VCU Fulbright Scholar, International Partner Launch Community-Engaged Research Project
Psychology Professor Wendy Kliewer’s “Project CARE” focuses on the risks and resilience of children in Durban South Africa
University Public Affairs
Wendy Kliewer, Ph.D., a professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Psychology Department in the College of Humanities & Sciences, recently completed a six-month Fulbright Research Scholarship in Durban, South Africa, at the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN,) one of VCU’s international partners.
During her time in South Africa, Kliewer teamed up with faculty and students at UKZN’s Department of Behavioural Medicine to launch a new research effort called “Project CARE,” an acronym for Community Assessment of Risk and Resilience. The six-to-seven-year research project will look at the challenges facing Durban’s children and examine why some children succeed, despite seemingly overwhelming odds.
“Durban is a beautiful place with lovely people but the city also has some serious problems,” Kliewer said. “Violence is a tremendous problem. Murder, rape and carjackings are common - as well as substance abuse. There’s huge unemployment and a fractured education system. And Durban has the highest new HIV infection rate in the world.”
Project CARE will follow children in grades seven and 10 and their caregivers from 400 low-income families for four years. During that time, the children and their caregivers will be interviewed and evaluated to determine the child’s response to environmental risk factors, measuring the response in terms of social competence, academic competence, emotional difficulties, aggressive behavior and substance abuse.
In addition to documenting associations between risk factors and adjustment, Project CARE will examine different processes that can explain those associations. The research also aims to locate children who are resilient despite the risks and determine what individual, family and community factors promote resilience.
“We’re interested in finding youth who are doing well despite the odds and figure out why they are doing well,” Kliewer said.
Kliewer said it was important to travel to South Africa to launch the effort by first visiting schools and getting a clearer idea of the issues facing children and their families. And to do that, she chose to live in one of the city’s central neighborhoods instead of a comfortable suburb.
She said working with one of VCU’s international partner universities offers opportunities for a true exchange of knowledge that is mutually beneficial to both universities.
“The possibility of building something together is quite attractive,” Kliewer said. “I’m a stress and coping researcher by training and they (UKZN) offer clinical expertise. This project meets both of our needs.”
The launch of Project CARE is supported by nearly $65,000 in funding made possible from a Global Education Office “International Partnerships Major Initiatives Award,” the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Psychology Department. Kliewer will pursue additional funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Medical Research Council and other South African sources. She intends to return to Durban once or twice a year while the research project progresses.
“If we have knowledge that can better the lives of others in other places, we have an obligation to use that knowledge,” Kliewer said. “South Africa and Richmond are different on the surface but there’s plenty we can learn from each other.”
Kliewer posted her observations and pictures from the experience online. The blog can be found at http://wendyadventures.wordpress.com/.