S4E7 Impactful Research: Discussions with Award-Winning Student Researchers

On this episode, we interview Mikayla Reynolds, Tamra Benson, Santiago Tijerina, and Caroline Paras, winners of UMaine’s 2023 Student Symposium. The mission of the UMaine Student Symposium is to give graduate and undergraduate student researchers the opportunity to showcase their work, research, and creative activities to the greater community, fostering conversations and collaborations that will benefit the future of Maine and beyond.

Mikayla graduated as Salutatorian in May 2023 and earned her B.S.B.A with majors in management and marketing. She is currently a graduate student pursuing her MBA with concentrations in sustainability and public & non-profit management and is an Alfond Ambassador Scholar. She is a Sustainability Graduate Fellow with the George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions. Mikayla serves as the Lead Peer Coach for TRIO Student Support Services, where she partners with students on their personal and collegiate goals. She is also a core organizer and the Impact Assessment Director for the Black Bear Mutual Aid Fund.

Tamra Benson (she/her) graduated from the University of Maine in 2023 with a B.A. in Biology. She is the founder and vice president of the Black Bear Mutual Aid Fund. She now works as a Community Organizer for Food AND Medicine, a nonprofit based in Brewer whose motto is that no one should have to choose between food, medicine, and other necessities. At FAM, Tamra primarily helps to coordinate the Collective Gardens Program. She strongly believes that everyone, no matter their circumstances, deserves to have their needs met, and that community care initiatives are healing and effective methods for collective, sustainable change. 

Santiago Tijerina’s documentary short film titled, Climate Action at the University of Maine, won first prize in the arts category at the 2023 Center for Undergraduate Research (CUGR) Student Symposium. Tijerina currently attends the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies at the Maine College of Art & Design.

Caroline Paras grew up in Southern California as the daughter of immigrants from Argentina, whose own families escaped religious persecution in the Old World. A first generation American, Caroline has been proud to call Maine her “home” since 1993. Over the last three decades, she has pursued two distinct careers: first as an educator who helped teachers create service-learning opportunities for K-12 students; and second, as a planner who engaged residents in economic and community development. Her third career was born on a trip to Italy, where she traveled to Bologna to learn how the distinct products of Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (DOP) Parma are made. Through an Interdisciplinary PhD at the University of Maine, she is researching whether agritourism experiences on culinary trails can facilitate consumer loyalty, brand experience, and regional economic development, thus keeping working farms and waterfronts in production while transforming consumers into lifelong customers of Maine farm and fishery products. On the side, Caroline also serves as the principal of her own consulting firm, ParasScope, providing market research and grant writing to support local and regional food economies. Caroline graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a double major in Political Science and Communication. At the University of Southern Maine, she has earned a Master of Arts in American and New England Studies, Graduate Certificate in Community Planning, and a second Bachelor’s in Tourism and Hospitality (‘22). She lives in Portland with her husband, Peter.


[00:00:00] Eric Miller: Hello and welcome back to Maine Policy Matters, the official podcast of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine, where we discuss the policy matters that are most important to Maine’s people and why Maine policy matters at the local, state, and national levels. My name is Eric Miller, and I’ll be your host.

Before we get into today’s episode, we’d like to let you know that this is the last episode of season four. Thank you so much for tuning in up until this point and we are very pleased to say that there will be a season five and it will begin on January 16th, 2024. We thank you for your continued support of Maine Policy Matters and look forward to bringing you more important policy matters discussions in the new year.

Today, we’ll be interviewing a few of the winners of UMaine’s 2023 Student Symposium. The mission of the UMaine Student Symposium is to give graduate and undergraduate student researchers the opportunity to showcase their work, research, and creative activities to the greater community, fostering conversations and collaborations that will benefit the future of Maine and beyond.

Join us as we talk with Mikayla Reynolds, Tamar Benson, Santiago Tijerina, and Caroline Paras about their winning research and the importance of supporting student researchers.

Hi Michaela, thank you for being with us.

[00:01:28] Mikayla Reynolds: Hey, yeah, happy to be here.

[00:01:30] Eric Miller: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your association with the University of Maine, any professional titles you hold, and what you majored in?

[00:01:38] Mikayla Reynolds: Yeah, sure. So I graduated last May as an independent first-generation student and earned my Bachelors of Science in Business Administration with Management and Marketing majors.

And now I am pursuing my MBA here at UMaine and am concentrating in Sustainability and Public and Nonprofit Management. Some other roles that I hold, I’m the Lead Peer Coach for TRIO Student Support Services, which I get to kind of like work with other students on well-being, academic strategy, and personal finance.

And also, I would love to say that I am the core organizer and one of the core organizers and the impact assessment director for Black Bear Mutual Aid Fund, which is also one of the folks who will be featured on the podcast, um, Tamar Benson, her project, where we are kind of looking to redistribute funding to alleviate economic hardships within the UMaine community and build a culture of community care.

[00:02:30] Eric Miller: Wonderful. Congratulations on graduating and it is greatly appreciated your giving back to the community and your activism. Interweaving your education as well as the community involvement is very cool. So you received an award for UMaine’s 2023 student symposium. Can you tell us a little bit about what your project was about?

[00:02:53] Mikayla Reynolds: Yeah, so my research project was titled “Exploring the Influence of Work from Home and On-Site Benefits on Perceptions of Organizational Attractiveness”. Essentially, what that means is I explored what made a business or an organization attractive or appealing to work for related to benefits packages in a post-pandemic workforce environment.

So, a mouthful, but essentially what I did is I chose to consider how benefits of working from home compared to traditional onsite benefits, like in office gyms or onsite cafeterias, impacted how attractive an employee or potential employee found a particular organization to be.

[00:03:33] Eric Miller: Very timely, and I imagine many, uh, organizations would love to know your insights that you got to with that research, which we’ll get to.

And so, how and why did you come to this decision to focus on how benefits affect employer attractiveness, and what was your research process like on your own as well as with your advisor?

