting to put their education directly to use.”
At the end of the summer, students have an impressive addition to their college résumés that can be quite helpful in graduate school applications, Goodman noted.
McKenley, who transferred to Buffalo State to finish coursework he began at SUNY Potsdam, plans to apply to doctoral programs after he graduates in December.
“I have aspirations of getting a Ph.D., teaching at the college level, and doing research.”
The fellowship pushed him further along that path.
“I’m in the process of learning the steps needed to do research,” he said. “Having a mentor like Dr. Vanchan has been really helpful in getting that experience.”
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