My name is Ryan Loll and I am a senior at UNC- Asheville studying Health and Wellness Promotion as well as Spanish. I am currently from Charlotte NC but made the decision to stay in Asheville over the summer because I got a position working with Campus Recreation planning pre-rendezblue for the incoming students.
Before summer was in full swing, I got an e-mail from the North Carolina Center for Health and Wellness asking for individuals to assist with an observational study that deals with recording the coming and going of trail users in the Asheville area. The center is working with an organization called “Kids in Parks” who’s goal is to promote a healthy lifestyle for children by motivating them to go out hiking and participate in outdoor recreation. The kids who hike on these trails can plug in their mileage online and get cool prizes after reaching set distances. Because this project is still in its beginning stages, Kids in Parks wants to make sure that people are using the trails, reading the trail head sign and brochures that are offered so that they can implement this program in other states. This is where I came into play. My duty was to sit at the trail head at one of four trails in the area and record who is using the trail. I was given a little booklet that was used for data collection and I would fill out information such as group size, number of children, approximate ages of children, number of males and females, and how long they went hiking. The funny part is the booklet I was given had birds on the cover and read “Birds of the Blue Ridge” so that people were not deterred by my presence. It was people watching at its finest.
So a typical day of “observing” would be 8 hours on Saturday and Sunday as well as 4 hours during the week of sitting in my camp chair or hammock reading a book or playing cards until a group of hikers would walk up to the trail head. Then we would act natural (or try to at least) and quietly record what they said about the trail as well as general information. They would hit the trail and I would resume back to where I left off in my book. The days ranged from being busy with hikers to an absolute ghost town. One of the hardest parts of the job was not only keeping yourself occupied for hours while no one goes hiking on a rainy day, but also recording large groups from schools who would come out and hike. On my first day of work, a group of about 30 exited the trail and I was quickly overwhelmed with counting the number of people. Thankfully, I had a partner with me for company so that I was not alone all day on a trail, but for the most part I was pretty quiet.
The funniest and best part of the job was trying to be inconspicuous while “observing” hikers. The most popular method of camouflage was pretending to have a pic-nic but when you are at the same location several hours later only moving to avoid getting sunburned, your cover gets blown pretty easily. Sometimes people would catch on to our activities and notice that the same two people are at the same location that they were hours ago and they seem to be writing something down every time people use the trail. We were instructed that if asked, we inform them about the project, but for the most part we were told to avoid interaction and any personal information because this study was strictly observational.
At the end of June the project ended and my skills of people watching were no longer needed. It was pretty fun being a part of this program because it allowed me to get a firsthand account of how projects like this are implemented, evaluated and improved. Thankfully I had an introduction to health implementation and evaluation in a class I took last spring titled “Health Promotion Theory and Practice” with Ameena Batada that allowed me to understand my purpose in this project. I was also glad to work with this program because it allowed me to establish a relationship with the North Carolina Center for Health and Wellness and I now have some basic experience with data collection not to mention my people watching skills have greatly improved as well.
I feel that the main reason why I got this short term position with the center was because of my relationship with my professors in the department of Health and Wellness (and also a little bit of checking my email). For any students who are interested in a position like this I highly recommend just stopping by, saying hello, introducing yourself and establish that you are interested in work like this. The professors and staff members in this department are awesome and love getting students involved in projects like this. After this project I honed in my skills of observational work, multitasking as well as keeping myself entertained during slow days. Thanks to this opportunity, I hope that more projects will present themselves to me and that I can use them for Undergraduate Research.
My advice to current students wishing to gain more experience in their field through opportunities out of the class room is to simply go and talk with their professors about what you are motivated and passionate about and ask them how you can personally grow to excel. These faculty members are not only teachers but resources to help students branch out and establish new relationships within their area of study. This project and others similar to it are great for building transitional skills such as problem solving, communication, critical thinking and work ethic. Once this project had finished, I felt that I got a tiny taste of what working in health promotion and research is like and I am ready to go out and find another project in my field of study that I am most motivated about.