[00:03:55] Mikayla Reynolds: Yeah, so I had the lovely structure of this being my honors thesis. So it was something that I was thinking about for a while, and I knew I wanted to study something related to employees in organizations.

And so actually I had originally even as a sophomore been like, Oh, I’m ambitious. I want to knock my honors thesis out like super early. And I had these like grand plans to just kind of. Get it over with and study what was really important to me kind of coming into college, which was mental health. Um, and so I was actually more interested in looking at mental health programs for organizations related to their employees, but over the course of like thinking about things.

And in 2020, when we were all kind of booted off campus, there was just like this larger world transition to remote work. And it did, as you said, just kind of became something that developed organically. I ended up switching my topic because I was really interested in how working from home might impact the workforce.

Everyone was kind of thrown into this state of crisis of trying to do everything they were doing in person from their computer and from home. And so my advisor was super helpful in kind of being like, Mikayla, it’s okay. Like you have a different idea. We’ll just spend some time and really dig into the details and figure out what exactly you want to do.

And he just reminded me that even though I was having a hard time with like that transition of topic, that I needed to do something I cared about a lot and I needed to make sure that the project was actually manageable. And so he was so helpful and supportive. This is Dr. Billy Obenauer, who was my advisor, just encouraging me to like.

Follow an organic path to something that made sense for me in the now, even though I was so disappointed that the work I had kind of put into a prior topic idea didn’t really work out, but I love my project and I’m glad that I landed where I did.

[00:05:43] Eric Miller: I can tell you from first experience that a research question often begets another research question, which begets another research question. So at some point, it just, once you’ve had some experience in navigating that, you land on one that has some inertia and dealing with COVID and work from home transition that underpins and helps energize. You couldn’t, you literally couldn’t escape your research question.

You were doing it. Living it. And so I can, I can see how that helped facilitate completing the project and led to some very interesting observations. And so what kind of impact you hope your project made to your field and the community of people that your research impacts?

[00:06:26] Mikayla Reynolds: This is something like thinking about my project.

I really did want it to be something that was practical and implementation, something that made sense and could actually be used. And so, yeah, COVID really disrupted traditional workplace operations and. It just really did make everyone transition to this digital environment where the workplace was different.

There were different kind of thoughts and feelings related to what people liked or didn’t like about this new space or what they missed or did not miss about their prior working environments. And so in the post-pandemic work environment, employees absolutely like did and do right now have the upper hand, especially for college-educated individuals in the workplace.

And so, from a business perspective, as somebody who is trying to recruit talent for their organization, it’s incredibly pertinent to know what benefits or what aspects of the organization or benefits packages would be most attractive to potential employees that they would want to hire. So, related to my research and kind of the outcomes of my research, we found that organizations that offered work from home did have an increased attractiveness to organizations that didn’t offer work from home.

Looking ahead to the post-pandemic required digital workplace, and we also found that organizations that offered on-site benefits, just on-site benefits, did also have a higher attractiveness. We couldn’t find any correlation related to whether, any sort of significance related to whether, if an organization offered both, there was no significance that it really increased the attractiveness of the organization, but for some organizations, for some potential employers, they found that working from home elevated the attractiveness of an organization.

It was most important for this study for organizations to offer on-site benefits because the folks who had taken our study actually were more interested in on-site benefits being offered, such as the cafeterias or on-site gyms. And so related to how this is like impactful, it really gives recruiters an understanding of what could be helpful.

So the practical kind of conclusion is that on-site benefits are something that workers are looking for right now in organizations. We are working on a study too to kind of dig in a little bit more to the nuances of that. But yeah, those are my findings.

[00:08:46] Eric Miller: Very interesting. So now that we are in 2023 and it’s been a little while and there’s been a little bit of a return to office type of, I don’t want to say initiative, but there’s been a good number of companies and employees that are interested in getting people back into an office more often.

And it seems like there’s been, people are getting entrenched into whether they want to like Really protect their work from home type of arrangement, which I work from home and I really enjoy it. But I also understand how people would, you know, coming out of COVID and the isolation and getting back into connecting with people and then having amenities to where maybe you took from your home, transitioning back into the office. Like you had your gym, you might’ve been working out at home. And so it’s like, well, I want to return to the office, but I don’t want to go to a separate place to go to a third place to get my workout in. So I’m understanding where your findings kind of came from.

It makes a lot of sense. And I’m curious how it’s going to play out in, uh, upcoming years. So, you mentioned your advisor before playing an integral role in getting your research across the finish line. Uh, in what ways did you feel like the university supported student research?

[00:10:06] Mikayla Reynolds: Yeah, so I think university support of student research, particularly at the undergrad level, is so, so important.

For one, I’m a big believer that students should be, like, encouraged to be curious and to explore their curiosity, and research is, of course, a great way to do that in an academic setting. And so, having programs and explicit opportunities for students to get involved in research is something that I’m a huge proponent of.

I was lucky and fortunate enough to have the context of my honors thesis to support me in this. There was, like, a class dedicated to thinking about research a little bit from the Honors College. There was also, I applied for a Center for Undergraduate Research Grant, which definitely made it financially feasible for me to kind of move forward with my research and I was able to pay my participants, which is super important for data collection and integrity.

And I also was given a scholarship through the Honors College in order to do my thesis research. And had Dr. Stefano Tijerina was an excellent supporter in, in my research. He, um, is kind of the liaison between the main business school and the honors college in terms of working with students on their honors thesis.

And from year one, I worked with him just kind of talking about my honors thesis project in all of its crazy forms and ideas and him just kind of talking through with me different problem-solving ways or different best practices. All of those folks were super instrumental. And of course, Dr. Obenauer was incredible.

He really did kind of take me on and, and all of my chaos and just be like, here, it’s okay, Michaela. Like we got this, like, you’re going to do good work. I’m going to help you do good work. And, and we’re going to do this. So he and I are actually working on publication and as I mentioned, like study two, so we’re continuing the project and he’s been absolutely great.

