Fisher ’11 Turns Post-Katrina Service Work into Post-Grad Research, Career

By schwartzsa | August 26, 2011

By Sarah R. Schwartz ’10

As a sophomore at Arcadia, Lauren Fisher ’11 joined the Office of Community Service’s Alternative Spring Break trip to Jean Lafitte and Boothsville, La. on a whim; she had no idea how much the experience would impact her life. Fisher’s new-found passion for service led her to communities affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, where she applied her fields of study to address long-term disaster recovery efforts.

In January 2009, Fisher joined a large team of Arcadia students who helped to rebuild seven residential homes over the course of a week. In the process, the Psychology major gained much more than the satisfaction of a hard day’s work: She was able to connect with the victims of the disaster and hear firsthand about their experiences.

“The Alternative Spring Break trip allowed me to closely connect with Arcadia students, many of whom I had never met, who shared many of the same interests as me. It also opened my eyes to the devastation that was still shockingly apparent in Jean Lafitte, La.—devastation that had been caused nearly three years earlier by Hurricane Katrina. It made me want to return to the area to help rebuild further, which I would do two years later. I was stunned that it was still so prevalent in my very own country—and so few people are aware of it.”

Determined to do more, Fisher agreed to organize Alternative Spring Break in 2010 with Cindy Rubino, Community Service Coordinator. This time the group would focus on the city of New Orleans. Linking up with the Bunny Friends Neighborhood Association, Arcadia students worked at three different residential homes, scraping, painting and performing other restoration projects for families physically unable to do the work. They also worked with the Green Project, an agency that operates a warehouse store and lumber yard, to sell building materials that would otherwise go to waste in landfills.

Jumping in with Some Assistance

When it came time for Fisher to choose a Psychology Senior Capstone topic, she combined her interests in the Gulf Coast recovery and the field of mental health. “I wanted to get really involved with my psychology thesis and jump into the field,” she says. “At the time, I didn’t know where I’d land, but it ended up being a great experience.”

Fisher’s thesis examined the psychological needs of Mississippi and Louisiana residents affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita using data from anonymous surveys she developed and administered to assess victims’ perception and use of available psychological services, within one year prior and one year following the storms.

“It was really frustrating to me because this disaster was horrendous, and there’s nothing published on the long-term effects,” she says. “I wanted to contribute to this area because I think that people easily forget about the lasting effects—we’re so caught up in the short-term.”

To administer the survey, she returned to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, accompanied by her mother. “I couldn’t have done it without the support of my mother who went with me in January 2011,” she says. “It was her way of supporting my research and a belated Christmas present.”

Fisher recruited 50 people to complete the survey through convenience sampling, survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and/or Rita, currently residing in towns affected by the storms in the states of Mississippi and Louisiana.

It was an emotionally taxing journey for Fisher and her mother. “I haven’t detached myself from it entirely. But I’ve had to a little because I’ve been working more on the research end. Some of it was very touching and just plain sad,” Fisher says. “My mom felt it was depressing, but I didn’t get that. Many of the people I surveyed were taking charge of their future, especially the ones I interviewed. They were more willing to share and tell the story—they weren’t looking for sympathy.”

In her research, Fisher found a significant increase in the prevalence of mental health diagnoses five years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita compared with pre-storm reports. Other findings include reported levels of trauma, threat to life, helplessness, and loss.

Moving Forward with Findings

“About midway through February 2011, I realized that I had too much data for my thesis,” Fisher says. “It wasn’t necessary to include the interviews in my thesis—I had the survey quantitative data for the thesis. However, I think that the qualitative interviews add a personal piece that I wanted to include. I entered my survey data and didn’t even get to transcribing my interviews.”

That’s when Fisher’s thesis adviser, Dr. Barbara Nodine, Professor of Psychology and Acting Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, encouraged her to apply for a summer housing grant to continue her research. After graduation, Fisher stayed on campus recoding data and transcribing the interviews working with her research supervisor Adam Levy, Adjunct Professor of Psychology. She is currently in the process of addressing some of the questions that her research raised, namely, who responded to the disaster, how much funding was spent, and how many mental health professionals and clinics are in the area. She’s finding that a lot of the demographic data either doesn’t exist or isn’t available to the public. Fisher hopes to publish the results of her research in the future.

“I’m really glad that I did it,” she says. “It was a lot of work but it was worth it—definitely.”

Now that the summer is just about over, Fisher is transitioning into her first professional position as Adult Intensive Case Manager for Case Management Unit in Harrisburg, Pa. In her new role she’ll meet regularly with adults who experience severe symptomatic mental illness, monitoring their progress and ensuring that they’re using every resource available to them. Connections that Fisher made last summer while working at the Harrisburg area YWCA as Support Unemployment Specialist helped her land the job.

“While I was working at the Y, I was able to make some personal connections pretty quickly, especially when you’re working with a small number of clients intensively. You get to know them and you get to relate to them. I’m really looking forward to making those personal connections again.”