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Student research boosts Trenton Circus Squad’s mission to help kids juggle the trials of adolescence

A group photo of students standing in a tower formation.
A group photo of Trenton Circus Squad members standing in a tower formation.

 

Five TCNJ sociology students had a front-row seat at the circus last fall, when they took on a project to look closely at just what the Trenton Circus Squad does.

The five-year-old nonprofit, housed in the city’s Roebling Market, teaches children aged 11 to 18 juggling, ropewalking, stilt-walking, and other feats of derring-do, which, pre-COVID, they performed for popcorn-munching audiences. But the underlying aim of the program, said TCS Executive Director Tom von Oehsen, is to teach them to cooperate, trust one another, and grow as individuals. “Realizing that they can skip rope while perched atop an inflated ball, in front of an applauding crowd, they become secure with who they are and what their gifts are,” he says.

For an applied-sociology research seminar led by professor Liz Borland, the five TCNJ students used three years’ worth of periodic surveys completed by squad members to assess how well the organization does at upping members’ social-emotional development. TCS had relied on a data app called Hello Insight to provide that feedback, but needed a deeper dive, said Borland. Her students — Keneth Arias ’20, Kelsey Lardiere ’20, Ally Larena ’20, Olivia Sullivan ’20, and Jenna Valentine ’20 — crunched data, conducted interviews, and, of course, watched performances before writing a report about the impact of the program. Their study, titled “Step into the Ring,” found that TCS is successful in its goal to foster socioemotional learning, particularly in the area of positive self-identity.

The research will be helpful in von Oehsen’s conversations with funding organizations. More immediately, though, it alerted him that the program’s academic support given to squad members was not at the level it should have been, “so we’ve put more emphasis on that, with tutoring and mentorship. And that was really because of the in-depth look Liz and her students were able to give the data,” he says. “It was very enlightening to us.”

Borland says the project proved to be emblematic of the community engaged learning fostered at TCNJ, in that it enabled her students “to make a clear contribution to address local needs.” The TCNJ students presented their paper at a meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society in February, where they won the best poster prize for their session.

Sullivan, whom Borland calls the team’s “statistical whiz,” says her strongest takeaway from the project was how engaged the squad members became in the program, a testament to their trust in program mentors, including older students. “That was really inspiring, to see how much love and loyalty they’re inspiring in these kids,” she says.


— John T. Ward for TCNJ Magazine

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