Real research: Elaine Williams examines how service providers can better serve needs of homeless youth

Featured photoElaine Williams.

Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

When Elaine Williams was in middle school, her family was evicted from its Richmond apartment. Without a home of their own, the Williams family had no choice but to live with family friends for the next several years.

I was unaware what unstable housing or homelessness even was. It was my normal. 

“I experienced unstable housing in my childhood, which led to homelessness in my adolescent years,” said Williams, a senior in the School of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University. “At the time, I was unaware what unstable housing or homelessness even was. It was my normal. It was what I dealt with on a day-to-day basis.

“I wasn’t really aware of what it was until I was in high school and I was trying to go to college and my social worker told me, ‘You’re an unaccompanied youth,’” she said. “That’s the first time I understood what that actually meant. For me, growing up, that was just my way of living. It was just survival.”

Defining homelessness

During her first semester at VCU, Williams joined the Advocates for Richmond Youth, a “participatory action research team” of young people, all of whom have direct experience with homelessness or unstable housing, who are working to prevent youth homelessness in Richmond and beyond.

As part of her work with the organization, Williams has been researching the experiences and service needs of Richmond-area youth who are facing homelessness and housing instability but who do not meet the traditional definition of homelessness.

“Based on past research I have conducted on this issue, I have found that many youths define their living circumstances [differently] from the criteria that are used to verify eligibility for services,” she said. “Many services that serve youth utilize the traditional definition of homeless, which has caused a major disconnect between service providers and homeless [and] unstably housed youth.”

Williams’ study, “Exploring the Experiences and Service Needs of Non-Traditional Homeless Youth in Richmond,” will be presented as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program’s annual Undergraduate Poster Symposium at VCU.

“Through my study, I have learned about the crucial role that the definition plays in the lives of youth who may not meet the criteria of being literally homeless,” Williams said. “It also makes it difficult for youth to even come forward about being homeless because of the constraints with the traditional definition of homelessness. At this point, I am still working on collecting and analyzing the qualitative section of the study. However, based on the secondary data that is being analyzed I am able to convey that the experiences will be similar.”

A familiar pattern

Elaine Williams talks with representatives of Richmond-area nonprofits and service providers at a pop-up drop-in center for young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability sponsored by Advocates for Richmond Youth.
<br>Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs
Elaine Williams talks with representatives of Richmond-area nonprofits and service providers at a pop-up drop-in center for young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability sponsored by Advocates for Richmond Youth.
Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

Williams’ personal experience with homelessness, and the difficulties she encountered when seeking to obtain services to help, inspired her research.

“During the time that I was unstably housed, I reached out to services for help but was rejected because I was not literally homeless,” she said. “This experience helped me understand the barrier that the definition was for receiving services.”

Working with the Advocates for Richmond Youth, she learned that other young people in similar situations experienced the same difficulties.

I [found] that youth who were literally homeless were more likely to receive assistance than youth who were couch surfing or living in a host home,” she said.

Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Social Work and an organizer of the Advocates for Richmond Youth, worked with Williams on the research and supported her throughout the study.

“It has been really exciting to see Elaine extend the work of Advocates for Richmond Youth and her classroom learning from the social work program to take up a research question that explores one of her specific passion areas related to youth experiencing homelessness,” Wagaman said. “Elaine is a powerful community advocate who sees the potential in using research to influence social change. I know that her study will have an impact on how our community thinks about its efforts to respond to youth homelessness in all of its complexity as a social issue.”

In addition to the poster symposium, Williams will be presenting her research findings to stakeholders in the community, she said.

Williams, whose research was made possible through a VCU Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Summer Fellowship, said the project has helped prepare her for her future career as a social worker.

“As a future social worker, being able to use research to guide my practice [will be] crucial when working to change homelessness among youth,” she said.

