Jessica Giblin took her first step toward a Ph.D. when she enrolled in Trident Technical College some 30 years after dropping out of college. Now, she’s getting hands-on experience conducting research with a leading role in a community needs assessment of the Tri-county LGBTQ community — and she’s still only an undergraduate.
Giblin is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in healthcare studies through the College of Health Professions. It’s still a new program — the first cohort of two students graduated last spring — but the opportunities offered by the program and MUSC are amazing, Giblin said.
One such opportunity was the LGBTQ community needs assessment, a survey that is attempting to assess the state of the LGBTQ community in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties. It’s rare that an undergraduate is able to participate in such a project from beginning to end, said Lauren Gellar, Ph.D., director of the Division of Healthcare Studies.
Gellar got involved in the project in January when she learned from Chase Glenn, executive director of the Alliance For Full Acceptance (AFFA), that the alliance was planning a survey in partnership with the College of Charleston Community Assistance Program (CAP) and the Joseph P. Riley Center for Livable Communities. Gellar offered her assistance. When she mentioned the survey to Giblin, Giblin was eager to take part. Gellar wrote a proposal to her department and was able to include Giblin as a research assistant on the project.
The result has been that Giblin has been able to apply topics she’s learned in class — evaluating published data, program planning, creating a community needs assessment, recruitment, conducting research, survey design, analyzing data and disseminating findings — to a real-world survey.
The team designed the community needs assessment, first, to provide demographic information about the LGBTQ population here and, second, to uncover challenges or issues the community might face.
The survey asks about relationships, education, work experience and access to health care, Giblin said.
“Those are not questions the LGBTQ community has been asked before in the Tri-county area. Every survey I’ve ever seen directed at the LGBTQ community was in regard to their sex lives. We’re getting beyond those questions and getting to the root of some of the determinants of their health and the quality of their lives,” Giblin said.
Giblin, Gellar, and AFFA are focusing on recruiting people to take the survey, while CAP focuses on the methodology.
CAP Director Ali Titus said the team looked at similar surveys conducted in Spartanburg as well as in Chicago and Birmingham, Alabama. She praised those researchers for being willing to share some of the pitfalls they encountered and their lessons learned. One of the difficulties the previous researchers experienced was getting a representative sample of the LGBTQ population to respond. CAP’s strong collaboration with researchers from the previous studies greatly assisted in the development of the research plan and targeted recruitment efforts.
Each week CAP produces a report with a breakdown of respondents by age, race and income and then compares it to census data for the Lowcountry, under the assumption that the LGBTQ community should reflect the demographics of the general community. When researchers see they’re falling short in collecting data about a group, the recruitment team can re-assess their efforts.
Giblin said the team knew going in they would face challenges in collecting data from people in rural areas, those who remain “closeted” and the aging, as well as ethnic minorities who might have language barriers or experience particularly strong social stigma in their communities. As a result, they’ve promoted the survey at specific pride events, community gatherings, potlucks and speaker events and have worked to partner with businesses, health care providers, government agencies and social influencers.
Titus said the survey currently is online only. However, the Chicago researchers ended up developing a paper version when they fell short of respondents over the age of 55 and ethnic minorities, so that remains an option here as well.
Once the survey closes on Oct. 20, the team will conduct focus groups to delve deeper into the answers, and Giblin will be involved there as well.
Gellar said all the students in the healthcare studies program have opportunities to conduct projects in the community. One student, for example, is working on developing health education about Group B strep for pregnant women.
Most of the students in the program are nontraditional, adult students, Gellar said. Giblin, for example, had a long and successful career culminating as an operations manager for a vacation rental company on Kiawah Island. But she eventually decided she wanted something more meaningful and realized she needed to go back to school to change her life direction. That’s when she enrolled in Trident. The majority of her classmates also come from the technical college system. Many have already been working in health occupations for five to 10 years and aspire to attend graduate school at MUSC.
Gellar said the division is still working to expand the program. She recognizes that MUSC can be intimidating to nontraditional students, but said their years of work experience are invaluable. As the program graduates more students, she expects to show that these students can go on to graduate programs.
Giblin said she loves the conversations that result from the diversity of backgrounds and professions in her class — it’s almost like working interprofessionally, she said.
“It’s just been an amazing experience. It’s been beyond my expectations. To be able to learn from people with such diverse backgrounds — that was not something I experienced at college the first time, 30 years ago,” she said.
She hopes the LGBTQ survey will provide a platform for increased dialogue and attention on LGBTQ perspectives, issues and needs in the region. The experience has solidified Giblin’s determination to complete her doctorate, she said, and she hopes to continue her studies here at MUSC.