[00:11:54] Eric Miller: That’s fantastic. It’s so nice to have those institutional guides and navigators to ensure that you not only get connected, you can do your research from like a academic perspective, but from a logistics. perspective. There’s a lot that needs to happen to help it get finished. Connecting with surveys and how to fund paying your survey participants is all something that can be quite intimidating and huge.

And having someone or a group of folks guiding you is so, so helpful. So you are continuing your research, which is fantastic. Can’t wait to hear about it. Maybe we’ll have you back on the podcast. So how has this experience dovetailed into your MBA and what you’d like to do afterwards.

[00:12:42] Mikayla Reynolds: Yeah. So I like research.

I like asking questions. I like digging into things and really, as I mentioned before, I like helpful information. So I like collecting data in a way that it can actually be like well utilized. and help with decision making and kind of steer progress or generate impact. Right. So my experience taught me a lot about not only in the academic context of research, like navigating IRBs or understanding existing literature related to the topic that you’re studying, but also yeah, navigating platforms like prolific, where you’re trying to get participants to take your survey.

But I also learned a lot about narrowing the scope of my project, right? Soft skills related to adapting to challenges or problem solving, working with my committee, taking feedback, integrating feedback and communicating my ideas, right? Like I did, I don’t know what it ended up being 50 something page written thesis presented at the symposium, did my honors defense.

All of that is going to be so helpful in my professional career and also. It really did kind of tell me that I can do research in an academic setting. So after kind of concluding my honors thesis, I joined another project with Dr. Stephanie Welcomer, where we’re looking at the animal fiber industry in Maine.

So I spent my summer looking at trends in that industry, which has been a different, more qualitative type of research project, but my research experience on my honors thesis, looking at. Organizational attractiveness really told me that, like, I can continue to keep doing this, and just kind of encouraged me to keep looking for other ways that I can collect data and do research.

So yeah, I’m looking forward to continuing to do that in my career, and actually, as Impact Assessment Director for Black Bear Mutual Aid Fund, we’re collecting all kinds of data, and we’re going to release it. Our request form soon, so it’ll be really great to collect the data and the surveys that we have ready to kind of launch, um, related to who needs what type of help and just kind of understanding community needs a little bit more.

[00:14:35] Eric Miller: This project, building up your technical skills, as well as your soft skills, I can say from personal experience, those are two things that employers are looking for. They want to someone largely naturally curious that is data fluent that can contribute to their organizational success. And so that’s great to hear that this work has teed you up so nicely to go to where you are now and moving forward.

Is there anything else that you would like to discuss that we haven’t touched on yet?

[00:15:06] Mikayla Reynolds: Yeah, yeah, so Black Bear Mutual Aid Fund is definitely a huge passion of mine right now. Spending 10 to 15 hours a week on it right now, trying to get this thing ready, and we’re launching on Wednesday, actually November 15th, and so that request form will be active and live on our website blackbearmutualaid.org. And we’re also always looking for volunteers and folks to get involved to help us continue to make impact. Like we need some fundraising folks to ensure that this fund is sustainable. Uh, we need folks to kind of help us with keeping our website up to date, all of those things. So we are looking for folks to help and our community needs it.

So answer the call and come join us.

[00:15:45] Eric Miller: Wonderful. We will put a link to the website in the description of this episode. And thank you so much for joining us today, Makayla.

[00:15:53] Mikayla Reynolds: Yeah, thank you for having me.

[00:16:00] Eric Miller: Thank you, Tamra, for joining us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your association with UMaine, any professional titles you hold, and what you majored in?

[00:16:08] Tamra Benson: Yeah, my name is Tamra Benson. I use she/her pronouns and I just graduated from the University of Maine in the spring of 2023. I majored in biology and I had two minors in political science and English.

I currently work as a community organizer for Food and Medicine, which is a nonprofit in rural Maine. And I’m also the vice president and founder of the Black Bear Mutual Aid Fund, which is a nonprofit that came out of this research project that we’ll be talking about today. So definitely going to come back to that.

[00:16:40] Eric Miller: Sounds great. And congratulations on finishing your bachelor’s and slip right into moving your career forward. That-that’s fantastic. Uh, you received your award at UMaine’s 2023 student symposium. And could you tell us a little bit about what your project was about?

[00:16:57] Tamra Benson: Yeah, so my project focused on mutual aid as a community led solution to economic hardships at the University of Maine.

What I did for research was I created a survey and I surveyed over 300 people on campus, including students, faculty and staff. And I also conducted several interviews. I interviewed 11 people in leadership roles on campus that have a really good understanding of how the systems at the University of Maine function and the economic hardships and also the financial resources that exist on campus, and I used that to create essentially a template for creating a mutual aid fund at the University of Maine.

And I guess I should probably explain what mutual aid is. It is a very flexible term and there isn’t a concrete definition by any means. But the definition that I typically use is that mutual aid is a system of giving and receiving aid within a community so that those who have extra resources can give those resources to those who need them.

And what’s special about mutual aid is that it travels in both directions. So somebody who can give aid might need to receive it at a different time depending on, you know, if their circumstances change. So that’s what my research involved.

[00:18:14] Eric Miller: Excellent. Thank you for defining mutual aid. Stuff like that varies context to context.

And so it’s important to lay that groundwork. Uh, so how did you come to the decision to study and create the survey? And would you mind describing that relationship you had with your advisor in, in, um, developing this research project?

[00:18:33] Tamra Benson: Yeah, so this is actually not this. I did this research for my honors thesis, and this was not my original honors thesis plan.

I was going to do a project on fossil fuel divestment because the university recently divested from fossil fuels, which is really exciting, but I know a lot of people on campus specifically students who are facing a. A lot of financial insecurity, and that tends to show up in the form of food insecurity and housing insecurity.

And I have personally experienced those things as well. And I understand that even though the University of Maine does have a lot of resources available to people, and they do alleviate a lot of economic hardships, they also come with a lot of barriers and they’re not available to everyone. So, I started learning about mutual aid and mutual aid funds as a way to combat those systemic failures.