“I would like to also work to make a change in the definition of homelessness [so that it] encompass the experiences of all youth who may experience homelessness and unstable housing,” she added. “I am passionate about social justice issues and challenging systems that make it difficult for people to reach their fullest potential.”


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Real research: Andrew Harris studies the barriers and facilitators health care professionals face in practicing mindfulness

Featured photoAndrew Harris.
Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

Andrew Harris started practicing meditation while he was living in South Korea and teaching elementary school English.

“I went to a Buddhist temple where they had English-led meditation sessions for foreigners,” Harris said. “That happens to be where I started doing meditation, but you don’t have to believe anything Buddhist to practice mindfulness.”

Harris describes mindfulness as the practice of paying attention to the present moment without judgment and says the term extends beyond meditation to include practices such as yoga, tai chi, journaling and guided imagery.

The recent VCU School of Nursing graduate studied the barriers and facilitators health care professionals face in maintaining a mindfulness practice for his Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program project. Through the project, Harris surveyed health care professional students who had taken a VCU class on mindfulness within the past year. His study aimed to discover how, or if, class participants continued to practice mindfulness after the conclusion of the course, with a particular focus on barriers they encountered and the methods they used to achieve success.

“I always thought research was something I would never want to do, but I had already done so many things in nursing school that I hadn’t thought I was capable of doing before that I thought, why not try to tackle something else that I hadn’t done before and see if I could pull it off,” Harris said.

Searching for common themes

It is more successful when people weave it into their lives as a habit.

Harris worked with VCU School of Nursing assistant professor Patricia Kinser, Ph.D., and Ph.D. student Sarah Braun to create a survey that he sent to previous class participants. He also conducted phone interviews with a portion of the survey respondents. The bulk of Harris’ research involved sifting through survey and interview responses to find similar answers, which the team then categorized into answer themes.

“The answer themes were the objective results that we got from the subjective replies,” Harris said.

His research showed that health care providers view mindfulness as a lifestyle or a discrete tool.

“People are more likely to have a hard time using mindfulness when they approach it just as a tool,” Harris said. “It is more successful when people weave it into their lives as a habit.”


A personal approach

For Harris, who participated in the VCU mindfulness course led by Kinser before starting the project, mindfulness is both a lifestyle choice and a tool that he uses to manage attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“I take medication for it and work out, but meditation is also one of the best things you can do for your brain beside sleeping, eating well and exercising,” Harris said.

After graduating in December, Harris started working as a nurse at VCU Medical Center’s Acute Care Oncology Unit. He weaves mindfulness practices into his life as a nurse, including sometimes stopping for a few moments to collect himself before meeting with a patient.

“I’ll stop in front of the door, take a deep breath, listen to the hum of the hospital around me and just take a timeout before I go into the room, because when I’m in the room with the patient, that is a special time and I want to be completely focused on the patient and how to care for them appropriately,” Harris said.

He hopes his research will encourage nurses and other health care professionals to practice mindfulness in their daily lives to help them care for patients and cope with occupational stress.

“A lot of people think you have to go to a mountain retreat and meditate for eight hours a day with candles and incense,” Harris said. “It’s really not like that. It’s just stopping to be in the present moment.”


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You are invited!! VCU Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity!

We are very excited to invite you all to visit our undergraduates as they present their research and scholarly endeavors at our 9th(!) Annual Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity taking place on Wed. April 19th from 11am-2pm in the Commonwealth Ballrooms and Richmond Salons of the Student Commons.  Our students have put together some fantastic posters profiling their work from the past academic year, and nothing would mean more to them than to be able to share it with our community!  We have nearly 300 students eager to answer your questions and tell you about their research.

At 12:30pm we will host remarks from Vice President for Research Development, Dr. John Ryan, and will be awarding our outstanding faculty members for their mentorship of our undergraduates.  We will also announce our annual VCU Launch awards for first-year and second-year students who have produced research posters that exhibit remarkable rigor and vision.

