Award-winning capstone projects analyze refugee perception, homeless services

June 12, 2017

By Matthew Kredell


Students (from left) Kristina Hummel, Kristin Butts, Margaret Ferrill and Steve Ozinga in front of the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Dora Kingsley Vertenten)

Two award-winning capstone projects in the Master of Public Administration program at the USC Price School of Public Policy are having an impact that extends far beyond the classroom.

Before winning the John Randolph and Dora Haynes Foundation Recognition Award as the Price School’s outstanding capstone project, one group of graduate students had already taken their presentation on the road to Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Exploring public perception of refugees

The team of Kristin Butts, Margaret Ferrill, Kristina Hummel and Steve Ozinga delivered their report, “Austria and the Refugee Crisis: An Analysis of American Sentiment in Social versus Print Media,” for the Embassy of Austria to the United States, traveling to D.C. to make their presentation at the Austrian Embassy.

That was the end of their academic obligation, but the students took it a step further by traveling to Chicago to participate in a panel discussion on attitudes about ethnic diversity and refugees at the Midwest Political Science Association annual conference. That led to an invitation to publish their work in a professional journal, and the students are currently working on condensing the report and picking a publication.

“The embassy was very impressed with the professional work the capstone group delivered, from innovative data collection and thorough analysis to a polished presentation,” said Hannes Richter, deputy director of Austrian Press and Information Service in the United States. “In addition, the real-time results and insights regarding an important, contemporary issue helped us gain a better understanding of opinion formation in social media and how the dynamics of the refugee crisis developed with regard to Austria.”

USC Price Professor Dora Kingsley Vertenten (Photo by David Giannamore)

The Austrian Embassy wanted to find out whether Americans had a negative reaction to the 90,000 refugees it accepted in 2015. The answer to that question was no, but more broadly the assignment allowed the students to analyze American sentiment to refugees in general.

“We all picked this topic as our first choice because it’s extremely relevant in the real world, and something that, through our research, we might be able to influence behavior, decisions and policy,” Ozinga said. “We knew we had a very good product, but it’s an honor for all of us to win the Haynes Award, let alone speak at a conference and eventually be published. It’s well beyond our expectations.”

The students created a sophisticated social media collection process, cataloging 3,600 social media outputs and comparing this data to concurrently published stories is six major newspapers.

“Their analysis proved valuable, not only to the client, but to the community of scholars concerned with ethnic diversity, immigration and fake news,” said USC Price Professor Dora Kingsley Vertenten, who was the group’s faculty adviser.

Helping homeless families

MPA student Jeremy Martinez, right, with Dean Jack Knott (Photo by David Giannamore)

The capstone that took the Haynes Award Honorable Mention had their work passed on to the state and federal level.

The team of Waunetah Goins, Morgan Golin and Jeremy Martinez addressed “Servicing Homeless Families with Young Children: Exploring Smart Practices for Use in Los Angeles County.”

“It was much more than I think we had anticipated in terms of exposure and application,” said Golin, who now works in the Washington, D.C., office of the nonprofit Feeding America. “But the real value for us was the assignment itself, and how we were essentially consulting for an actual organization. I’ve been able to take the lessons and activities utilized in the capstone and apply them to my job.”

Their client, the California Child Care Resource Center, asked for a needs assessment of the policy landscape, current homeless family demographics, transitional housing programs and existing housing-independent early childhood education and care programs to identify gaps for the county.

“The client shared the capstone report with the California State Department of Education, Early Education Support Division, who determined their own efforts to produce such a report were not necessary when the students’ work was so professional,” Kingsley Vertenten said. “In turn, the state agency submitted the students’ report to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, as an official record of the State of California.”

Recommendations included establishing a collaborative structure to pursue funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; advocating at the local, state and federal levels for legislation on behalf of homeless families with young children; integrating Homeless Management Information System into non-housing service provider organization operations; and expanding access to referral services in order to maximize convenience and utilization.

“Our work with the capstone students from USC Price provided us with valuable research and insight on the best practices nationally for working with families who are homeless,” said Donna Sneeringer, director of government relations for the California Child Care Resource Center. “We are now taking that information and engaging in local conversations in Southern California.”