CBSHS Alumni Spotlight: Laurel Cartwright, American Voices Project researcher
Meet 2019 sociology alumna Laurel Cartwright. She’s a research fellow for the American Voices Project, which is led by Stanford and Princeton Universities, and is a national study of how Americans are doing. We caught up with her to learn how Clemson prepared her for life in the field as a researcher.
Q: What is your job?
I work for Stanford University as a Research Fellow for the American Voices Project, run under the Stanford Center for Poverty and Inequality. I am a field researcher for a nationwide study of how individuals and communities across the United States are faring. In this role, I move to a new city or state every seven weeks and conduct in depth interviews with households in each community about their past life experiences and current way of life. So far, I have been to New York City, Maine, New Hampshire, and upstate New York. The goal of the study is to create a large and current database that shows what life is truly like for people in the United States; patterns of injustices, stories of success, and everything in between. Rather than collecting quantitative data, as most studies do, this is the first study of this scale to focus mostly on qualitative data– the life stories of people living in the United States.
Q: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
I love the opportunity I get to live in places that I never would have without this position. I got to see the leaves change during the fall in Maine and it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. While moving so frequently is exhausting at times, I have gained so many new experiences through this job that I never would have had the opportunity to have without it. I have learned so many different ways of life in the rural communities that we have visited and felt incredibly accepted and welcomed into several of my site communities. While we are not allowed to stay in contact with respondents, I have met some of the most incredible, strong, and ambitious people and I feel like I am learning so much through their stories every day.
Q: What is a typical day/week like?
Most days consist of interviewing, recruiting, or a combination of the two. If we are recruiting, this entails knocking on the doors of our randomized sample of addresses in the area and talking with those who live in the household about the project and asking them to allow us to interview them. When we hold an interview with an individual, we sit down with them for about 2-3 hours and discuss every aspect of their life. This includes their “life story,” their family, current occupation, finances, and more. We also spend a lot of our time attending community events and speaking with as many community leaders as possible. This helps us to get a better sense of each site we are studying as a whole, providing some context for the individual stories that we hear in interviews.
Q: Describe your career path since graduating Clemson.
I chose to study Sociology because I always knew that I wanted to work with people, whether it was through directly helping individuals or studying ways to better our world. With graduation coming up, I still wasn’t entirely certain what I wanted my next step to be and I knew this job would give me the opportunity to network with a lot of professionals and researchers with similar goals to mine.
Social work is a very hands on profession, and this job provided that same level of personal interaction with people, but in a very different way. With this job, I was able to research and learn about all of the different inequalities that people in the United States face, but from a more hands-off research approach. While I was not able to directly help the people that I was interviewing, these stories I collected are being used to improve social services across the country by learning what Americans are really struggling with in today’s society.
My goal career is to work with youth, either in the foster care system or the juvenile justice system. I hope to go back to school to obtain a master’s degree in social work or a related field in order to work in the programming and administration side in a youth group home.
Q: What inspired you down this path?
During my time at Clemson, I worked as a house parent at a local foster group home called Helping Hands. Every day at the home was unique and exciting in its own way. The children there had been through a lot already and are in a very difficult time in their lives. I loved the opportunity to be a temporary parent for them. I always knew that I wanted to work with youth and my time there showed me how fulfilling working in a group home could be for me.
Q: How has Clemson helped prepare you for your career?
Clemson taught me so much about the importance of social justice work. The foster care system is riddled with social injustices and Clemson gave me the opportunity to learn how to fulfill the roles of advocate, ally and activist, as well as when and where each role is needed. Specifically, the Peer Dialogue Facilitator Program through the Gantt Center helped me develop my communication skills and expand my knowledge of social justice.
Q: Any advice to students?
While studies can get overwhelming at times, use every opportunity that you have to be involved in extracurriculars at Clemson. Clemson and the surrounding areas have a club, organization, part-time job, internship or volunteer group for basically any passion that you have. College is the perfect time to explore all of these options to see what you are truly passionate about. Also, read the emails that your college sends out. There are literally so many opportunities tailored to your field of study in those emails. I know they sometimes seem like they are full of information you might not care about, but you also might find an opportunity for a job opening at Stanford University that lets you travel the country like I did.