Ph.D. candidate in information science, Graduate School Medal winner
- Doctoral student in information science, University of Washington
- Master’s degree in information management, University of Washington
- Bachelor’s degree in music performance, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Music teacher
- Configuration manager at Heartstream
- Knowledge engineer at Philips Healthcare
- Research assistant at UW
On changing lives for the better
Jill Woelfer didn’t want to become one of those “soulless yuppies in training,” the identity that a former college professor of hers vocally feared his students might assume. She wanted to change lives for the better.
Social change became a passion. Drawing on two decades of vocal and piano training, she taught music and art to children in Madison, Wisc. and Vancouver, B.C. Later she worked for a small Seattle company that made automated external defibrillators, those small machines that can treat irregular heartbeats and save lives. Struck by the power of technology to improve lives, she entered graduate school to boost her understanding of information systems. Her doctoral research focuses on an as-yet understudied phenomenon: the role of technology—and, in particular, music—in the lives of homeless young people.
“In my youth, I did not know that by trying to change lives for the better, my own life would also
be transformed,” Jill said. “Yet, upon reflection, I see that this is the case, particularly in working with homeless young people. After all these years, I cannot think of a better way to spend my life.”
Winning the Graduate School Medal
Jill’s extensive research and outreach with homeless youth in the Pacific Northwest earned her the prestigious 2012 University of Washington Graduate School Medal.
The Graduate School Medal is a $2,000 award to a doctoral degree candidate who displays an exemplary commitment to both the UW and its larger community. The medal recognizes the "scholar-citizens" whose academic expertise and social awareness are integrated in a way that demonstrates active civic engagement and a capacity to promote political, cultural and social change. The medal is funded from the UW Graduate Fellowship Fund, which is supported primarily by annual gifts from alumni and friends of the UW.
“Her research is stronger because of her commitment to social change and improvement and her willingness to serve civically; at the same time, her research holds the promise to make a substantial difference in the lives of homeless young people,” said David G. Hendry, an associate professor and chair of UW’s information science Ph.D. program. “She is a caring human being, with an infectious passion, driven by research and driven to help people.”
Helping homeless young people in the Pacific Northwest
Jill often encountered homeless young people in the neighboring University District while earning her master’s degree in information management at the UW. She became fascinated with learning more about the multifaceted roles that personal technologies, such as mobile phones and music players, play in their lives, particularly as she observed some social services agencies restricting their clients’ access to Facebook, MySpace and the like. She realized that online technologies could be vital to helping homeless youth overcome everyday challenges like finding a job. Since 2007, she has researched elements of this topic.
After graduating first in her master’s degree cohort in 2008, Jill continued her research as a doctoral student in information science. At the same time, she has developed solutions for homeless youth. With Hendry, she helped to create a community technology center for homeless young people at Street Youth Ministries, a service agency near the UW campus. As part of those efforts, she taught life skills classes designed to engage street youth about how to use technology to secure a job. Thanks to a National Science Foundation grant, she and Hendry are leading efforts to develop an online system to ease the technical and social struggles common to homeless youth hoping to find and keep jobs.
Graduate School focus
For her dissertation, Jill is investigating the role of music in the lives of homeless young people in Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., thanks in part to a Fulbright Student Award to Canada. She is also collaborating with Professor Eric Rice at University of Southern California to develop a large-scale, cross-city comparative dataset on technology use, risk-taking behaviors, mental health indicators, music preferences and listening experiences of homeless young people.
In one of her research activities, Jill asks homeless young people to make a sketch of a music player and write a story about how the gadget could be used to help homeless young people. She hopes to develop public exhibits in both cities to showcase these creative products and build awareness.
A major part of Jill’s success lies in her ability to relate well to and maintain trusting relationships with the youth and social agencies that she serves.
“Through her action research, Jill demonstrates that many homeless young people, even as they wrestle with the challenges of being on the street, have aspirations; value social relationships; struggle with evolving identity; at times care for others; and enjoy, define, and extend themselves through music,” said Batya Friedman, an Information School professor who has advised Jill’s work.
Advisers like Friedman predict that Jill’s work will help to inform methods and models for working with homeless youth and service providers nationally and internationally.
Photo by Daisy Fry