I started thinking to myself, why don’t we have a mutual aid fund at the University of Maine? Because there are mutual aid funds at several other college campuses, and they’re doing great work at alleviating economic hardships for students. And so I started doing a little bit of digging and I figured out that it was going to be a lot of work and every campus is very different.

So we would have to do a lot of research into what the best structure would be for a mutual aid fund specifically at the University of Maine in order to create something that was effective. And so I emailed my advisor kind of in a panic and I told him, Hey, is it okay if we completely change our project to researching mutual aid funds?

And I think he was a little hesitant at first, but he was also really excited about the project. So we were both really excited to get started on figuring out what the best structure for a mutual aid fund at the University of Maine would be. My academic advisor for this project was Dr. Robert Glover, because I am no longer a student at the University of Maine.

He is a professor in the Honors College and also the political science department. And quite honestly, he was a rock. For me, through the entire process, he helped me through so much in this project, and I absolutely could not have done it without him. Very, very thankful for his guidance and his help in completing this research project, and also his support through creating the mutual aid fund after the research project.

[00:20:54] Eric Miller: Yeah, it grew from a research project and lives to this day, which is quite the accomplishment. So clearly it made an impact. Would you mind touching on some of the impacts that you have been observing as you’ve worked on this?

[00:21:08] Tamra Benson: Yeah, absolutely. So once my research was complete, I started immediately working with this amazing group of students, faculty, and staff on campus to implement the research.

Started a nonprofit organization, it’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, state recognized, and it’s called the Black Brand Mutual Aid Fund, and we actually just hit a really awesome fundraising goal, we’ve raised 6, 200 so far, and our goals as an organization are to not only alleviate economic hardships for students, faculty, and staff, At the University of Maine, but also to build a culture of community care because a lot of the financial resources that exist on campus.

They don’t really make people feel supported, even though they do provide economic relief. There’s something really special about receiving financial assistance from your peers rather than people. Who are in positions of power, so we’re hoping to host community events like community breakfasts and educational events about mutual aid as a concept and as a solution to systemic issues while also trying to fill financial gaps in people’s lives.

Right now, we have a complete board of directors, and we have a few committees. We have an outreach committee, a fundraising committee, a funding distribution committee, and an impact assessment committee. And all of those committees are currently being filled by people, and we’re starting to get to work. We’re looking forward to making an impact in the community.

[00:22:45] Eric Miller: Yeah, congratulations on the fundraising goal and the organizational building that’s been going on. None of those little steps are, in fact, little steps are all big and big accomplishments. You should be very proud of what you’ve done so far.

You mentioned Dr. Glover being your rock of support. In what ways did you feel supported by the university in your research directly and student research broadly?

[00:23:10] Tamra Benson: So, I think The most support that I received from the university broadly was funding. I did require a bit of funding for my research because it’s really helpful to get incentive for people to fill out the survey and also to participate in the interviews.

And I also wanted to show my appreciation to the people who participated in a way that maybe would help address some food insecurity. And so I used my Cougar grant to purchase Hannaford gift cards to give to people who participated in the survey and the interviews. So not only was I doing research about mutual aid, but also trying to address some of the issues through the gift cards.

So I received funding from the university through that, and that was extremely helpful for getting. Participation. The university also helped me distribute the survey. I reached out to Dean Dana, helped me distribute the survey to students and someone also helped to distribute the survey to faculty. And so that was also extremely helpful in getting an increasing participation.

[00:24:20] Eric Miller: How do you think this experience prepared you for your current role or roles that you’re in now?

[00:24:27] Tamra Benson: I think it’s really important to understand issues fully before trying to create solutions to Those issues and that includes, or it should always include talking to the people who are affected by the issues.

I think a lot of people and a lot of organizations attempt to solve problems without understanding them fully. And sometimes that creates. A lot more harm in the process, and so one of the things that I learned throughout this process that I already knew, but it really emphasized that it’s so important to talk to the people who are affected by the issues that you’re trying to address before trying to implement solutions.

And so, getting feedback from students, faculty, and staff, not only in the survey, but also through the interviews was extremely helpful in starting up the Black Bear Mutual Aid Fund because we used their stories, their experiences, their knowledge to create a framework for the Black Bear Mutual Aid Fund.

And we’re still using their advice moving forward. So that’s one thing that I learned. I think understanding the extent of food insecurity and housing insecurity and other forms of financial insecurity on campus also prepared me for my role within the Black Bear Mutual Aid Fund because as a student, I was very aware of the financial insecurity experienced by students, but I wasn’t quite as aware of the financial insecurities experienced by adjunct faculty.

And staff who work on campus because they also have financial issues and they also need help sometimes. And a lot of the resources that are available to students on campus are not available to faculty and staff. And so that’s why we want to make sure that the Black Bear Mutual Aid Fund is a resource for students, faculty and staff on campus.

[00:26:23] Eric Miller: Incorporating all of the little things that you learned along the way and things that surprised you and how shaping your approach to a problem in the future is a very valuable lesson to learn in future professional settings. I know that’s happened to me for sure. So is there anything else that you would like to discuss or elaborate on some of your other work that we haven’t touched on yet?

[00:26:47] Tamra Benson: I… I would like to note that the Black Bear Mutual Aid Fund does have a website, it’s just BlackBearMutualAid.org. So it’s pretty easy to find, and on our website, you can find how to donate, you can also sign up for our newsletter from our website, and you can also find us on Instagram if you’re interested in following us and the work that we’re doing in the community.

And we also have an email. We have a Gmail account. It’s blackbearmutualaid @gmail.com, So if anyone is interested in volunteering or joining us, we have general meetings every Friday morning at 10 a. m. in Boudreau Hall. It used to be North Stevens on campus in the International Relations Lounge is what it’s called.

It’s Boudreaux Hall 117. Um, another thing that actually might be fun to note is that the award that I received for this research actually was put directly into the Mutual Aid Fund. So, the university kind of helped the Mutual Aid Fund in that way. So.

