Program Evaluation and Education Research Internships Center Equity

PEER program 2022 interns

The Digest interviewed Callie Edwards, Ph.D., associate director of Program Evaluation and Education Research at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. Edwards comes from Durham, North Carolina and earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in public health from UNC Chapel Hill and her Ph.D. in educational research and policy analysis from NC State. 

Callie Edwards
Callie Edwards, Ph.D.

Diversity Digest: Please tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your prior experience and how did you come to lead the PEER Internship program?

Callie Edwards: I’ve served as a researcher and program evaluator for a decade in higher education and state government. A central focus of my career has been studying, partnering with, and advocating for historically underrepresented and underserved populations such as women, communities of color, individuals who experience low-income backgrounds and those who are the first in their family to graduate from college.

An important part of my journey is that I come from several minoritized communities. Growing up, my working class, Black American family was rich in love but not finances. In college, I was eligible for the Pell grant and work-study and I also worked part-time, so that gives you a sense of my economic background. While I didn’t have language for it at the time, I was also a first-generation college student. Because I didn’t have the same financial or social capital as my peers, I often felt like I was “freestyling.” Thankfully, I was blessed with incredible scholarships, grants and mentors, which helped me navigate college, and my experiences ultimately inspired me to create this internship. 

My journey to and through higher education is reflective of what we see in the literature. Students who come from minoritized backgrounds bring many assets to college, but they may not be able to leverage those assets because they lack the awareness or experiences that their more privileged peers have access to. The internship models many of the formative experiences that contributed to my success in college and beyond. 

Digest: Tell us about the Friday Institute’s impact area of cultivating equity in education. How does the PEER program contribute to this goal?

Edwards: The Friday Institute defines equity mindedness as “the mode of thinking exhibited by educational stakeholders who are willing to 1) increase their understanding of the origins and causes of persistent and systemic barriers to student success, 2) critically assess their own biases and 3) take responsibility for the success of all learners in order to increase equity in education.” 

I always say that the Program Evaluation and Education Research (PEER)  Internship Program for Undergraduate Students is “equity by design.” Equity is not an afterthought in this program; rather, I was very intentional about designing this program to counter the persistent and systematic barriers that underrepresented students face on an organizational and structural level.  For example, the program is only available to students who are work-study eligible. This intentional focus on providing opportunities to students who demonstrate financial need is one illustration of how this program is strategically aligned with the Friday Institute’s impact area of “cultivating equity in education through equity-mindedness.” Another illustration of this strategic equity focus is that students from historically marginalized communities are encouraged to apply. While we welcome students from all backgrounds and fields of study to apply, I conducted targeted outreach to groups who are traditionally underrepresented. 

Many internship programs exist across disciplines; however, our internship is uniquely positioned to broaden the talent pipeline in educational research and evaluation via racial and ethnic, gender, social-economic status and discipline/field of study diversity. Our program intentionally centers students who are historically underserved and plays a critical role in exposing diverse talent to the field, nurturing students’ preliminary interests and providing them with a safe space to learn, connect and grow in a community. Since its inception, over 80% of PEER interns identify as historically underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities, and over 70% identify as first-generation college students. 

Digest: How and when did the PEER program originate, and what are its goals? Who are the interns, and how are they selected?

Edwards: My initial vision for the program emerged in early 2020. In the beginning of 2020, my team, the PEER Group, experienced a lot of transition, as long-standing team leads moved onto new career opportunities outside of NC State. By mid-year, with a downsized staff, increased projects and continued uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, the PEER Group was collectively overwhelmed. Routine fundamental tasks, such as responding to survey requests, cleaning transcripts or compiling datasets, grew increasingly challenging, as full-time staff needed to prioritize their efforts on more complex tasks such as data analysis and interpretation, long-term strategy and partnership building to extend the team’s external funding portfolio. I thought an undergraduate internship program could be an efficiency-boosting strategy to supplement the group’s capacity gaps while exposing and training diverse talent. There is no shortage of data that supports the business case for diverse teams or a more diverse workforce. Through this program, I hope to create a sustainable and equity-focused pipeline for future educational researchers and program evaluators. Accordingly, the program has three distinct and interrelated goals: 1) to expose interns to the environment and expectations of educational research and evaluation, 2) to develop interns’ transferable workforce skills and 3) to enhance PEER Group operations. 

In terms of how it all came together, first I submitted an initial proposal to my supervisor, Dr. Shaun Kellogg, and then once approved, I submitted a proposal to our executive director, Dr. Hiller Spires.  Both were extremely supportive and approved my proposals. From there, I led the planning, implementation and evaluation of the program and became the internship supervisor. 

Since launching, 11 students have participated in the internship program, and four have gone on to earn their bachelor’s degrees and become alumni. Our interns come from a variety of backgrounds and lived experiences, which adds to the richness of their collaboration as a cohort and with our full-time team members. See Current and Alumni Intern Experiences to read some of our intern stories.

