Intersession: two teams, three schools, three days

By Rafe

By Tim Lau '17 & Alex Bolanos '19, Tiger Challenge Fellows

A person’s first set of user interviews are always the most challenging. Thoughts of “what do I say,” or “how can I pull out the deep insights that lay dormant within my subject” seem daunting. The students in this cohort (i.e. “challengers”), however, surprised us with their energy, candor, and openness from the get-go. All doubts evaporated once we left Princeton early Wednesday morning during intersession to conduct research in three schools over three days.

There were two Tiger Challenge teams on this trip. One team is designing ways to mitigate harmful stress and improve adolescent mental health (the “Stress team”). The other team is designing ways to increase applications (especially from diverse candidates) to teacher preparation programs in New Jersey (“the “Teaching team”).

Jack Burdick '19 & Maria Tokarsha '19 conduct a user-interview

We first visited a middle-income high school, where we joined students in rotations of interviews. As bonds formed, insights were drawn. The Teaching team observed that students viewed life after school as “the real world,” so the thought of becoming a teacher felt “like remaining in the fake world.” The Stress team heard how teachers’ compassion and care for each student was muddied by excessive bureaucratic tasks from administration, and a lack of respect from all parties involved.

After a long day of interviewing, we loaded up the vans once more, and began our drive to New Rochelle, NY, to the house we would be staying at throughout the trip. After racing inside to pick our rooms, we began cooking and decompressing from a busy day.

Recalling our own early morning routines from high school, we woke up at sunrise on Thursday to visit a higher-income high school. Throughout the day, we interviewed students, teachers, two librarians and the Principal. The Stress team observed that in such an affluent town with high expectations, stress levels both skyrocketed and became normalized. One senior shared: “If you are not stressed, you are doing something wrong. Stress is beautified here.” The Teaching team found many tensions in students’ perception of teaching. For example, one student, in consecutive sentences, listed all the ways that teaching is challenging and then said, “anyone can become a teacher.” This dichotomy is something the group will tackle.

On Friday, at a lower-income middle school, we continued conducting interviews with students and teachers. It was interesting to compare how the different demographic areas were similar yet different. Here, the Stress team gained a lot of insights from the students and found that their stress stemmed from a need to “survive” their education, rather than to reach a certain set of expectations. The Teaching team found that the teachers here also felt frustrated with the requirements of the curriculum and the lack of autonomy.

We love awkward family photos!

By the end of the trip, each team had interviewed over 30 students, teachers, administrators, and government officials. Each subject had an individual story. When these stories were retold over group meals, on car rides, and in the challengers’ journals, they were told with such energy and clarity that we couldn’t help but smile at the challengers’ empathy for their target audience.