[00:27:45] Eric Miller: Great. And we can put a link to your website in the show description as well to help facilitate the traffic.

So thank you very much, Tamra, for discussing your work with us today and congratulations on the success of it, not only getting the award, but turning into something bigger. We are very proud to highlight stuff like this from our, our UMaine community. So thank you for joining today. Thank you.

Santiago, thank you for joining us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your association with the University of Maine, any professional titles you hold, and what you majored in?

[00:28:24] Santiago Tijerina: Yeah, so, um, I graduated from the University of Maine in the spring of 2023, and I studied International Affairs, Economics, and French.

And I graduated from the honors college. And so the honors college, we have this thing called honors thesis. It’s a very profound project for all seniors to take on, but there are two tracks to it. There’s a traditional track and then a creative track. And so I went for the creative track and I decided to do a documentary short film.

And then that’s what led me pretty much to where I am right now, which is in Portland, Maine. And I work for a movie studio in the old port called O Main Studios. And I wear many hats there. So I don’t know what professional title I would get, but yeah, it’s exciting.

[00:29:04] Eric Miller: Awesome. Congratulations on finishing school.

And that sounds like a pretty big project you took on. So, and obviously it was critically acclaimed and that you won an award for it. And so at the UMaine 2023 student symposium, would you mind kind of peeling back the, um, goal of the film? What, what you wanted to communicate? Yeah.

[00:29:22] Santiago Tijerina: So. You know, it’s a really long story, but it started my junior year.

So like I said, I studied international affairs and economics. I was in an economics class. I believe it was taught by Dr. Timothy Waring. The class was about sustainability, environmental practices, and we had to do service-learning projects as students in the class as sort of our final project. And there were so many projects to choose from.

And the great thing is that they were all locally based. One of them was sort of doing research to add to the petition to sort of shut down Nine Dragons Paper Mill in Old Town. So they did a lot of research on the effects it had on the water, the effects it had on the community. The project that I was most interested in was about fossil fuel divestment at UMaine.

If you’re not familiar, fossil fuel divestment is essentially the active institutions taking their money out of the fossil fuel industry and putting it into more ethical shares. So for the most part, renewable energy shares and so fossil fuel divestment is a pretty recent development and it’s global too.

So it’s not just here in the U. S. The most interesting thing about it was that sovereign wealth funds, so I’m not sure if you’re familiar, but sovereign wealth funds, they’re essentially these giant institutions that hold pensions and shares for their nations. To me, the most interesting thing was that the most wealthy sovereign wealth fund was the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund.

And in the 80s and 90s, it was coined the oil fund. Because it was the sovereign wealth fund that was most well-known for investing in oil early on. That’s how they got their nickname, their notoriety, and that’s how they became the wealthiest sovereign wealth fund in the world, Norway. And then after that, you have a lot of…

Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds like the Saudi fund, the public investment fund in Saudi Arabia, which also gained a lot of wealth because of early investments in oil. And so I was really interested in that as an economist, you know, studying investment, you know, it’s something that I’ve always been interested in.

The fact that these sovereign wealth funds that were the wealthiest and named and gained their wealth and became popular because they were investing in oil were now selling off all those funds in oil. They were now reinvesting. So they were divesting from oil and now reinvesting in fossil free funds, which.

You know, shocked me. I was like, you know, personally, this was put all your money in renewable energy mutual funds, because that’s where all these big institutions are putting their money in now. Um, and they’re taking it away from oil.

[00:32:04] Eric Miller: Absolutely. Absolutely. And so it feeds into the next question. You’re thinking you’re at the global scale, international affairs and economics.

And so you’re focusing on Maine specifically and qualitative research methods. So how did you translate that global scale into local scale?

[00:32:21] Santiago Tijerina: Yeah, so, you know, I was first interested in these big institutions, divesting from fossil fuels and reinvesting in fossil free funds. And I saw that this was a global phenomenon and that most interestingly, you know, this was a trend that was happening in universities.

And I was wondering, you know, that’s, that’s quite interesting. You know, why are universities around the world acting like big banks? Why are they acting like sovereign wealth funds? A straight answer would be is because they have a lot of money. You know, they have millions of dollars in their pension funds.

They have lots of investments that they’re holding on to. And so it would be in their best interest. To act on the same principles that these larger sovereign wealth funds are acting on, which is divesting from oil and reinvesting in fossil free funds. And so that’s what a lot of universities did. But universities don’t move as quickly as banks do as sovereign wealth funds do.

So, you know, I wanted to dig into that and I found out that at the core of this movement where universities around the world. were divesting from fossil fuels. It was in part led by student activism. And so, you know, student activists weren’t necessarily pushing for universities to divest from oil and reinvest in fossil free funds because of the profitability.

But in fact, they use that argument to sort of convince them that. This is a logical choice. This is a great financial decision for the wellbeing of the institution, but also it acts against oil companies and it acts in favor of renewable energy companies. So it’s a situation where money talks, money that’s being invested in the oil industry is now being transferred into the renewable energy industry.

And so. It has a direct impact. I guess the big picture is that I was really interested in exploring why universities were acting in the same way that these big institutions were acting in. The core answer was that students were behind this movement. They were aware of how solutions can be applied directly to solving the climate crisis.

[00:34:35] Eric Miller: Yeah. Did you go to specific events or do you interview active students in this movement on their own for the film?

[00:34:43] Santiago Tijerina: So I had the idea, initially, and there were a few other ideas bouncing around in my head, but I sort of went for the most immediate idea, which was a story that brought to the surface topics like climate change, student activism, fossil fuel divestment.

Here, At the University of Maine. So there were very present ideas. People could relate to them. It also brought together the phenomenon of student activism in the 60s and 70s and linked it to today, which I thought would also be relatable to audiences. So for The film for any film, you need a subject. And I interviewed around five students and two of them made the final cut just because of editing decisions.

They weren’t able to make it in the final cut, but I included two students in the final cut. And then I included a local community leader. A local politician and distinguished main professor, and each of them had some involvement with the student organization divest UMS, which is now known as the University of Maine climate action student organization.

