Ph.D. student lands national fellowship to research children’s well-being

Sarah Prendergast, a CSU doctoral student researching factors that promote children’s readiness for school, was one of only 15 people in the nation to receive a prestigious Doris Duke Fellowship for the Promotion of Child Well-Being this spring.

Sarah Prendergast

The fellowship, sponsored by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, includes a $30,000 annual stipend for two years. The funding will support Prendergast’s work at The Bell Policy Center in Denver as well as her CSU dissertation. She is the first person from a Colorado college or university to receive the fellowship in the program’s seven-year history.

The native of Dixon, Illinois, completed her undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she volunteered with a nonprofit that serves vulnerable members of the homeless population as part of a service-learning course.

“That course kind of opened my eyes to the idea of how research could be applied to communities,” Prendergast says. “I became interested in using research to evaluate public policy.”

Selecting CSU

She chose CSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies for her master’s and Ph.D. in applied developmental science because of its interdisciplinary approach, focus on the entire lifespan, and emphasis on applying research to real-world issues. An internship with Colorado state Sen. John Kefalas in spring 2016 connected her to Rich Jones, director of policy and research at The Bell Policy Center, where Prendergast has been a research assistant working on evaluating the Colorado Childcare Assistance Program.

Starting in August, the new fellowship will allow her to increase her time at The Bell Policy Center, giving her more experience in using research to inform public policy decisions that help families, which relates to her dissertation on preventing child maltreatment and promoting early achievement. The fellowship also connects her to a network of interdisciplinary scholars working in the field through frequent meetings and conferences.

The focus of Prendergast’s dissertation is family resilience, or how families respond to adversity, and how that is related to school readiness of young children from high-risk households. Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study at Princeton University, she plans to examine assessments done when kids in the study were born and were ages 3, 5 and 9. She’s hoping to identify various profiles, or combinations of, resilience factors within families.

Down the road, this may lead to an assessment tool that identifies a family’s profile and the kinds of resources that are best for addressing their needs. In addition, she seeks to understand the extent to which family resilience promotes children’s readiness for school, and whether or not changes in income, parental education or social support make family resilience more or less likely.

More efficient, effective

“If you can identify types of families, you can direct them to services that are aligned to their family profile,” Prendergast says. “Eventually we’ll be more efficient and effective at referring them to the right resources.”

“Sarah’s coursework is stellar, and she has developed a very solid reputation among our faculty as an insightful, creative, hard-working and very engaged student,” Department Head Lise Youngblade wrote in a recommendation letter for Prendergast. “I believe this fellowship will be a game changer for Sarah, and really accelerate and elevate her graduate experience. I believe, in turn, she will be an outstanding participant in this program – with fresh ideas, enthusiasm, commitment and compassion.”

“Sarah has a good sense for where she is heading, whether it be the direction a manuscript’s arguments should take or the essential building blocks she needs to construct her career,” Prendergast’s adviser, Professor David MacPhee, wrote in recommending her for the fellowship. “These short- and long-term goals have helped her to persist when a manuscript got rejected, when participant recruitment fizzled or when she was not gaining the knowledge from a class that she thought she needed. You can rest assured that she is committed to the Doris Duke fellowship, and will be a dependable, engaged participant. Last, but certainly not least, she is utterly a kind, solid person.”

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.