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Exits and entries

September 15, 2008

Fast walkers.

 "Exits and entries," a collaborative project in the Department of Sociology, is studying what happens after young adults leave an institutional setting.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

Sociology project studies how young adults fare after leaving an institutional setting

By Tim Brady

The original idea was modest: a project to study the transition of young adults who have been released from Minnesota prisons and juvenile detention centers. But when a graduate student in sociology discovered that a number of studies had already been done on the subject, a call went out to the department asking for ideas to make this a more comprehensive project. Before long, a diverse group of interested faculty members began meeting to expand the study, and then more came on board.

When all was said and done, the project covered six "domains:" young adults leaving foster care; former mental health patients; former adult prisoners; individuals leaving the state's juvenile justice system; people undergoing drug treatment/rehab; and returning military personnel. The collaborative study is called Exits and Entries.

Laying out the process

From the outset, the project was targeted at young people between 18 and 25 who have been removed from the community for 60 days or more. The rationale for selecting that age group is that it is a crucial time for young adults. That's when many form families, establish households, and develop careers. The study's breadth offered researchers an opportunity to compare diverse settings and identify particularly vulnerable groups—those whose return to the community would be more difficult.

From its earliest days, Exits and Entries was viewed as an opportunity for sociology students to learn and to gain experience in research practice and methodology.

In the studies, an initial round of 40 individual interviews would be conducted as the subjects were preparing to leave their respective institutions. A second interview would follow 90 days after their departure.

It was clear early on that participating graduate students would need some training. And so Assistant Professor Teresa Swartz taught a spring 2007 seminar to ground those students in research methodology, in-depth interviewing techniques, and project structure.

For faculty and graduate students alike, there has been a learning curve. "There are sensitivities that have to be observed for each domain," says Professor Chris Uggen. "We needed to learn, for instance, that many members of the National Guard really don't like the phrase ‘citizen soldiers.' Also, you don't say that they were 'released from the military.' They're ‘standing down.'"

The Guard comes home

Chaplain John Morris, a lieutenant colonel who has headed the Minnesota Guard's re-entry efforts for the past three years, is committed in his advocacy for returning vets. "We have been sending people to war for millennia," he says, "but we have never before helped our warriors adapt back to civilian life once they return."

The Guard now has programs in place to help returning vets, but what it didn't have, says Morris, "is any way to study the effectiveness of what we were doing."

With Morris's assistance, the first rounds of interviews were conducted at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin in late June 2007. Jeanette Hussemann, a graduate student in criminology, and student Arturo Baiocchi accompanied Professor Ross Macmillan to the base, where they met with members of the famed Red Bull Brigade, which includes Guard members from Minnesota, Kentucky, Washington, and Nebraska. They mostly talked with the Minnesota vets, who were returning from the longest duty of any unit in the Iraq war—22 months, 16 of them in combat zones.

Going into the sessions, the researchers were nervous. They were sensitive to the perceptions of the soldiers and feared that they might be seen as interlopers.

"These are people who have just been to war, and we were strangers with questions," says Macmillan, who oversaw the interviews. "They had just arrived at Fort McCoy. They were having a going-away party that had just begun. At 3:45 the next morning, they would be climbing aboard a bus that would take them home. We were pulling them away from that to ask questions, and yet they were incredibly generous with us."

The initial round of interviews focused on getting the soldiers to open up to the process. It turned out to be an easier task than the interviewers had imagined. "Once they realized that we weren't interested in asking them about the conflict, but about their lives and what they were going to do now that they were home, they really opened up," says Hussemann.

"They actually appreciated the opportunity to talk to someone," adds Macmillan. "They had obviously just gone through an enormously life-altering time, but I think they recognized the importance of what we were doing."

Sociology that matters

Meanwhile, interviews are under way in the other domains. And there are high hopes that advancing knowledge of the re-entry process will smooth the transition of some of society's most vulnerable young people into the adult world.

So far, funding has come primarily from the state. External funding will be needed to continue the project beyond the qualitative research phase, which should be by the end of 2008.

"This project has great potential," says Uggen. "It not only represents cutting-edge research, but also demonstrates the importance of a public research university. We're creating partnerships with organizations and institutions that we haven't [worked] with before. The collaborative nature of the project makes a great teaching experience. We're giving grad students a look behind the curtain. This is sociology that matters."

—From facets 2008, the Department of Sociology magazine