And so I was trying to find subjects who could speak to the big topic of fossil fuel divestment, break it down for audiences, and then. Include the student voices, the student leaders. And so I included a couple of the core organizers for the group in the past few years. And they spoke a lot to how they got from point A to point B.

In other words, how they started as a grassroots student organization and then how they got their mission across and achieved their objectives because it was a success story. So that was the other part that I was trying to sort of highlight was that this is a success story and it’s sort of. proves that the fossil fuel divestment movement should be implemented across all universities because of, you know, the immediate impacts it has on resolving the climate crisis through wise and ethical investments that, you know, take money out of the oil industry and put it in the renewable energy industry.

[00:36:57] Eric Miller: That’s great. Your project took a lot of work to do. What was your intended impact and how do you feel contributed to, uh, other students can emulate the type of project with whatever subject matter they’re interested in, but qualitative research and in short filmmaking.

[00:37:12] Santiago Tijerina: Yeah, so I feel the goal for so this was an honors thesis project, as well as a project for the Center for Undergraduate Student Symposium.

So I was sort of, you know, killing two birds with one stone here, but at the core of these projects, I had to engage with qualitative research methods. So, in my formal presentations I sort of outlined that as research coming first. So research and knowledge on the subject matter, which was fossil fuel divestment, student activism and fossil fuel divestment at universities specifically.

And then at UMaine sort of diving into the history of that and then engaging with qualitative research methods that are present in documentary film. So there’s a lot of literature on that and I went over that in my honors thesis disquisition, which you can read online and then my formal presentation at the thesis defense and the center for undergraduate research formal presentation, but essentially the qualitative research methods included research conceptualization, but obviously interviewing subjects is part of that as well.

I would say big picture, the message I was trying to get across was that this is a very immediate solution to climate change. It’s a very practical one where money talks. And like, we’ve been talking about taking money out of the oil industry, putting into renewable energy industry. And I was also trying to sort of highlight that students, especially in this generation where, you know, climate change is so immediate students are making a real difference here.

At the University of Maine, and obviously all over the world, but I was trying to center the story here at University of Maine because that’s where I had, you know, access to subjects to interview. I was part of that story myself as a member of the group. And so it was a film that was used for many different things.

The main idea of the film was centering community here at the University of Maine, centering the idea of student activism, fighting against climate change, providing tangible solutions to climate change at a local scale that had a global impact.

[00:39:11] Eric Miller: Yeah. Speaking of University of Maine and community building, how do you feel the university supported your research and student research at large?

[00:39:21] Santiago Tijerina: In my experience, the University of Maine supported my research very strongly. The funding opportunities that the Center for Undergraduate Research provided me with allowed me to edit my film on industry-standard editing software, to purchase a nice camera to shoot the film, to purchase microphones, you know, tripods.

All of this hardware and software and not to mention the honors college also provided me with some funding for a lighting kit, for some microphone attachments, all this hardware and software that on a student budget, it’d be hard to buy with, but when your institution is providing that financial support, I was able to make the film and you know, films cost a lot of money.

Films burn through a lot of money. I’ve been on a lot of. Film sets and film productions and nothing burns money quicker than films and just being able to have that safeguard was quite nice and obviously I worked out the budget closely with my group of advisors and we’re very knowledgeable about that but to create the film it required a lot of moving pieces and luckily I didn’t have to worry too much about that thanks to the support from the university.

[00:40:27] Eric Miller: That’s great that you were able to take a cost-prohibitive medium of expression and, and be able to run with it in a way that you hoped to. Uh, and what experience did this prepare you in your future research in a future professional setting?

[00:40:42] Santiago Tijerina: Huge. So, directly after producing the film, one of the people I interviewed, Dr. Ivan Fernandez, a distinguished Maine professor at the School of Forest Resources, he really liked the film and we worked together all summer to produce a documentary short film series on climate change research here in Maine. And so there’s five episodes for that and it’s all funded by the Main climate science information exchange, and I was able to present that at a symposium in Belfast in August, which was sponsored mainly by the main aquaculture association.

And so 1 thing led to another, and I was able to. Engage more closely with climate change research and tell stories related to climate change research. I’ve never thought that climate change research documentary short films would be such a big part of my life this past year, but it turned out to be that way, which was really great.

And obviously very immediate, very important research is being done, but nothing translate that as much as. Visual storytelling. It’s so engaging. It’s so inspiring and it’s so accessible. And so we worked with several institutions across the state of Maine to highlight their climate change research initiatives.

Obviously, University of Maine, College of the Atlantic, Bates College, Maine Farmland Trust, and a couple of others, Greater Portland Council of Government, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and the Darling Marine Center. So, yeah, it was pretty neat. That I was able to get an opportunity directly after producing this film and sticking to that field of climate change.

Yeah, it gave me some experience as a independent documentary filmmaker because I use that film to apply to where I’m going to school now, which is in Portland at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies where my focus as a storyteller has evolved from just telling stories about climate change, but still focusing on social economic issues, primarily in Maine, and sort of using visual storytelling as a catalyst for change, which is a phrase that I have said so many times.

So many interviews and so many written proposals and so many funding grants. But it’s true, you know, I think visual storytelling has a real immediate impact and it’s a very accessible medium. And so as long as the idea is there, it can happen.

[00:42:58] Eric Miller: You built up quite the portfolio then. That’s great.

[00:43:00] Santiago Tijerina: But it was my first film too, which was really cool.

You know, I’ve always loved making travel movies and little clips here and there, but I saw that honors college thesis as an opportunity to really dive into something that I was deeply passionate about.

[00:43:15] Eric Miller: Well, as we close out here, congratulations on your success so far and looking forward to seeing one of your works on the big screen someday.

In conclusion, do you have any closing remarks for us?