Digest: Do you see a lot of undergraduates interested in research and evaluation? Do they generally know what they want to work on, or does the program introduce them to possibilities that they may not have known about?

Edwards: Great question! The students that we serve describe how our program introduced them to possibilities they may not have known about before. For example, we conduct pre-post surveys throughout the program as well as exit interviews at the end of the experience. In reviewing these sources over time, one theme that continues to emerge is students having a more narrow idea of what research and evaluation is prior to beginning the internship, and then developing a more colorful, nuanced and complex understanding as early as one semester into the program. I should also note that some students come with more advanced knowledge than others, which is completely okay. We only ask that students have an interest in learning about research and evaluation when they apply. Still, those with advanced knowledge are able to learn new skills through hands-on application and networking.

Digest: What types of skills do the interns learn, and how do you envision these skills contributing to their future goals and career aspirations?

Edwards: Interns gain technical and soft skills, both of which are celebrated in our field and are also transferable to other fields. In terms of technical skills, the inaugural interns’ self-reported abilities in cleaning data, building surveys in Qualtrics, building online reports in Qualtrics and identifying and organizing relevant articles for literature reviews grew the most across their pre- and post-year inventories. Regarding soft skills, inaugural interns described how the internship helped them expand their communication/virtual communication, organization, time management and inclusive leadership competencies. I envision these skills as being tools interns can leverage for future classes and within their career. Now that we are in year 2 of the program, I have been more intentional about helping interns think through how to communicate about their skills and experiences in resumes, job and graduate school applications, and interviews. No matter what career path they choose, my goal is for them to have more tools in their toolbox after they complete their internships with us.

Digest: What were some of the outcomes from the inaugural year of the program? Did they align with the goals of the program, and how do you see the program evolving in the future?

Edwards: Excellent question! Since I’ve already discussed the transferable skills interns gained (above), I will focus my discussion on the other two goals of the program. 

In the inaugural year, all interns gained a real-world understanding of what it means to be an educational researcher or evaluator. For example, at the time of the pre-inventory, no intern strongly agreed/agreed that they were aware of careers in educational research and evaluation. That percentage grew to 75% of interns strongly agreeing/agreeing with the same statement in the post-year inventory. Also in the inaugural year, all interns also gained experience performing the duties and responsibilities for educational research and evaluator roles. At the start of the year, interns’ prior research experience was limited. Their experience grew significantly over the course of the year, and at the time of the post-year inventory, interns had collectively worked on 11 research and evaluation projects. Not only did interns work on several research and evaluation projects, but they also gained authentic experiences with data, such as data cleaning, automation, entry, analysis and visualization, which boosted their self-efficacy. All of these student outcomes are extremely encouraging because they align with the first goal: to expose interns to the environment and expectations of educational research and evaluation. 

In considering team outcomes, the program actually helped us save money, which relates to our goal of enhancing PEER Group operations. The interns were paid at the highest federal work-study (FWS) pay rate of $12 per hour. In accordance with the cost-sharing agreement, the FWS program contributed 75% of student salaries, and the Friday Institute contributed 25% of student salaries. As such, at the conclusion of the year-long pilot, the Friday Institute only contributed $1,054.50 for a total of 398 hours of service completed by all five interns. This total investment is equivalent to approximately 35 hours of work from one of the current PEER graduate assistants, who is paid $30 per hour. While the skillsets of full-time or temporary paraprofessional staff are necessary for some projects, these results are exciting for several reasons. First, this pilot demonstrated how undergraduate interns have the interest, work ethic and capacity to perform many discrete and often time-consuming tasks at a less expensive rate than full-time professionals or graduate student staff. In addition, with concerted effort, opportunities to refine their skills, and mentorship, many interns can increase their speed and perform these tasks at a quicker rate over time. 

Digest: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the program? How can undergraduates apply, when is the deadline and what are the qualifications?

Edwards: The Program Evaluation and Education Research (PEER) Internship for Undergraduate Students is a new, on-campus, and evidence-based program that introduces undergraduate students to educational evaluation and research. The first of its kind at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, this program partners with the Federal Work-Study program to provide paid immersive professional development for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Via the internship, undergraduate students receive ongoing training in educational research and evaluation techniques while contributing to PEER Group projects. Key features of the program include hybrid work and flexible scheduling, accountability measures, culminating projects and iterative program assessment. The program serves as a promising model for designing equitable and inclusive outreach programs to prepare emergent researchers and evaluators. 

The application opens in August of every year and applications are accepted on a rolling basis until all positions are filled for the year. Interns are selected based on their interest in education and developing research and evaluation skills. No prior experience is required. Hours are flexible, and work schedules must be developed in consultation with the intern supervisor. The average hours per week are fluid; some weeks interns may work up to 10 hours, and other weeks interns may not work any hours.

Photo, top: Callie Edwards with PEER program interns.