We thank you for your continuing support of undergraduate research at VCU and hope that you will join us at this special event, part of VCU Student Research Weeks!

Call for Student Proposals: VCU Inclusive Excellence – Social Justice Fund

The VCU Division for Inclusive Excellence invites student teams, with the support of a faculty or staff mentor, to submit proposals conceptualizing innovative solutions to social justice challenges facing our university, local, national or international communities. Up to four proposals will receive awards of $2,500 each to execute their creative ideas.

Teams can be comprised of undergraduate and/or graduate students. Each award includes $2,000 in funding for each student team and $500 for each faculty/staff mentor.

Proposals must demonstrate how the innovative solution will address and tackle structural, political, economic or social injustice through the lens of diversity, including race, age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, religion, national origin, disability status, political affiliation, veteran status and/or socio-economic background.

Student teams should establish a partnership with their mentor before applying, as the Division will not match students with mentors. Mentors will oversee the student teams’ proposal creation and implementation, and budget. Please note: funds will be transferred to the mentor’s departmental account for disbursement to the student team.

The teams with the top proposals must implement their projects during summer and fall 2017, and formally present results in spring 2018.

More info and full application available at:

Announcing 7th Annual VCU Research Weeks – Full Schedule!

Creative and innovative scholarship to be unveiled at seventh annual Student Research Weeks

Featured photoJason Shephard, left, explains the workings of a Formula SEA car he helped create to Associate Professor Leonard Vance, at the 2015 Research Weeks Senior Engineering Expo. (File photo)

VCU Research Weeks is often a major highlight for student researchers, said Herbert Hill, director of undergraduate research opportunities in the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation.

“For our students, it is about the culmination of a year’s worth of research and scholarship. For some of them, it is the culmination of their undergraduate careers, the end of a senior year,” Hill said. “While not every student who conducts research at VCU will pursue research as a career, it’s undeniable that the experience will inform their future as they take their place among the next generation of community and globally engaged scholars, innovators, and professionals.”

The following is a schedule of VCU Research Weeks events, which are free and open to the public:

School of the Arts juried design and Fine Arts Exhibition
The Anderson, 907 ½ W. Franklin St.
March 24–April 9

The VCUarts undergraduate exhibition is an annual culmination of undergraduate work in the arts. An opening reception will be hosted at the gallery on March 24 from 5–8 p.m. The event features work from students in all fine art departments. Faculty from the departments of Communication Arts, Fashion Design, Graphic Design and Interior Design have selected student work for the design exhibitions.

A student views artwork at the 2015 Juried Fine Arts, Design & Kinetic Imaging Exhibition at the Anderson Gallery. (File photo)
A student views artwork at the 2015 Juried Fine Arts, Design & Kinetic Imaging Exhibition at the Anderson Gallery. (File photo)

13th Annual Women’s Health Research Day
Hermes A. Kontos Medical Science Building, 1217 E. Marshall St.
March 29, 1–4:30 p.m.

This celebration and promotion of women’s health research will include a plenary symposium, poster awards and a reception highlighting women’s health research by VCU faculty and students. Several awards will be given recognizing outstanding work and interdisciplinary partnerships.

School of Dentistry Clinic and Research Day
Lyons Building, Crockett Lounge, 520 N. 12th St.
April 6, 9:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.

The event will give students the opportunity to share research that exemplifies how students can help progress the practice of dentistry. Judges will award prizes for the strongest poster presentations by dental students and by dental hygiene students. Student work will be highlighted in the Dental Investigator, the School of Dentistry’s quarterly research newsletter.

Virginia Commonwealth University Political Science 11th Annual Student Research Conference
Student Commons, Richmond Salons, 907 Floyd Ave.
April 14

VCU undergraduate and graduate students will join other students from across the state and overseas to present research and conduct discussions on topics such as American government and international relations.

Graduate Research Symposium and Exhibit
Student Commons, Commonwealth Ballroom
April 18, 11 a.m.–1 p.m.

