Students spend block researching homelessness


Cornell College students took on a new role as community researchers for a homeless shelter during their Block 6 sociology course, Social Control, taught by Professor Tori Barnes-Brus.

Students present findings in front of staff at Willis Dady
Students present findings in front of staff at Willis Dady. (Pictured left to right Jonah Storr, Kaci Tobin, Ruthie Hale, and Brena Levy.) 

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the 14 students in the class worked closely with the staff of Willis Dady Homeless Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to explore issues that impact the shelter. 

“It’s almost like we were employees for a block and gaining those real-world job skills of like ‘here’s what we need to find out and then what are we going to do, concretely, to make it better?’” said rising sophomore Ruthie Hale.

Students in the class spent every day of the 3 ½ week course exploring sociological theories and working on their projects. 

“We rarely, if ever, have the time to research best practices, as we’re usually responding to urgent needs,” said Willis Dady Executive Director Phoebe Trepp. “The results of the project will help us take action steps to improve our services. The information will help us change our shelter accommodations for people with disabilities, purchase a better medication management system, and implement new resources to help clients manage their money. Some of the groups produced educational and informational materials that we will be able to distribute to other staff and stakeholders, such as their survey results of our clients’ experiences with local public transportation.” 

Hale and rising senior Brena Levy researched the transportation piece. They interviewed shelter clients, service agencies, and transit providers. They used their findings to develop suggestions to resolve barriers faced by those who are homeless and who depend on transit systems. They learned that 85% of the clients they interviewed ride the bus on a day-to-day basis.

“Over half the agencies we talked to said the frequency and routes of the buses in Cedar Rapids weren’t sufficient enough to help people experiencing homelessness get a job,” Levy said. 

But the class wasn’t just a great research opportunity, it was Barnes-Brus’ way of testing out what a Second Year Seminar (SYS) course could look like under the college’s new core curriculum, known as Ingenuity. The professor is leading the way in the development of the new SYS, which students can enroll in starting in the fall of 2021.

“The new core curriculum will have a required Sophomore Year Seminar and that will be focused on problem solving and citizenship in action,” Barnes-Brus said. “This is something I am very passionate about–helping our students understand how liberal arts can inform everyday work and problem-solving in the real world.” 

At the end of the 18-day block, students presented their findings to the executive staff at the homeless shelter and used staff feedback to make changes to their final papers, similar to if a manager would note suggestions to an employee. Students present findings in front of staff at Willis Dady

“Gosh, I learned so much. It’s crazy how much we learn on the block plan, first of all,” Hale said. “But being able to work in a professional environment while also learning in a class environment at the same time–I think those two things paired really well together. I learned skills that I might not have gotten in just a class setting.”

Levy added that this hands-on experience helped shine a light on what she could do after graduation. 

“It really helped in terms of applying my major to the real world, it’s something I could be doing with a sociology major, working with Willis Dady doing research like that,” Levy said.

In just 3 ½ weeks the student researchers handed off valuable information to the homeless shelter. Trepp said students were truly invested in helping to improve services for people experiencing homelessness.

“The results of the projects were very interesting and helpful to us in furthering our impact on homelessness,” Trepp said.