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Undergraduate engagement propelled Williams to graduate success

There are no lazy days of summer for Seth Williams, who just finished his first year as a graduate student in sociology. Like most graduate students, his reading and research continue apace. But Williams has an advantage: the methods and skills required to be a success in graduate school are already well familiar to him, thanks to the preparation he received as an undergraduate.

Williams took every opportunity to conduct research and do hands-on work, encouraged by faculty who “noticed I had potential and vocalized that to me,” he said.

By the time he received his bachelor’s degree from BGSU, Williams had thoroughly learned to use the Stata data analysis and statistical software necessary for graduate school, had his work from an internship with BGSU’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research (NCFMR) posted to the center’s website, had completed two independent studies and won a BGSU award for a paper resulting from one of them.

Not only did he gain experience as an undergraduate, he also made actual contributions to the body of knowledge in sociology.

The momentum continued after graduation: Williams was chosen for an internship with Child Trends, the leading nonprofit national organization in child and adolescent well-being research, located in Washington, D.C., where he worked on a study of parents’ relationship with their children’s daycare and preschool teachers.

“I’m sure my undergraduate experience was instrumental in my getting the position,” he said.

“The sociology major coupled with his research experience at the NCFMR uniquely positioned Seth not only for his D.C. internship but also to succeed in graduate school,” said Dr. Susan Brown, chair of the sociology department and co-director of the NCFMR.

As a result of one of his undergraduate independent studies, with Brown, he presented a poster last May at the annual conference of the Population Association of America, in Boston, as a first-year graduate student.

“This is quite an achievement,” said Dr. Cordula Mora, director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship.

Williams’s path to college was indirect. He took time off to work after high school, and then, at about 24, enrolled at BGSU as a sociology major.

His reserved manner and quiet way of speaking belie a strong sense of purpose. “By the time I came to BGSU as an undergrad I already knew I wanted to go to grad school,” Williams said. “And as a nontraditional student, I wanted to get as much exposure as I could to different experiences.”

He also knew he was interested in studying poverty, which he got to pursue through his NCFMR internship.

He met Brown, the co-director of the NCFMR, when he took her Family Sociology class, one of his first courses as an undergraduate.

“So when Margaret Weinberger, the adviser for the program, said they (the NCFMR) were looking for an undergraduate research intern, I applied,” Williams said. He worked at the center from the spring of his junior year through that summer and on through his senior year.

It was in that position that he learned to use Stata, creating family profiles on such topics as child poverty in terms of race and family structure, and public assistance and health insurance receipt.

“They knew poverty and policy issues were my main interests so they created projects that spoke to my interests as well as to the purposes of the center. It was my first glimpse at scholarship and how research is really done,” Williams recalled.

Part of that was attending weekly meetings with the graduate students, Brown and NCFMR co-director Dr. Wendy Manning, where they shared their research briefs and got feedback.

“It was a great experience because they had me working on my own projects from start to finish,” he said. “I was creating demographic profiles, doing the analyses, making the graphs, writing up the reports and editing them till they were ready. The content was posted on the center’s website.

“Krista Westrick-Payne (the social science data analyst in the center who oversees the undergraduates) said her goal was to have me a year ahead by the time I got to grad school, and I really felt I was because your first semester in the sociology graduate program you learn to use that software, and I’d already been doing it every day.”

As a senior, Williams’s independent study with Brown resulted in a paper, on "Children's Economic Well-Being in Single-Parent Families: Gender and Lone Parent versus Multigenerational Households," that he and she continued to refine until it was ready to present as a poster at the Population Association of America annual meeting.

“Working at the NCFMR and conducting independent research provided Seth with the skills to hit the ground running in graduate school,” said Brown. “I am not sure that we’ve ever had a first-year graduate student present at a national conference. This attests to his research skills and perseverance. His work was selected through a competitive process.”

The paper also won Williams an award for undergraduate research from the BGSU Friends of the Libraries. “That was really exciting, winning the award,” he remembered.

Williams’s other independent study, also as a senior, gave him his direction for his graduate studies. Studying criminology with Dr. Raymond Swisher, who has presented his work at the White House, Williams found inspiration in Swisher’s focus on neighborhoods as an approach to the effects of poverty and how to address it.

“My thesis will be looking at the relationship between neighborhood perceptions of the police and fear of crime, looking at how neighborhood social capital moderates/mediates this relationship,” he explained.

This summer he is engaged in a project with his thesis adviser, Dr. Jorge Chavez, Swisher and Danielle Kuhl. They are conducting a National Institute of Justice-funded study of the effects of neighborhood violence on adolescents from seventh grade to their early 20s in terms of whether they can move from disadvantaged to advantaged neighborhoods and vice versa.

Williams hopes to go into academia as a career, and, as a teaching assistant, has already had the opportunity to encourage students in whom he sees “a little more potential, a little more interest, because it was a big help to me have faculty members who did that. It gives you more motivation,” he said.

“One advantage of the program here is the faculty are definitely available to students. Maybe in a larger institution faculty would be more focused on their research and less on the students, but here they are always available.”