Movers, shakers, and difference-makers

Movers, Shakers, and Difference-Makers


by Don Dillman

In this issue, we catch up with four WSU alums whose careers demonstrate a wide application of skills learned in sociology. We begin with Ellen Abell, whose dissertation used an interdisciplinary focus to study family issues. That work led to a career of helping children and families through extension programming in Alabama. Then, we hear from John “Jody” Durante who established a successful private sector career after completing a master’s degree 30 years ago.

We also caught up with Lori Hughes who completed her PhD in 2006 as she was transitioning from the Criminology and Criminal Justice program at the University of Nebraska in Omaha to her new position in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Her work on gang behavior and related issues with Jim Short has been mentioned in previous issues of Sociology News.

Michael Stern, another recent PhD, is now a Fellow in the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, where he provides leadership for web survey research.

The much-appreciated reports from these four alums illustrate the diversity of interests and career tracks followed by our many graduates.

Ellen Abell (PhD, 1993)

Extension Specialist and Associate Professor, Human Development and Family Studies, Auburn University

Ellen began her graduate studies in the WSU Department of ChilEllen Abelld and Family Studies (now the Department of Human Development) in 1986 to gain a master’s degree and the credentials to teach parenting and child development at one of the community colleges in the Portland area. Instead, she ended up working with her major professor, Vik Gecas, on an interdisciplinary PhD that combined sociology, psychology, child development, and family studies. She completed her degree in 1993 and landed her first (and current) academic position at Auburn University, one of Alabama’s two land-grant institutions. Her responsibilities in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies are split three ways: 75% extension and 25% teaching and research.

“If you had told me at the outset that I would live in Alabama for more than 22 years, I would have called you crazy! But it has been a good fit for me. In grad school, as I read the research about the influences of near and distal contexts on child development and socialization, I continually found myself thinking, ‘This research is really interesting, but if it doesn’t get to the adults who create and shape the everyday environments in which children grow and develop, what good is it doing?’ Working as an Extension scholar here in Alabama has allowed me to translate these bodies of research into informational resources and prevention programming used with parents and early childhood practitioners in child care and educational settings.”

The first outreach program Ellen developed was the “Begin Education Early” program. At the request of a county agent in rural west Alabama, she designed a parenting education program for underserved rural families with the goal of assisting their preschool-aged children to be ready for school. “The BEE program was a fantastic learning experience about combining the agent’s knowledge of her county and its needs and resources with what the research of the time suggested about early learning experiences important to school success.” The BEE program used grant funding to hire and train individuals from the local community to deliver the program on a van that was rigged out as a preschool-classroom-on-wheels. “Because we were able to show changes in parenting attitudes and practices with the evaluation data we collected, we successfully wrote for additional state and federal funding to grow the program into seven counties in one of the poorest areas of the state. It was hard work, but I loved being able to see research put to use to make a measurable difference!”

Ellen has gone on to develop the Family Child Care Partnerships (FCCP) program to enhance the knowledge, skills, practices, and professionalism of child care providers who care for unrelated children in their own homes. Securing almost $20,000,000 of state funding over the last 15 years has allowed FCCP, through its hands-on mentoring model, “to change the face of family child care in Alabama. These (mostly) women no longer see themselves as babysitters. Rather, they understand the impact of their daily work on the growth and well-being of children across multiple developmental domains.” The state of Alabama recently received one of the Early Head Start – Child Care Partnership grants from the federal government, in it tapping FCCP to lead the effort to support Early Head Start programming for nearly 200 infants and toddlers in family child care homes.

In the last several years, Ellen has returned to her long-held interest in adults’ emotion-related child socialization behaviors by incorporating neurobiological research findings into her training of early childhood professionals. “Showing how the brain/body processes and uses emotions has been a really fun addition to the class I teach to prepare our undergraduate early-childhood majors for real-world interactions with young children. My career here at Auburn has been gratifying in so many ways. The training I received from my WSU professors and graduate program launched me far indeed – all the way to the other corner of the country where I have used what I learned to make a difference in Alabama.”

John Durante (MA, 1985)

Consultant – Tempe, Arizona

“Few days paJohn Durantess when I don’t recall how my WSU Sociology experience favorably changed my life. After leaving Pullman in ’85 with both BA and MA, I wound my way through the marketing side of several industries including healthcare, broadcasting, and professional services. My sociology training was a boon for the technical (how to rapidly synthesize data) and interpersonal (how to manage staff expectations) challenges I faced on a daily basis. I would frequently remark to colleagues and superiors that my ‘business’ training was in sociology (not an MBA) and was the foundation of my professional perspective. Almost always puzzled, they asked how, of all things, sociology prepared me. I’d try to explain but seldom to much avail. Unlike me they didn’t get to experience things like:

  • Frequent dialogue with the Rokeach’s on human values and its place in the political and media cultures.
  • Bill Catton’s discussions (with others) that blazed a new trail in the then-infant Environmental Sociology area complete with sobering and prescient warnings.
  • Marc Stafford’s views that powerfully drove home criminal behavior is avoided (or at least was then) as much for social as legal sanctions.
  • Louie Gray wearing multiple hats as influential mentor, researcher, surveyor, student cheerleader, and miserable starting pitcher of the department’s softball team.
  • Endless other influences from the esteemed Jim Short, Steve Burkett, Gary Lee, the Tallmans, Don Dillman, post-doctoral scholar Joel Grube, and PhD candidates Jim Wittebols, Janet Lee, Karen Seccombe, and Carol Bailey.

