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Faculty contact gets student research position with Princeton sociologist

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – One advantage of a small college: faculty know their students, which can lead to some great contacts, as Bethel College student Shayne Runnion discovered this fall.

Runnion, a junior social work major from Phillipsburg, is serving as a research assistant for Robert Wuthnow, professor of sociology at Princeton University and a nationally recognized scholar and author on social and cultural changes in communities.

Wuthnow is also a personal friend of Allison McFarland, professor of business and economics. Both of them grew up – as did Runnion – in rural/small-town Kansas. However, McFarland’s friendship with Wuthnow developed through his wife, Sara Wuthnow.

McFarland and Sara Wuthnow were both raised in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and attended the denomination’s Geneva College in western Pennsylvania. They were teaching colleagues at Eastern College (now University), where McFarland had one of the Wuthnows’ daughters as a student.

Robert Wuthnow, says McFarland, “is still a Kansas kid, even though he has spent his entire career at Princeton. He loves the Midwest.”

A prolific author, Wuthnow has written widely on social change in a variety of contexts. His most recent books, however, focus squarely on the Midwest: Remaking the Heartland: Middle America Since the 1950s came out in 2010 and Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America's Heartland in 2011.

And Wuthnow’s next research project, in which Runnion is involved, is part of “the National Study of Farm Families in the Twenty-First Century,” Runnion says, “the purpose of which is to learn from current farm families how farm life is changing, what values are of special importance to farm families, and how farm families are thinking about the challenges and opportunities they are currently facing.”

“Dr. Wuthnow has researchers positioned in different areas [around the country], including two or three in the Midwest,” McFarland says, “but he needed a few more [for this project] so he contacted me to ask if I knew of any interested Bethel students.

“I thought of Shayne right away,” she continues. “She grew up on a farm and, as a social worker, she’s interested in changes in society.”

“I applied for this job because I am from a farm-ranch in northwest Kansas,” Runnion says. “I want to help advocate for the real farm voices that are often misrepresented and misunderstood by large [portions] of the general public.”

As a research assistant for Wuthnow, Runnion first had to complete a short online training course in order to earn an “NIH Human Subjects training certificate.” The course covered the basic research methods required as well as privacy issues – what questions could or could not be asked and how to inform the subjects correctly on ways their data will be used.

Once she had passed the course, Runnion received a list of Harvey County farm families, compiled from “a random selection of farm databases.” She sent letters to all of them, then made phone calls.

She has now completed 11 interviews within Harvey County and plans to do about another 10 in Phillips County when she goes home for Christmas break.

Runnion will put the data she gathers on a flash drive and send it to a transcriber who will pass the data on to Wuthnow for analysis. Runnion thinks it will probably be three years or so until the study makes it to book form.

She took the job because of her interest in the position, not because it necessarily related to social work, she says, but having completed half her interviews, she’s beginning to see its value to her chosen profession.

“I’ve made contact with people I’d feel comfortable talking to [regarding] other areas,” she says. “For example, one person was really into the Walton Rural Life Center [an agriculture-based charter school], so that is opening some doors and opportunities I probably wouldn’t have gotten [otherwise].”

Runnion intends to eventually return to Phillipsburg and get involved in running the farm and ranch operation that has been in her family for 100 years. She also hopes someday to work in horse-based therapy.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for one of our students,” says McFarland, “the chance to work with a world-renowned, Ivy-League researcher.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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