By UCLA Labor Center

The annual Labor Summer Research Internship Program (LSRIP) offers UCLA undergraduates the unique opportunity to investigate pressing community issues through applied research justice methods.

We interviewed two LSRIP alumni (2018), Gloria Perez and Juan Muñoz, about their experiences researching “Earners and Learners” in Los Angeles County — students who attend college and also work. Click here for information on LSRIP 2019.

How did you get involved with labor issues?

GP: My parents are resilient individuals who taught me how to go through life with humility and grace. My family emigrated from El Salvador in the early nineties, and my parents constantly struggled to earn a livable wage and find a work environment that did not exploit them. While my mother’s employer saw her as a person — not just a fixture that performed labor — my father’s experience was strikingly different, which was a constant stressor for everyone in our household. Later, my own work experiences further showed me that unfair labor practices are prevalent in the workforce, yet frequently unaddressed. We must study labor to understand both the history of the United States and present day workforce inequities.

JM: My interest in labor grew out of my interest in government and politics during my first year of college. I later became interested in labor unions and the role they play in organizing workers and their participation in political processes. I was very interested in the methods that unions employ to correct for labor issues, such as wage theft and discrimination, and how they better the lives of workers. It is important to recognize that labor, and the willingness of people providing it, are what make our society and government function.

Tell me about your roles as student researchers.

JM: The Labor Studies minor here at UCLA is awesome in that they allow undergrads to become very involved in the research process.

GP: The class collectively constructed an interview guide and survey tool examining Earners and Learners’ educational and work experiences, and their cumulative impact. Both of these instruments went through a pilot phase that was closely evaluated by the LSRIP class as a whole.

JM: After this, we went out to different colleges and universities in LA County and talked to people we never met before. After this data collection, we were introduced to both qualitative and quantitative methods of data analysis through tools like Dedoose and Qualtrics. During all of this, we were doing literature reviews and becoming acquainted with what other organizations and researchers were saying about Earners and Learners.

GP: Although there was a hefty amount of individual work, I would argue that the group work was vital to the success of this research.

Is there a particular moment/aspect of the class that stood out?

GP: Surveying students at Los Angeles Community College was one of the most gratifying moments for me. I was able to get a sense of students’ outlooks while in their environment. I got the sense that they were all striving for higher education, despite the many obstacles that they faced. Too often college students are branded as young adults that are living a carefree life, but the reality is that many are facing an economic crisis. Some students were caregivers, others worked more than one job, and some struggled to find secure housing. It was difficult to find willing participants, but reassuring to know that the story of many struggling college students was being quantified.

JM: A moment that stood out to me was during one of my interviews. I interviewed someone who went to El Camino College and transferred the same year that I did to UCLA. This particular person was working 40 hours a week and going to school full-time, while commuting from the South Bay and raising their son. Despite all of these things, they were incredibly optimistic and thriving at UCLA. The whole interview was such a learning experience because you realize that people have struggles and so many things going on — these are people who are sitting next to us in our classes.

Why is this research important?

GP: The Earners and Learners study provides a voice for overlooked college students. At the moment, colleges across the nation are failing to recognize that an increasing number of students fit the nontraditional profile, and as a result don’t provide adequate resources to facilitate their passage through college. It’s time to truly question why the cost of education has reached an all-time high, and how it’s limiting accessibility for many individuals. This empirical research measures the impacts of working while going to school. Therefore, it can push for policies that accommodate nontraditional students and dismantle negative stereotypes of them. We shouldn’t normalize overworked college students.

JM: There is phenomenal power in research. Research plays an important role in projecting people’s narratives — stories that need to be told. Our particular study of Earners and Learners is very important because the experiences of people struggling at the intersection of labor and education often go unnoticed and unquestioned. Their struggles have been normalized as an acceptable part of our society. Research allows us to add more context to the issue and inform others about students’ struggles.

What did you take away from this experience?

GP: Research is vital in the quest for change, but it takes a collective effort. It’s rewarding to see a small idea flourish with the hard work of professional staff, students, and participants. This research was a community effort that is still being worked on and perfected.

JM: I took so much from this experience. I discovered that I have a passion for research, and I am looking into applying to graduate school. During fall and spring quarters I continued to participate in the Earners and Learners Study through research seminars. I have also been a research assistant at the UCLA Labor Center throughout the year. I really want to encourage other students to get involved through this year’s LSRIP and other forms. There is so much critical research being done at UCLA, and you could be a part of it! We have the privilege of attending a great school where we have opportunities to make or be a part of positive change.