Mason Junior Works with Mentor to Publish Taiwan Gerontology Study

By Buzz McClain

“Filial piety.” That’s the term used to describe the practice of revering one’s elders. In Asian cultures, it extends to the elderly living with their children and their children’s children in multigenerational households.

Is filial piety practiced in American culture? Americans, it seems, are more likely to choose managed-care communities or let their frail elderly family members “age in place” at home, sometimes alone.

Mason student Stephanie Skees poses with her professor and fellow students at National Taiwan Normal University. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Skees.

Mason student Stephanie Skees (center) poses with her professor and fellow students at National Taiwan Normal University. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Skees.

Mason junior Stephanie Skees is developing evidence that may challenge families and gerontologists in the United States to examine their own perspectives and attitudes on the care of older adults and to advocate for long-term care changes in this country. Her thesis is based on interviews, literature, and firsthand observations of the direction long-term care is taking in Taiwan. If her global research is accepted, Skees’ report could cause ripples in the field of gerontology.

Skees, a social work major in the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) with a minor in conflict analysis and resolution, and her mentor, Cathy Tompkins, assistant dean of undergraduate studies at CHHS, are working to create a manuscript to submit to an academic peer-reviewed journal. Publication by the honors student could accelerate her academic career and help land her a highly competitive scholarship.

“The major idea is that there’s respect for the elderly in Taiwan,” Skees says. “I hate to generalize, but in America there’s an attitude that the elderly don’t know anything. Our appreciation for how wise they are from their experiences is not always recognized. In Taiwan, the elderly are respected and appreciated.”

Skees and Tompkins meet once a week, spending two hours in Tompkins’ office going over collected data and photos “to try to figure out how to frame her experience into a journal article,” Tompkins says. Tompkins generally works with “eight or nine students on their independent studies to enhance learning about older adults,” she says, but this fall she’s focusing only on Skees, who has never taken a class with Tompkins.

Stephanie Skees discusses gerontology research with mentor, Mason social work professor Cathy Tompkins. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Stephanie Skees discusses gerontology research with her mentor, Mason social work professor Cathy Tompkins. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

“She’s on the 1 percent end of students,” the mentor says. “So I’m going to try to get her into a peer-reviewed journal that faculty will read.”

Skees went to Taiwan for three weeks last summer thanks to a scholarship from Mason’s Center for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (CAPEC), which required her to write a 10-page paper about her studies. But her advisor John Paden, Robinson Professor of International Studies and cofounder and codirector of CAPEC, “gave me the idea that I have so much research that I don’t even know how to fit it into a 10-page paper,” Skees says. Paden suggested she find someone in the field of gerontology to work with her, preferably one with a Mentor Award from the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR).

As it happened, Skees knew Tompkins, an award-winning gerontology specialist, from their work together as officers in Mason’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity—Skees is president elect, Tompkins is faculty sponsor—and Tompkins was a recent recipient of an OSCAR award.

Tompkins makes a point to expose her social work undergraduates to working with older adults. “Because so often they think, they’re so frail and at the end of life, what can I do as a social worker to help?” she says. “I try to change that whole perception.”

But no change was required with Skees: Not only did she have relationships with senior family members (notably, her late grandfather), but also clients of her mother, a caregiver in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

“I visit them when I’m home,” she says. “Some of their families aren’t very involved anymore, which isn’t generally the attitude across the United States. But you can see how that affects them. I mean, Mother’s Day is a rough day for many of them. And that sparked my interest: Is this a general attitude, and what factors contributed? And is this the tone in Taiwan?”

“It’s great that she’s doing all this in her junior year because she has time to progress and get a journal article published and apply for significant scholarships,” Tompkins says.

In fact, Skees is applying for a Harry S. Truman Scholarship, in which 60 to 65 juniors are chosen out of 600 annual applicants for the $30,000 award. Recipients are selected for their leadership potential and commitment to public service. Publication of her study would certainly bolster her case, but beside her work with Tompkins, is Skees’ list of extracurricular activities, a schedule that reflects her dedication to social work.

Skees is also treasurer of the student organization Literacy Partners, which teaches English as a second language to campus employees; treasurer for Mason’s TOMS Shoe Campus Club, which provides shoes for children in need; programming coordinator for the Mason Community Adjudication Board for which she arranges education programs; and a resident advisor (RA) in Jefferson Hall.

“That’s my favorite,” she says of being an RA. “I get to tell the freshmen to take advantage of everything Mason has to offer.”

She also works nine hours a week at the front desk of the Center for International Student Access and six hours a week at the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services agency in McLean.

Meanwhile, in addition to her full load of class credits, she has break trips to Uganda (to study the plight of political refugees) and Cambodia (to study human trafficking) on the horizon.

“I want to do international social work,” she says. “I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to do that but working for the UN has occurred to me.”

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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