Student researchers from across all disciplines will present work to faculty, staff, students and the community. The event is sponsored by the Graduate Student Association.

Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity
Student Commons, Commonwealth Ballroom and Richmond Salons
April 19, 11 a.m.–2 p.m.

Organized by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, the symposium is the first time many undergraduates have had the opportunity to present research at a major event. Projects represent work across a wide variety of disciplines.

Undergraduate and graduate research symposiums during the sixth annual Student Research Weeks last year.
Undergraduate and graduate research symposiums during the sixth annual Student Research Weeks last year.


Graduate Recruitment Fair
Student Commons, Virginia Rooms
April 19, noon–3 p.m.

The VCU Office of Admissions will host a Graduate Recruitment Fair to coincide with the VCU Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity. Undergraduates from all disciplines are invited to attend for information related to opportunities in graduate education at VCU and beyond. Recruiters from a number of universities will be in attendance.

School of World Studies Senior Research Poster Exposition
Student Commons, Commonwealth Ballrooms
April 20, 12:30–1:30 p.m.

Students from the School of World Studies will showcase research gathered from course work, internship experiences and service learning work. Participants will also have a chance to learn about graduate school programs, and network with recent graduates and employers from the community.

National Science Foundation Research Fellowship Information Session
Student Commons, Forum Room
April 20, 12:30–2 p.m.

The VCU National Scholarship Office will be hosting an information session for the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Jeff Wing, director of the National Scholarship Office, will share information about the application process. Juniors and seniors who are planning to pursue graduate degrees in STEM fields are encouraged to attend, as are first-year graduate students.

Fulbright Scholarship Information Session
Student Commons, Forum Room
April 20, 2–3 p.m.

The VCU National Scholarship Office is hosting an information session for students interested in the Fulbright Student Scholarship program, which provides funding to study, conduct research or teach English in more than 140 nations. Fulbright grantees come from a range of diverse fields and undertake projects that prepare them to play an influential role in today’s global society. They also contribute to mutual understanding among cultures and nations.

Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship Information Session
National Scholarship Office, VCU Honors College, 701 W. Grace St.
April 20, 3:30 p.m.

The VCU National Scholarship Office is hosting an information session for students interested in the Goldwater Scholarship. The purpose of this scholarship is to provide a constant source of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians and engineers by awarding scholarships to college students who intend to pursue research careers in STEM fields. For this scholarship, eligible sophomores and juniors are expected to write a research proposal in the discipline of their choice. Four nominees from each participating university are then chosen to compete nationally for a chance to become a Goldwater Scholar. This scholarship pays full tuition, as well as fees, up to $7,500.

School of Social Work Research Symposium
Student Commons, Commonwealth Ballroom
April 21, 10 a.m.–2 p.m.

Graduate and undergraduate students from the VCU School of Social Work will present their research and scholarly projects at this annual symposium. Students share their work in the form of research posters and oral presentations.

School of Engineering Senior Design Expo
Siegel Center
April 28, 9 a.m.–3 p.m.

The Senior Design Expo allows undergraduate engineering students to share capstone senior projects with the greater Richmond community and to increase the awareness of the engineering profession among middle and high school students. The annual event offers senior design teams the opportunity to display and demonstrate their prototypes, which are the culmination of eight months of effort. Eighty-eight student teams will participate in the expo, which has become a signature event for the School of Engineering and VCU.

Nominate your Faculty Mentor for an Undergraduate Research Mentorship Award!

Are you a VCU undergraduate student who is currently conducting research under an awesome faculty member at VCU?  Do you know a professor or faculty member who goes above and beyond to create research opportunities for undergraduate students?  If so, nominate them for a UROP Faculty Mentorship Award so we can acknowledge their contributions!

Go to: to submit a statement of no more than 500 words explaining why the chosen nominee deserves an outstanding mentorship award. Please use specific examples that detail your nominee’s contribution to undergraduate research at VCU.  The deadline for submissions is April 4th.