[00:43:27] Santiago Tijerina: You know, I think the main thing at hand, it wasn’t my story. This was the story of student activism at UMaine, and so the film wouldn’t have been possible without the subjects I interviewed, and so it’s their story, and my overarching idea was to use visual storytelling as a medium to amplify their voice, to advocate for their mission, and to obviously highlight their success story in terms of getting the University of Maine to divest from fossil fuels.

That to me is the biggest win. It was an honor working with all these people. They were so supportive in the production, very patient with me because it was my first film ever. And so having to set up the camera, set up the lights, set up the microphone, edit the film, go back and forth with the subjects and saying, do you think we missed this?  Do you think we need to talk more about this? What do you think? Collaboration is the secret to filmmaking, and I think that that was the most important thing that gave this film its success and gave this film character. It’s a positive story, and to me, that’s what I hope to continue doing as a documentary filmmaker in the future.

[00:44:33] Eric Miller: That’s excellent. Thank you for joining us today. Congratulations again on your award of the student symposium and your current enrollment at the documentary school and looking forward to what you do in the future. And so thanks again for joining us. Excellent.

[00:44:47] Santiago Tijerina: Thank you so much for having me.

[00:44:55] Eric Miller: Hi, thank you for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your association with UMaine, any professional titles you hold and what you majored in?

[00:45:05] Caroline Paras: Yeah. My name is Caroline Paris, and I am currently an interdisciplinary PhD student at UMaine pursuing a self-designed major in Agritourism. So I have classes in business economics, food science, and food policy. I’ve been an economic developer in Maine since 1998, logging some 20 years at two regional planning commissions, and now I operate my own consultancy Periscope, which focuses on market research and grant writing to build local food economies.

[00:45:41] Eric Miller: Very cool. Self-designed PhD. That sounds like the dream. That’s so cool. And the way you’re able to take your previous professional experience and interweave it into this, into an academic setting and then move forward is inspiring. So you received an award at UMaine’s 2023 Student Symposium. Can you tell us what your project was about?

[00:46:01] Caroline Paras: Yeah, my project focused on whether the main brand confers a competitive advantage in the marketplace. As part of the project, we surveyed 250 main businesses of all sizes in all industry sectors, as well as 500 U. S. consumers. And we asked them, how do you define the main brand? Does it inspire the development of products and services? Does it have an impact on workplace culture, mission, and values? And does it impact a firm’s economic performance?

[00:46:39] Eric Miller: That’s fascinating. Something that I’ve seen in my own just casual observation is that sense of like place in marketing, like state outlines or what have you. The I Love New York shirts go way back, but the state outlines and state flags have really taken off as materials that folks can purchase as t-shirts or hats or whatever. And, and it seems like that’s really taken off the main pine tree flag, for example, is everywhere now, even though it’s not the official state flag. So why and how did you come to the decision to focus on the main brand as a competitive business advantage? And what was the research process like both on your own and with your advisor?

[00:47:18] Caroline Paras: Yeah. My advisors include Norma O’Reilly, who is Dean of the Maine Graduate School of Business and Erin Percival Carter, who’s a marketing professor at the Maine Business School. In the future, my dissertation, which is a couple years away, is going to focus on agritourism and specifically the role of experiences on culinary trails.

in accelerating consumer loyalty for main farm and fish products, brand promotion at the industry level, and regional economic development. So in doing a literature review on specifically on the brand component, we realized that there was just no seminal piece of research on the main brand. Even, you know, going back to the days of Thoreau in the Maine woods to the quality of place council in Maine in the 2000s or today live work Maine.

Um, so we decided to try and fill that gap in terms of defining the Maine brand from the perspective of consumers and businesses.

[00:48:25] Eric Miller: So you allude to this a little bit in your answer there. What impact do you hope to have with this as a seminal contribution to the literature? It’s kind of clear what the, what the impact is, but the impact that your project and in the field of specifically, and how, um, the community of people that your research may impact.

[00:48:46] Caroline Paras: As an economic developer in Maine for 25 years, I’ve been witness to a variety of policy eras. In the late 90s, we were focused on saving Maine’s mature industries through tax incentives. Of course, the paper mills. The shoe factories, the, you know, all sorts of large-scale manufacturing. Unfortunately, many didn’t survive.

And then we went into an era of marketing these empty buildings that they left behind as call centers or back-office operations. And that led to an era of business traction, where we tried to recruit firms. from away. But now I would say in the last 10 years, instead of trying to make Maine more like other states in terms of business climate on the state has really demonstrated a renewed emphasis on our natural assets, including farms, forests and fisheries as sources of innovation, entrepreneurship and job creation.

And you really see that with the number of UMaine graduates that are starting businesses as. In these sectors, like Marin Skin Care, which is extracting the glycoprotein from the lobster for a cream for eczema and psoriasis. I think that’s really innovative. On the demand side, we heard from consumers that, U.S. consumers, that they are willing to pay a 22 percent premium for products and services from Maine. And that number really surprised us. On the supply side, we heard from main businesses, large and small, who largely agreed that the main brand does confer a competitive advantage in the marketplace. As part of this response pool, we heard from, well, 30 percent of the respondents were manufacturers.

And in terms of size, half were had annual sales under 2 million and the other half over 2 million. And we had even a group that was earning over 50 million. So again, a really large range of businesses. And it surprised me that there were no statistically significant differences in terms of what Maine manufacturers had to say or Maine businesses earning in that 10 to over 50 million range.

So I think what this proves is that even as Maine businesses scale and compete in the global marketplace, the Maine brand is a differentiator that adds value and businesses should continue weaving that story into their marketing as a, you know, a point of pride as storytelling because they really, you know, the Maine mystique is a real thing.

[00:51:23] Eric Miller: It absolutely is. I am not from Maine originally. Um, I had a wonderful opportunity to live there for many years and there is certainly that allure. And the, so much of you said there, I want to unpack some more. And if you don’t mind me indulging in your research a little bit, I am curious about the spatial distribution of your respondents, the consumers.

