Student Spotlight: Emma Wu

Recent University of Minnesota graduate Emma Wu holds the distinction of having taken part in four community-engaged research projects through the RCP program during her studies at the University of Minnesota–more than any other student who has participated in the program. 

Wu graduated in 2021 with a Master of Public Policy degree from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, with concentrations in policy analysis methods and social policy. As part of her two-year degree program, she engaged in projects through all of the ways RCP connects University students with local communities: 

Wu recently met with RCP Program Coordinator Sarah Tschida to share her reflections about participating in community-engaged research projects through RCP. The interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

What interested you about doing community-engaged research projects? Had you participated in these types of research projects prior to your graduate studies? 

Before my graduate studies, my academic background focused on theory, and my past research experiences mostly took place in academic environments. When I started my graduate degree, I was looking for opportunities to put textbook theories into practice, and that’s when I encountered community-engaged research project opportunities through RCP. These projects not only allowed me to work on projects that directly impacted local communities, but they also pushed me to keep thinking about my knowledge frameworks and further exploring my career interests. 

Can you share a highlight of your RCP experiences? 

The highlight of my RCP experience was taking a fire truck ride around the city of Victoria with the fire chief, Andrew Heger! As cool as that experience itself was, through my 

independent research project, I was able to better understand how the fire station call data translates to real life. Seeing how my research could potentially affect city residents’ fire and emergency services encouraged me to consider multiple approaches to analyzing the data in order to make the most practical policy suggestions. 

What was most rewarding and challenging about the projects?  

The most rewarding part of the RCP projects is the opportunity to meet other students with similar interests. Some of my project peers were from other degree programs at the University of Minnesota, and getting to network with them and learn about their professional passion was rewarding to me in terms of understanding the complexity of policy analysis and exploring my own career path. 

The most challenging part about the projects was discovering that collaborating on research with peers from other academic departments requires more communication throughout the project. Realizing that the same term might have different meanings in different fields of study, or not understanding the disciplinary perspective of a research colleague, is part of the learning experience. I’d also say these experiences pushed me to grow the most as a community-based policy researcher, since communication is key in human-centered studies. Learning to interact with colleagues, stakeholders, and policymakers from different backgrounds is essential for policy students.

What was the most surprising aspect of your RCP projects? 

The most surprising thing for me was how well-organized and well-managed the projects were. I did some of the projects as independent work while being a full-time student, and some of the projects took place during summer or were part of my degree course work. All of my RCP projects were well coordinated, and especially during the middle of the semester or the final weeks of the term, project action items were clearly communicated ahead of time. That helped me a lot to be able to focus more on the research itself. 

What key takeaways do you have from your participation in community-engaged research projects with RCP? 

My key takeaway is that having an open mind is important to the outcome of the research. By being open-minded, I mean being open to research approaches that I was initially unfamiliar with before the project, modifying project steps and action items during the research process as I learned more, and listening and adapting to the client’s needs, even if sometimes it might not be what the researcher thinks is the most essential. Aside from being open to different perspectives, having constant and efficient communication with the project coordinator, fellow researchers, and clients is critical to the success of the project.

What skills, relationships, or perspectives did you gain from your RCP experience that you will take with you? 

A valuable perspective that I gained is that there is always more to learn and more space to grow in community-engaged research projects. As a student researcher, I was working with clients who have been in their professional field for decades, so even though I was familiar with the research process and research methodology frameworks, there’s always someone that I can learn from and there’s always room for growth in terms of understanding the social and policy issues behind these projects. Also, I recently started a new position at Research in Action as a research support specialist and resource manager. RIA focuses on human-centered research, and undeniably having done the RCP projects helped prepare me for my current role.