Consider the following criteria in your nomination:

• How has the nominee enhanced the skills related to undergraduate research in their discipline?

• How has the nominee expanded the knowledge base of student researchers?

• How has the nominee assisted undergraduates in their engagement with research?

• How has the nominee guided students in the acquisition of research presentation skills?

• What lasting impression has the nominee made on students’ future academic and professional plans?

Email Herb Hill at with any questions.

Deadline is March 22 for Abstracts: VCU Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity!

Organized by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) and part of VCU Student Research Weeks, the annual Undergraduate Poster Symposium is a wonderful opportunity for students to present their research endeavors to their academic peers, members of the VCU faculty, community members, and friends and family.  All undergrads from every discipline are encouraged to present and attend.  Presentations may be for completed research projects, completed papers, or research in progress.

Projects involving creative work such as prose or poetry, performances, and artwork will be considered for acceptance if they are part of a scholarly project undertaken by the student.  We are currently accepting poster abstracts up until the deadline of March 22nd, 2017.  All abstracts should be submitted to

After students are notified of their acceptance, we will accept electronic file submission of their posters.   Note: We hold poster workshops Jan. – Mar. and we are now able to print research posters free of cost to our students!

Abstracts should include: Name/Major of student, Name/Dept. of Faculty Mentor, Title of research Project, Brief description of research project.  All inquiries to


Undergraduate Research Positions with Dept. of Neurology and VCU Stroke Center

The VCU Stroke Center and the Dept. of Neurology are seeking undergraduate research assistants.  Our research deals with the introduction of live audiovisual communication between EMTs and Neurologists in the hospital and the feasibility of the telemedicine technology for EMS. We have finished simulation studies and we will soon be moving into live patient trials. Our interest now is in EMS perceptions of the technology and the efficacy of training in order to increase EMS participation.

Will mobile prehospital telestroke assessments reliably and feasibly assess acute stroke patients in a “real-world” clinical setting? Will mobile prehospital telestroke decrease door-to-needle time and/or door-to-groin time? Is a mobile prehospital telestroke effective to improve stroke clinical outcomes?

We would like to conduct 3 focus groups with key stakeholders (EMS providers and physicians) to identify the barriers/facilitators that may influence the implementation and effectiveness of a mobile prehospital telestroke intervention using the Reach, Effectiveness, Adoption, Implementation and Maintenance (RE-AIM) framework.

We need assistance with data analysis. and individuals that can code the raw data from each focus group using a question by question coding technique. A classification scheme will be developed based on key question topics. We will combine segmented data from each interview and focus group according to the classification scheme. The codes will be developed into themes according to the patterns in the data. The research team will collaborate to cross-check and confirm codes and subsequent themes. The results of the focus groups will be used to develop an implementation plan promoting optimal reach, effectiveness, adoption, implementation, and maintenance of a mobile prehospital telestroke intervention.

If you are interested in getting involved as a research assistant, email Kaitlynne Waits at

Undergraduate Research – Spring Semester Poster Workshops

The VCU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) will be hosting a number of research poster workshops over the coming weeks to help prepare students to present their research at campus and national research conferences and symposia.

The workshops are scheduled for the following dates/times:

Wed. March 15th  Hibbs Hall room 262 at 3pm

Tues. March 21st Harris Hall room 2123 at 2pm

Wed. March 22nd Hibbs Hall room 262 at 3pm

Tues. March 28th Harris Hall room 2123 at 2pm

Wed. March 29th Hibbs Hall room 262 at 2pm

Tues. April 4th Harris Hall room 2123 at 2pm

If students are unable to attend any of the posted workshops, they are welcome to email to set up an individual appointment to discuss research poster creation.

Just a reminder: abstracts for the VCU Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity are due March 22nd.  Abstracts should be submitted at: