Greetings! We are Danuta Dobosz, Talatha Kiazolu-Reeves, Jillian Klarman, Michael Petillo, and Tiffany Smith, alumni of American University’s Measurement and Evaluation Program. We are here with Professor Beverly Peters; and Assetou Barry and Marshall Bailly, who regularly serve as practicum supervisors for AU students.
This article on Alumni Perspectives is one in a three-part series where faculty, students, and supervisors reflect on the practicum experience, as found in AU’s Measurement and Evaluation Program. Part I was on Faculty Perspectives. The series provides perspectives for those teaching, designing, and taking evaluation courses, and mentoring novice evaluators.
As students in the program, we collectively worked with about 20 practicum partners, including small community-based organizations, large government and tribal organizations, and internationally based governmental and nongovernmental organizations. We partnered with organizations in the fields of public health, education, leadership, community development, and democracy promotion. Whether working virtually or face-to-face, with small or large, US domestic, Native or First Nations, or international organizations, we came away with lessons learned for others engaging in such partnerships.
Common challenges we faced in our practicum work included accelerated course schedules that required intense focus and pacing; organizations that required different deliverables beyond the course subject; and non-responsive (or non-cooperative) staff and partners. Non-cooperative staff offered unique challenges as they often viewed evaluation of past work as an attempt to undo their success.
Related to this last point, sometimes major misconceptions of evaluation served as a hindrance to its application; we sometimes found ourselves teaching staff the basics of M&E in order to continue our practicum work. This was especially stressful, as we are novice evaluators who may not be 100% confident in our own knowledge and experience.
Practicum work also brought awareness to our own positionality, including personal identity and potential biases, and how this influenced our relationships and communications. For example, one student navigated how open they could be as a transgender evaluator working with a politically conservative organization. Another student had to balance competing perceptions amongst donors and project collaborators.
COVID-19 required adapting course activities that would usually have taken place in person (interviews, focus groups, etc.) to a virtual format. While working virtually provides students with opportunities to partner with organizations across the country and the world, building trust in virtual settings is a different skill set and requires additional time which is not accounted for within the limits of course deadlines.
How can faculty and practicum supervisors support students in addressing these challenges? Faculty should play an active role in the practicum process. We found it very helpful when faculty helped us identify practicum organizations and would suggest that Programs consider cultivating longer-term partner relationships across organizations and courses, especially when working with Indigenous partners. It was also helpful when faculty reached out to partners ahead of the semester to set expectations.
Communication and mentorship were key in facilitating partnerships and sustaining the evaluation work. We would suggest setting a regular communication schedule with both faculty and organizational supervisors to support this.
When we started our studies, we perceived the practicum experience as a mutually beneficial relationship between a student and organization. By graduation, we understood this pedagogy more deeply, as we came to see the practicum as an opportunity to engage transformative evaluation, build organizational capacity, explore alternative frameworks, and redefine our roles as evaluators. We learned that practicum work meant we were making human connections beyond course deliverables and a project grade—we engaged in Fink’s Significant Learning. We built communication, self-reflection, and sensitivity as well as gained evaluative skills.
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