Maine Schools in Focus: Undergraduate Student Reflects on Summer Internship with Rural Vitality Lab

Jada Lamb, University of Maine
Elementary Education student

As the most rural state in the country, Maine’s students face unique educational challenges. Understanding the barriers to learning is important in creating healthy classroom and community ecologies, and in helping students cultivate resilience and socio-emotional skills. I believe that it is important for all educators to understand these challenges and adversities in order to better support their students. In pursuit of this, I spent the summer of 2019 researching what I can do to help create and sustain healthy developmental ecologies for the youth in the communities I work with.

Over that summer, I had the great pleasure of working as an undergraduate research assistant for the Rural Vitality Lab, a collaborative research partnership between the University of Maine College of Education and Human Development and Colby College. The Rural Vitality Lab works to promote rural vitality in Maine and beyond by better understanding the factors that contribute to creating and sustaining healthy developmental ecologies for youth. Each member of the lab has their own unique research interests that come together to support schools in embracing culture, equity, student-voice, and trauma sensitivity to support the success and resilience of all students. My area of expertise in this collaborative research partnership is Native American studies. I myself am Native American, hailing from the Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point reservation located in Washington County, Maine.

Our primary partnership at the Rural Vitality Lab is with a program called TREE (Transforming Rural Experiences in Education) based out of the Cobscook Institute in Washington County, Maine. TREE works to promote trauma-informed school systems to address child adversity, and to promote safe, empowering, and effective educational environments by addressing the predictable and recurring barriers to healthy youth development and engaged learning that exist in high poverty rural schools. The TREE program is currently active within two Washington County schools. The TREE research-practice partnership team is made up of researchers from the Rural Vitality Lab and practitioners including mental health providers and TREE “coaches” who provide structural supports within the schools TREE works with. The partnership between researchers and practitioners is designed to increase the capacity and resources for both parties.

When I first started in my role as a research assistant I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but being a research assistant was one of the most influential aspects of my college career. This position gave me the opportunity to travel, to meet new people, to build stronger relationships with both sides of the research and practice partnership, to dive deeper into my own area of research interests, and to learn more about the world, myself, and others.

Some of my responsibilities as a research assistant included: conducting interviews, collecting and coding interview data both for TREE and for my own research in collaboration with TREE, presenting on emerging data, traveling, taking part in RPP (Research Practice Partnership) team meetings, and taking notes on the RPPT meetings noting how we are working as a research team and as a school program.

One of my favorite aspects about working for the Rural Vitality Lab is its structure: We are a virtual lab, meaning we are all based in different locations and use technology to communicate and collaborate on our work. This structure has allowed me to create my own work schedule and to work independently, yet easily collaborate with others.

Another aspect of this job that I’m especially grateful for is how supportive the team has been in allowing me to explore my own research interests on how Native American students can benefit from culturally relevant, trauma-informed, and equity-driven education. Since TREE’s response and model design is rooted in an understanding and respect for the community, I have been doing some listening work in my own tribal community in an attempt to target the specific adversities that might be preventing youth from achieving educational success. This data will be used to help inform a culturally-responsive service-delivery model for the Sipayik Community School that meets the unique educational needs of the students and community. My hope for this research is that it will help provide other Native American students with the power to ignite the same educational and social change within their tribal communities, transforming historical trauma into resilience through education that is designed to meet the diverse needs of its students. Doing this work is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, and I have learned so much from these research endeavors.

Being a part of the TREE team has given me the chance to meet new people from all across the nation, including well-known researchers, lawyers, and activists from as far away as Washington, D.C. and California. As a research assistant I’ve also had the opportunity to travel across the state, presenting data, visiting schools, and learning more about diverse communities that were once unfamiliar to me, but I have now grown to support and love. And, although I was pushed out of my comfort zone with presentations and traveling to unexplored places, taking part in these activities has given me the confidence to believe that I have the ability to help create positive, permanent change through working in education. I’m excited to use what I have learned through this work in my future endeavors as an educator. I feel that I have not only gained valuable work experience through this work, but also valuable insight as to who I am, and what I want to do with my career.

Questions I challenge educators to think about:

  • What do you do to make education more equitable in your school/community?
  • Do you know the specific adversities likely facing the students in your classrooms?
  • How could you use listening work research strategies with your own students to inform your teaching practice?


Jada Lamb is a student at the University of Maine studying elementary education with a focus in child development and family relations. She is interested in the collective development of humans physically, intellectually and emotionally through the lifespan. Her studies focus on the educational development and early experiences of children from birth to grade 3. She is an advocate for student-centered learning, empowering student voice, and embracing culture and diversity in the classroom. As an indigenous woman to Maine, Jada is particularly interested in how integrating individuals diverse cultural backgrounds into learning can engage and motivate diverse audiences of students who are traditionally underrepresented. She hopes her trauma-informed approach to education obtained by working with TREE will bring unique and compassionate components to potential future students and school communities.

Any opinions, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the Maine Schools in Focus briefs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect institutional positions or views of the College of Education and Human Development or the University of Maine.