2018 IDEA Award Winner Q&A: Jennifer Poole

Every year, the Curry School of Education awards grant funding to select students as part of the Curry Innovative, Developmental, Exploratory Awards (IDEA) Competition. Funded through Curry’s Research and Development Fund, this grant helps students advance both their careers and the field of education through the development of innovative research. This article is a part of a series that explores the winning 2018 IDEA projects and their potential impact on education.

Program: Higher Education
Project: Female College Students’ Concerns for Sexual Violence: A Constructivist Grounded Theory

Can you give me a brief overview of what this project is about? 

My dissertation project is a qualitative, grounded theory study on female college students' agency related to campus sexual violence. Specifically, I have conducted focus groups with female college students and their friends to understand how they see their own agency — including the conditions surrounding their agency and the consequences of their agency — as it relates to peer-based sexual violence. 

Why are you passionate about this area of research?

I am passionate about this research because sexual violence against female college students remains an unsolved problem within American higher education. Despite the numerous attempts by policymakers, administrators, public health specialists, feminist activists, survivors and allies, each year, undergraduate women continue to be victimized by campus sexual assault at the rates of one in four or one in five, depending on the college campus.

It makes me stop and think daily: despite all of the research that has been done on sexual violence in the U.S., and all of the amazing theoretical work and scholarship that stems from feminist researchers, do we really understand what is going on with campus sexual assault, as it faces female college students? Do we, feminist researchers and practitioners within American higher education, have the knowledge necessary to start reducing the numbers of college women being victimized? Not yet.

I wanted to try to chip away at this knowledge gap with the voices and experiences of undergraduate women. More precisely, I wanted to use their definitions, phrases, actions and interactions as a starting place for developing theory related to women's agency and peer-based sexual violence in college.

Where did the idea for this particular project come from? 

Honestly, this idea stems from my own thoughts and experiences in higher education, lots of prior feminist research, my historical frustration with the state of affairs surrounding women's victimization by peer-based sexual violence, and a lot of really engaging and supportive conversations with female faculty members at Curry. You couldn't really live in the U.S., right now, and not be concerned about the widespread problems related to sexual violence and harassment against American women. But just because you are a private person who cares deeply about this issue doesn't mean you are a faculty member who supports a doctoral student's research in this regard. Fortunately, at Curry, I've found a very supportive advisor and committee members — all female faculty members, I might add — who want to help this kind of feminist, qualitative work succeed.

How did you decide to submit a proposal to the Curry IDEA competition? 

I'd seen Catherine Bradshaw give a presentation in a previous year. When the email came around this year, I knew it was time to apply!

What other people and organizations will be involved? 

Previously, I was a fellow with the Power, Violence, and Inequality Collective, which supported me during the earliest stages of this research. I also do some work with sexual violence prevention at UVA — through Hoos Got Your Back and Green Dot — and intend to work with the prevention folks to do something with this research once it is complete. However, at this very moment, the other people involved are really myself, my advisor, and the groups of female friends who comprised my focus groups. 

What goals do you have for this project?

I have lots of goals, so I'll just share one that is on my mind. One methodological goal for this study was to provide a comfortable and safe space for female students to talk with their friends about peer-based sexual violence. Going into this study, I assumed that women were having these conversations on the regular. As such, in this study, I would be observing the kind of talk that they consistently have with each other related to sexual violence. At that time, my concern was that friends would be comfortable talking to each other and recounting their experiences and opinions with me in the room. However, I did not anticipate that the focus group discussions would be a place for friends to disclose new information and experiences to each other. The groups also became a space for female friends to disagree with each other, in heated and opinionated ways. Once I found this out, the methodological goal of providing for the comfort and well-being of my participants grew in importance.

How will the IDEA grant help you achieve those goals?

The IDEA grant has helped cover incentives for my research participants, and some costs associated with conducting my research. Any remaining money will hopefully go towards travel to present my research at a national conference.