[00:51:45] Caroline Paras: Yeah, I would say we heard from consumers in all 50 states and they sort of mirrored. So the top three states for California, Texas, and Florida, which of course mirrors the, and I’m sure New York was in there as well. That mirrors the population distribution in the United States. Only 6 percent of respondents had ever lived in Maine, but some, I would say over 90 percent had visited Maine.

And I think the mean number of visits was seven, which is really astounding to me. I too am from away. I’m from Southern California and I came to Maine in 1993, so.

[00:52:28] Eric Miller: Wow, that’s, that’s so fascinating that. People from all over the United States have this idea of what Maine is and what it produces and what it has to offer both natural assets in the state, as well as the products and services and export outside of there.

[00:52:44] Caroline Paras: Yeah. And I think there’s really a halo effect, both from Maine Lobster and from L.L.Bean. Again, two quality products that the state is known for. When we asked consumers to define the main brand, the top response was. fisheries, seafood, and lobster, which really reinforces that image and the feeling that they have towards those things obviously extends to other products as well.

[00:53:09] Eric Miller: Yeah. Fascinating. And it completely makes sense. And this project is quite the endeavor. Any PhD is, is quite the endeavor in what ways do you feel supported by the university in this research project?

[00:53:23] Caroline Paras: Yeah, well, this isn’t even my PhD project just yet. This is my pre-PhD project. I do have a fellowship, but the scale of this research just would not have been possible without the institutional support of the Maine Business School.

We engaged several partners in this effort, including MaineBiz, which blasted out the survey to their, I want to say 9,000, 12,000 subscribers. They allowed us to present at a breakfast forum and actually next week, they’re publishing the results as an insert in the weekly magazine. We also partnered with the Cutler Institute at USM, which conducted follow up phone calls with hundreds of business leaders.

I put together the list, but they actually did the follow up calls, which was amazing because they helped us double. Our initial response rate, um, but partnerships do cost money and that would have been out of the question if I were doing this on my own as a student. But then there’s also the issue of gravitas using the department’s brand to leverage responses versus me, Caroline Paras, doing this alone as a student.

[00:54:34] Eric Miller: That’s amazing to hear. I’m glad that it’s worked out for you and anything to increase the response rate. Um, uh, how do you think this experience, you had quite a bit of experience going into this project, but how do you believe this experience is facilitating future research and professional development?

[00:54:51] Caroline Paras: Yeah, well, I’m really going to date myself here, but I have been a working professional for over 30 years, but until 2022, the last time I had taken statistics was in the pre-internet era, before Excel, when we had to hand draw our graphs, but in the last year, I’ve taken several stats heavy courses that provide me with a toolbox that I’ve been able to apply directly into my consulting practice.

I just take everything I learn and I take it and I use it in my consulting work as well. So the toolbox includes, you know, of course, a basic understanding of research design, including qualitative and quantitative. I don’t know how I faked being an economist for 20 years at, when I was a regional planner, but I had to play that role, even though I had no hard courses and either qualitative or quantitative research.

And then, of course, through the main business school, I’ve now used analytic tools beyond Excel, including SPSS and JMP and, Qualtrics and, um, and of course also access to visualization software to really help tell the story like Tableau. So all of those hard and soft skills have been amazing to have that background versus what I used to do as a planner, which was read lots of methodologies and then reverse engineer them.

[00:56:15] Eric Miller: Yeah, it’s, it’s amazing how far technology has come, especially in the visualization creation. It’s truly incredible what is capable now to us, less maybe graphically design intuitive. Maybe I don’t want to loop you in with that, but that’s how I feel in my work as a, as a research associate. But that’s, that’s fantastic to hear that you had such support and you’re.

Gaining so much after being already working for a little while. And as you move forward in your career, is there anything else you’d like to discuss regarding your project that we haven’t touched on yet?

[00:56:50] Caroline Paras: Well, I do want to put in a plug for the interdisciplinary option at UMaine. They have it both at the master’s level and the PhD level, and I understand that there are 85 students in the program, and we don’t know each other.

I just meet them randomly, right? Because we’re not, if we have a sponsor, it’s not one department, it’s various departments. So in my case, it’s the main business school, but I am the only PhD student in the main business school. But this interdisciplinary option really allowed me to stay PhD instead of moving to another state, you know, I had considered Vermont or Massachusetts.

And I guess I would encourage the system to expand this system-wide, um, allowing us to take maybe graduate classes on other UMaine campuses that could transfer easily. Right now I’m doing that, taking classes at USM, but they’re not counted in my GPA and they’re, the way that they factored them is as a study away course rather than a UMaine system course.

So that needs a little bit of work. But this interdisciplinary option could really appeal to a lot of students and just enable them to get ahead by staying right here in the state.

[00:58:08] Eric Miller: I think that there’s been sort of a deconstruction of what higher education can be and what you don’t have, if you don’t fall in this bucket, I mean, no bucket is completely on its own. There’s so much overlap in the world to bring specific niches of how things work together and intersect with one another is provides a lot of opportunity. And so I’m really looking forward to seeing how folks maybe utilize programs such as what you just advocated for to come to new conclusions and build our wealth of knowledge.

And so I appreciate you coming on so much and good luck with the rest of your PhD and everything else you work on.

[00:58:46] Caroline Paras: Great. Thank you so much.

[00:58:53] Eric Miller: That will conclude this episode of Maine Policy Matters. Thank you all for joining us today. This is Eric Miller, and I’ll see you in January for season five.

Our team is made up of Barbara Harrity and Joyce Rumery coeditors of Maine Policy Review. Jonathan Rubin directs the Policy Center. Thanks to faculty associate Katie Sacha professional writing consultant, Maine Policy Matters intern, Nicole LeBlanc, and podcast producer and writer Jayson Heim.

Our website can be found in the description of this episode, along with all materials referenced in this episode, a full transcript, and social media links. Remember to follow the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center on Facebook, Instagram, and Threads, and drop us a direct message to express your support, provide feedback, or let us know what Maine policy matters to you.

Check out mcslibrary.org to learn more about Margaret Chase Smith, the library and museum, and education and public policy.