Arts & Life, Features, Fine & Performing Arts

Students Respond to COVID-19: A Photovoice Project amplifies the voices of CSULB students

There is a virtual gallery on the Carolyn Campanaga Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum’s website, that displays photos of things like empty shelves at a market, the surf crashing against dark rocks on a beach and a small dog on a bed. Each piece is accompanied by a 100-word narrative. 

These are a few of the submissions from the Students Respond to COVID-19: A Photovoice Project that at first glance, may seem like any other art collection. 

What makes this different is that being displayed in an art gallery is not where the project ends.

The real end of this project will be months from now, if not years, in the form of published research, a better-informed administration and more resources for the Long Beach State community based upon the experiences seen from the project. 

In order to get there, CSULB students can choose to submit an anonymous work that captures how the pandemic has affected their lives. Each submission’s narrative will be downloaded and cleared of any identifying information before being coded. While the images will tell an impactful visual story, the data will tell one as repeated words or phrases begin to appear.

The project emerged when Brian Trimble, professor at the School of Art, saw how sudden decisions were being implemented by administration in early March. 

“Students were having little opportunity to contribute to that conversation and we wanted to be able to provide them that opportunity to have a voice,” Trimble said. 

He partnered with Beth Manke, interim dean for student success, as the two had previously worked on another Photovoice project in 2015. The purpose of Photovoice, according to Manke, is to serve individuals who are not routinely included in research. Their photos and narratives are original, uninfluenced by how a question is asked or who is asking it. 

“We want to hear from students whose experiences are different, whose backgrounds are different, whose perspectives are different across campus,” Manke said.

So far, they have. 

The project reached about 40 classes by the end of summer as faculty shared this opportunity with their students. Now, there are over 200 submissions that will be handled by a research team of CSULB graduate students.

“In some ways, we see it as interpreting and understanding student responses by engaging students,” Manke said. “The best way to do that is having students as interpreters, if you want to think of it that way.” 

Grace Ocular is one of those interpreters. She is a second-year graduate student who received her degree in human development in 2016 at Long Beach State. 

Throughout the summer, Ocular has been assisting Trimble and Manke in organizing this project. 

“Being involved in this is really powerful and empowering at the same time,” Ocular said. “I feel a sense of solidarity.”

As Ocular sifts through the submissions on her laptop, now complete with an external hard drive she had to purchase just to be able to do her work, she gets glimpses into what students are experiencing. 

Students are exhausted from isolation. Students have lost their jobs and are struggling to pay their bills. Students miss their friends. 

It is concerning for Ocular, but as she finishes her master’s degree and pursues her doctorate to be a professor at CSULB, Ocular hopes that by then, this research will have helped restructure how classes are designed and can train faculty on how to be a better resource for their students. 

“We [should] invest in Long Beach residents applying to CSULB, and for low income students, to really welcome them in the university and have the programs we have and better,” Ocular said. 

On Sept. 11, Trimble and Manke will host a Zoom session open to faculty interested in having their students participate in the project. They will also share some early themes that have been revealed through the data.

Both Trimble and Manke are determined to share their research within the coming months so that the information can reach those in upper administration making important decisions. 

“One of the things that I’m hopeful about as a byproduct of hearing student’s voices is [that] we’re really prompted to be more flexible and nimble about how we think about engaging students, so meeting students where they’re at,” Manke said. “It’s really thinking about access and equitable education for all and that really requires rethinking sometimes the way in which we do things.”

This article previously contained an incorrect date. A correction was made on August 28 at 3:23 p.m.

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