In the 43 years since the SCSU Survey was created primarily as a teaching tool by a political scientist and sociologist, its reputation for integrity and clean survey methodology has made it an in-demand regional research asset.
In recent years the scope of the Survey’s activities and the faculty leadership have become more diverse, with faculty co-directors currently representing Psychology and Sociology in addition to Political Science. Faculty from many departments are now involved, including Statistics Professor David Robinson and Economics Professor Monica Garcia-Perez.
“Student directors also have been from a wide range of disciplines,” said Sociology Professor Sandrine Zerbib, one of the four faculty co-directors. “Our surveys continue to bring political, social, and health issues together; we find common interest in our survey questions.”
“We had two active studies going on this past semester: our annual Spring Survey of Students and a sponsored research project with the Great River Regional Library,” added Jim Cottrill, Political Science Department Chair and another of the faculty co-directors. “We have also just begun discussions with Stearns County for a mail survey of residents to take place next fall. So, there are lots of important research projects in the works right now.”
“The Center is set up for traditional academic surveys and high-quality college research for non-profit and governmental entities,” said Psychology Professor and Survey Faculty Co-Director Amanda Hemmesch. “Besides working with the library system and local governments, the Survey has partnered with CentraCare, United Way and Central Minnesota Community Foundation to give direction for what they’re doing.”
For 30 years the Minnesota Lottery has partnered with the Survey – referring to it as the “gold standard” of gambling surveys – to gain useful information on the effects of gambling and on gambling addiction on its customers.
“We have very intentionally grown this focus on the region, and with our expanding expertise we are building a greater depth of understanding about our local region,” said Sociology Professor Ann Finan, the fourth faculty co-director of the survey. “We’re a resource, an avenue for the non-profit partners we work with to learn and be more united.”
“We are kind of a go-to for those organizations,” said Cottrill of the survey’s external clients. “And the work is mutually beneficial. We can do high-quality surveys for them and give students invaluable experience at the same time.”
The Survey’s mission remains primarily educational, with students taking a lead role in the planning, execution and presentation of Survey research projects. “We can’t do this without the students,” Zerbib said. “They learn a lot of soft skills through their involvement with the Center and its partners.”
Hunter Tholkes and Sabina Scotti have shared the title of co-lead student director of the SCSU Survey for three semesters, and they can’t say enough about how well the experience has prepared them for the next big steps on their path to their dream careers.
“I just got accepted to a graduate program in the UK – King’s College London,” said Tholkes, a senior from Redwood Falls who has narrowed his educational aspirations to a doctorate in Clinical Psychology or MD in Psychiatry. Why London? “I love their education system,” he said. “It’s a different learning method – more hands-on like what I’ve become accustomed to. In the past few years at St. Cloud State, I have had more access to hands-on learning than I ever imagined I would have in college.”
Scotti, who grew up in California and chose St. Cloud State over larger universities in California and Oklahoma, plans to get into a Physician Assistant in Psychiatry master’s program, and she believes her work with the Survey will help her get into graduate school. “I went back and forth between research and analytics side or with hands-on opportunities to work with families. Involvement with the Survey was the perfect starting place. The faculty really help you set up for what you want to go into.”
“I really like to see people join,” Scotti said of her Survey experience. “For me it was an added aspect to the academic experience of a liberal arts college, including hands-on experience and connecting with faculty in lab work.”
Other students besides lead student directors also benefit from getting involved with survey work. “Many of my students and colleagues have done independent studies/practicum via the SCSU Survey,” Sociology Professor Sandrine Zerbib said.
“Over 100 students each semester get hands-on experience with Survey,” Survey Faculty Co-Director Amanda Hemmesch said. “For some online students it’s the only thing that brings them to campus.”
Hemmesch came to SCSU in 2013 and was the conduit for both Tholkes and Scotti to enter “the flexible framework for student involvement” – her description of the SCSU Survey experience for students.
“I started when Steve Frank was still here,” she said of the Political Science Professor who created the SCSU Survey. “I so much appreciated his vision of how the survey helped students.”
The very first student director of the Survey, Debra Yerigan, said working with the Survey was a “unique, wonderful experience.” She started with the Survey in 1980 and stayed with it until she graduated in 1982 and went straight to law school at Hamline. She specialized in family law with Minneapolis firm Messerli & Kramer and is transitioning into retirement.
Yerigan recalls the ways the survey was a hands-on teaching tool. “In 1980 there were no personal computers to use.” Yerigan said. “We called people on the phone and filled out forms by hand, then had to take them to “the computer place” on campus, where you’d type in the information and the computer would spit out punch cards.
“That was my first exposure to doing something on a computer,” said Yerigan, who was a Political Science major. “The only thing we did at that time was political stuff.”
The Fall Survey of Minnesota Residents remains strongly focused on politics and political issues, but the annual Spring Survey of Students is more about issues relating to student life and educational issues. Recent questions include attitudes about online versus in-person learning, campus involvement and service learning.
“It seems strange now, but I realize how different things were back then,” Yerigan said. “The Survey had an amazing impact on me – to have that familiarity with working with data.”
As a student director, Yerigan gained analytical skills and leadership skills. “That was extremely helpful to me in my career.”
Yerigan has remained connected with SCSU and currently is the Chair of the School of Public Affairs Advisory Council. “After I got a job, I always had a regular pattern of donating to St. Cloud State because I was fortunate enough to financial assistance. I feel if we are able, we should give back. I met with Steve Frank and established a scholarship for student directors.”
And like Yerigan, many student directors have put their experience to good use in graduate school and successful careers. “We have launched a lot of students into high quality programs,” Cottrill said.
Previous student directors include:
Kyle Janssen ’22: Kyle works full time as a Research Associate for Deft Research in Minneapolis, focusing on healthcare research. He earned an internship with Deft Research when he was a lead student director with in 2020-22, and he was hired full-time when he graduated in Spring ‘22.
Emily Herne ‘17: Emily is Research Director for NORC at the University of Chicago, specializing in survey research projects in her role as director.
Margaret Oliver ‘22: Margaret is a master’s student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota with an emphasis in survey research as it applies to public policy.
Jonathan Wong ‘20: Jonathan is a PhD student at University of Nebraska Omaha.