Students Collaborate with Seniors for Anthropology Project
When students in Holly Barker’s qualitative methods class first set foot in the Pike Market Senior Center (PMSC), they were skittish and unsure what to expect. Ten weeks later, the Center was like a second home to them, its members old friends.
Barker, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, had students work with the PMSC to test the qualitative research methods they were studying in class. “The hallmark of anthropology is working with communities using long-term engaged methods,” says Barker. “People look to anthropology for that. This was an opportunity for students to get background on methods and then try them and see what they feel like.”
|Anthropology students Jenny Marker (left) and Shelbyrae Anderson pose with their senior partner, Louis, in the Pike Place Market.|
The senior center, which had already collaborated with the UW on other service learning projects, welcomed the opportunity to work with Barker’s class. Zoe Freeman, PMSC’s Wellness Engagement coordinator, says this was the most involved project they’ve done with the University. “Many of our members are low income, marginalized seniors,” she explains. “They can feel socially isolated. The students came in with their energy and their lively interest and there was just this magic that happened, a spark that took place.”
Students were paired with seniors based on interests, temperament, and—in some cases—facility with foreign languages. Together, they completed projects ranging from mapping the Pike Place Market to interviewing Market vendors about their awareness of the senior center, to capturing the seniors’ life stories through oral histories.
“It was wonderful to see the collaboration that took place,” says Freeman. “When they toured the market to collect information, the seniors were touring the students through their Pike Place Market, visiting their favorite places.”
That was certainly the case for anthropology major Shelbyrae Anderson. She and classmate Jenny Marker were paired with Louis, a senior who was eager to show the students his favorite haunts. “I’ve been to the Pike Place Market a hundred times, but he showed me new places I’d never seen before—and old places with a new perspective of why a senior would go there,” says Anderson.
The final project—an oral history project—was a favorite for both students and seniors. “We did this last so we weren’t just dropping in on the seniors and saying, ‘Tell me about your life,’” explains Barker, who prepped the students on how to put their partners at ease and respect their privacy—for example, not sharing parts of the oral history that might make their partners feel vulnerable.
UW student Matt Metcalf remembers the oral history project as “a great experience” for both him and his partner, Robert. “Robert loved telling stories,” recalls Metcalf, “and he’s got millions of them, from the mountains he’s climbed to the girlfriends he’s had.” The pair connected so well that they continue to meet occasionally for coffee and conversation. “I consider myself extremely fortunate,” says Metcalf.
Not every team had such natural camaraderie. Some senior partners were introverted or hesitant; a few stopped showing up. Such challenges, says Barker, are par for the course when working in the field as an anthropologist. “Going into the field is organized chaos,” she explains. “You plan, but you can’t control the outcome or what or who you’re dealing with.”
Anderson recalls Barker sharing that message repeatedly during weekly class sessions. If a student reported that his or her senior partner had skipped out on a meeting or balked during a project, Barker’s upbeat response would be, ”Great! How did that affect the outcome of the project?” It’s not that Barker didn’t sympathize with the students; it’s that she saw such challenges as part of the learning process. “It’s where students learn the most, but also where they are most uncomfortable,” she says.
Despite those few glitches, the collaboration proved to be meaningful for all involved, as was clearly evident at two end-of-quarter events. One was The Great Figgy Pudding Street Corner Caroling Competition, PMSC’s major fundraiser, at which students volunteered. “It was a really good extra step to show our appreciation for the fine people we got to work with at the senior center,” says Metcalf.”Plus, the event was a blast.”
The other event, a potluck hosted by the students for their senior partners, was bittersweet. Held on campus with PMSC members bussed in, the event was a chance for the group to celebrate its achievements and say goodbye. Barker recalls the seniors commenting on how valued they felt and how thankful they were for the experience.
Later that night, one of the seniors—a homeless man who spoke only Spanish—died unexpectedly. The loss shook everyone, but also emphasized the importance of the connections they’d made. “This man had just been talking about how much he appreciated the student he’d worked with and how much it meant to him to complete his oral history,” says Barker. “He died knowing that he was cared about—that a student was deeply invested in knowing and learning about his life. All the students saw firsthand the potential to make a difference in people’s lives on a one-on-one basis.”
Profoundly affected by the course, many of Barker’s students continued meeting the following quarter to help her prepare a book about teaching qualitative methods. Their input included writing about their preparation for field research, their methods, the data collected, and lessons learned.
The Pike Market Senior Center's Freeman believes that preparation made all the difference in the unusual collaboration. “This was a completely wonderful experience for the senior center,” she says. “The students were trained well to work with seniors, with a huge amount of respect and appreciation on both sides. I know that our members’ perceptions of young people were enlarged. I think a lot of stereotypes were broken down through this project.”
Witnessing the course’s positive influence on both the students and seniors, Barker and Freeman plan to offer the class again next year. “It is an ideal situation when students can learn, but they can contribute to the world around them at the same time,” says Barker. “Students should graduate knowing the impact they can make on the world.”