Written by Lucero Benitez, COSS Communications Specialist

The Institute of Public Anthropology (IPA) brought together two outstanding anthropology students to collaborate over an important research project focused on disconnected youth. M. Anne Visser and Polet Campos-Melchor who graduated 12 years apart, combined their efforts working under the IPA with Professor James Mullooly on the subject of disconnected youth. Mullooly and Visser have been working on this project since 2014. Campos-Melchor joined the project in 2016. 

Through their research findings, they discovered that since the Great Recession, older youth in U.S. rural economies experience longer periods of disconnection from school and work, resulting in increased economic insecurity. They analyzed data from interviews with young adults ages 18 to 24 and ethnographic fieldwork to explore how and why young adults, who are disconnected from school and work, utilize institutions available to them in their local community settings to ensure livelihoods.

“This project was a great opportunity for three Fresno State anthropologists, spanning the full academic spectrum, from undergraduate to full professor, to work together to bring more attention to a critical problem facing the San Joaquin Valley as well as the nation,” said Mullooly.

Mullooly believes this type of fieldwork is crucial in preparing anthropology students. He paraphrased George Santayana, saying “one educated only in the classroom is uneducated.” In addition to offering students field experiences in archeology and participant observation, the founding of the IPA was motivated by a desire to increase student exposure to applying anthropology in the real world. Since the IPA’s founding in 2005, many students have assisted faculty on a wide array of projects. 

The disconnected youth project began with grant funding that was received by Visser at UC Davis who then subcontracted the IPA to do some of the fieldwork for her project. As director of the institute, Mullooly deployed several students including Campos-Melchor to do field work with youth in the Fresno area. 

Campos-Melchor took the lead in over a year of participant observation in a local community development center in Fresno that was an ideal site to get to know the experiences of disconnected youth. She worked with clients twice a week for multiple hours building rapport and conducting interviews with participants. 

During that same period of time, Visser and Mullooly visited several sites throughout the San Joaquin Valley to interview disconnected youth. Their findings were reported in a research article published late last year, entitled, Visser, M. A., Mullooly, J., & Campos-Melchor, P. (2020). Diversifying, transforming, and last resorts: The utilization of community based youth serving organizations in the construction of livelihood strategies by disconnected youth in rural America. Journal of Rural Studies.

Visser described the project to Fresno State News in 2016 following the IPA’s publication of a report entitled Visser, M.A. (2016). On the Frontline: Community Based Youth Serving Organizations and the Economic Integration of Disconnected Youth in the San Joaquin Valley. In that interview, Visser noted that, “Community-based youth serving organizations provide a comprehensive range of services that are essential to supporting youth who are out of school and unemployed, particularly given that these youth are generally underserved by government programs and educational institutions in the area.” 

She added that ”Despite facing a restrictive economic and political environment, these community institutions exhibit a high level of resiliency in complementing existing government efforts aimed at addressing the growing number of disconnected youth in the region.”

According to Mullooly, the 2008 economic crisis inspired the research subject. Although interest in this topic waned for a few years, its significance returned due to the impact of COVID-19. With the unexpected impact of the pandemic, the need for improved understanding of the challenges of disconnected youth returned. The IPA was poised to assist Visser in her larger project and has worked with Professor Visser in the past on a number of large grants which have funded projects that have involved investigations throughout the San Joaquin Valley. 

“Although Campos-Melchor’s dissertation topic is not focused on disconnected youth, she still has much to add in terms of the subjects under investigation,” Mullooly said. “Her year of fieldwork with disconnected youth represents a wealth of information that could inform an ethnography of disconnected youth one day. One of the best elements that Campos-Melchor brought to bear on this project was to put a very clear picture of some of the faces of these disconnected.”

In 2016-17, Campos-Melchor was an undergraduate of the College of Social Sciences, working on a field project with Fresno State alumna Visser and Mullooly. Four years later, the three published an article in the Journal of Rural Studies detailing their work. 

Campos-Melchor majored in anthropology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and was a CSU Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholar in 2018. She immediately started a doctoral program in anthropology at the University of Oregon, completed two years of course work and will take her comprehensive exams and defend her dissertation research proposal next year. 

Visser majored in anthropology, political science and deaf education, earned a minor in Armenian Studies, and was a recipient of the CSU Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholar Grant and the Chancellor’s Doctoral Incentive Grant, in 2006. Visser was also the College’s Dean’s Medalist that year. Following her BA, Visser earned a Masters in Public Administration from the Political Science Department at Fresno State. After completing her PhD and the New School of Social Research, Visser received a tenure track position at UC Davis and received tenure in 2018.

The IPA was established 15 years ago to use the techniques in the perspective of Anthropology to better improve life in the San Joaquin Valley. The work includes writing grants, doing contract work throughout the valley (from Pixley to Stockton) involving colleagues from UC Davis, UC Merced, University of the Pacific and Intel as well as local colleagues from the Lyles College of Engineering and the Craig School of Business. 

The three researchers have another publication under review now, and are planning a future publication in the area to go into deeper detail. Visser and Mullooly will continue research in this area once field research opportunities are approved as safe.