“Such teachings were excellent preparation for working and sometimes leading in rapidly transforming industries like healthcare services. Few of my executive peers could easily spot a double-barreled survey question or rapidly interpret deeper levels of market data. One opportunity allowed me to conduct nearly 1,000 focus groups by the age of 32 on everything from the color of brand logos to parental response to their children’s drug addiction. I recall thinking there was no way I could have attempted (much less completed) such a task without the technical training, professional socialization, and humanity bestowed to me at WSU Sociology

“Today my toe stills stays in the consulting water doing freelance work based out of Arizona while sometimes wishing I had a more robust relationship with practicing sociologists. Occasionally I teach (introductory research methods or something media and culture related) and faithfully consume all the news from Wilson-Short Hall about a new generation of faculty, researchers, and students. I have no doubt that they too will effectively apply their sociology experience for professional and community benefit.”

Lorine Hughes (PhD, 2003)

Associate Professor, School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado at Denver

Lorine Hughes“I was a graduate student in the department from 1996 to 2003, with one additional year of post-doctoral study under the direction of Jim Short. In August 2015, I will be joining fellow alum Lonnie Schaible (PhD, 2006) as Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs at University of Colorado Denver. I have held previous appointments in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“I am proud of my roots in WSU’s Department of Sociology and feel fortunate to have been part of such a strong tradition of excellence. I am amazed each year by the number of successful people I meet who have ties to the program, whether as current or former graduate students, faculty, and so on. Within criminology alone, there are quite a few of us who remain active in the field and come together at least once a year for lunch during the professional meetings of the American Society of Criminology.

“Although I do not miss living in the trailer park located at 1155 SE Professional Mall Blvd., there will always be a special place in my heart for Pullman and my time as a graduate student. The experience not only prepared me well for academic life, but it also led to some of the best friendships and memories I enjoy today. The thoughtful discussions we had in our seminars and the late nights spent multi-tasking in the computer lab (with a pound of jelly bellies from Dissmore’s) rank high up there, as does the bear hug I received from Jim Short after defending my dissertation.

“More than a decade later, I continue to collaborate with and learn from Jim, who embodies WSU sociology and the motto that what happens in Pullman matters a great deal outside of Pullman. Go Cougs!”

Michael J. Stern (PhD, 2006)

Fellow, NORC at the University of Chicago Michael Stern

“I am one of those people who loved graduate school—not every minute of every day, but the fact that I got paid to go to school to read interesting stuff, do statistics, and learn to write a bit—after having been an iron worker, restaurant manager, and ditch digger, among other odd jobs— seemed like a dream of sorts. Also, I loved Pullman and the program at WSU. As soon as I visited WSU, I knew it was the right choice for me.

“My time in the program was always interesting. When I came to WSU, my plan was to study family violence using a structural symbolic interactionist approach—basically, I wanted to quantify definitions of the situation in lethal and non-lethal cases of violence.  Substantively, I was excited to work Victor Gecas, Peter Burke, Jan Stets, and Scott Myers; methodologically, I looked forward to engaging with and learning from Don Dillman and Tom Rotolo. As some of you may remember, Jan and Peter were gone before I got to campus, Scott and Vik a year after. The late Louis Gray once remarked in our Regression class that, although he believed there were no true causal relationships in the social world, being on Mike Stern’s committee did seem to cause an exit from WSU. I had to agree.

“I was fortunate at that point, however, that Don Dillman needed a stats person and Louis recommended me. The rest is history that I will not bore you with here only to say that I was very lucky those folks left WSU and the stars aligned the way they did—my life would be very different if that was not that case.

“After I finished my dissertation—focused on emerging network technologies, community, and survey methods—I took a tenure-track position at Oklahoma State University. It was a great first job and worked out well for me. I enjoyed mentoring graduate students (paying forward the time and patience Don put into mentoring me as much as I could), and there was ample research support for my program. However, socially, politically, and geographically, Oklahoma the state was not a good fit for me and my family, and after three years, I accepted a job at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC. I loved Charleston. The students were good, the campus was beautiful, the research support was good, and my colleagues were very easy to get along with (i.e., there was little in the way of departmental politics). I continued my research program and was successfully tenured at Charleston. However, something was just missing. I was happy to be publishing well in good places, but I wanted to add to more than my CV length. I hated feeling like I published for me and the small circle of researchers who I cited and cited me and not publishing so that others could use what I was doing to improve their own work in a tangible sense.

“Then, in my third year at Charleston, I got a ‘cold call’ from a vice president at NORC at the University of Chicago. They had gotten my name from a friend as someone who could be interested in moving from academia proper. They asked me if I had ever considered leaving academia, and I said, “Three times this morning.’ They were looking for a web survey expert; and the majority of my grants and publications at that time covered the intersection of web survey design and the ways different segments of society use emerging technologies. I went to Chicago, gave a talk, had an offer in a week, and three months later, I lived in Chicago. I have never looked back. My work is challenging, diverse, and incredibly fast paced. I have learned more about the stuff I had been publishing on in one year in the field than I had in six years of reading and writing about it in academia. It has been a joy, and now my work gets cited and used to improve surveys not validate a point in someone’s paper.  I cannot tell you how much more I like that as opposed to discussing impact factors for articles never cited.

“I am fortunate to have stayed close with so many friends and colleagues from WSU. I am in regular contact with Don Dillman, Bryan Rookey, Nick Parson, Jolene Smyth, Shel Llee Evens, Ben Messer, and many others. I think it is those relationships that made me love WSU and Planet Pullman and have provided support I have needed for a reasonably successful post graduate career.

“My family—Sabrina, Lillie (8), Giada (9), Aadyn (12), Pluto (puppy, 12 weeks)—and I love Chicago. We live within walking distance of Wrigley Field (eat your heart baseball fans) with an easy commute to work. I run, ride my bike, and enjoy watching the kids’ soccer games. Entering my fourth year here, I think Chicago is home…but I guess, if I have learned anything by this point, you really never know.”