Reflections from Dania Khan and Elizabeth Wilkes

February 12, 2024

Be Prepared to Be Surprised: Leveraging Data to Understand Opportunity Youth

As you may have heard, Carolina Across 100 (CX100) is hosting its third annual POV Challenge this year, and registration has just opened up. As one of the two winning student teams of last year’s CX100 POV Challenge, we wanted to take the opportunity to talk to other students about what the challenge represents and encourage everyone to participate!

Sharing Your POV

The Carolina Across 100 POV Challenge is an annual event where students across UNC work together to share their point of view on a specific issue. This year’s issues are mental health and suicide prevention, topics which have become even more important and pressing in recent years in North Carolina and beyond.

The POV Challenge presents an opportunity for students to try a creative, multidisciplinary approach to research. With a challenge like this one, it is important that you be prepared to be surprised. The point of the POV Challenge is not to find a “correct” solution. Rather, students are asked to share our perspective and see what outcomes emerge (and honestly, you might be surprised by your own findings!).

A chance to bridge the gap between research and practice, this challenge is creates a community of judges and our peers from all over campus and the state who bring their unique perspectives and insights to these issues. Last year, the POV Challenge was focused on the needs of Opportunity Youth as part of CX100’s Our State, Our Work program; this year, the challenge focuses on suicide prevention as part of Our State, Our Wellbeing.

Because of this, we knew we had to present our best work, so we got started right away.

Our Approach to the Challenge

First, we had to come up with our research approach. Research best practices encourage rigorous, timely, well-thought-out research questions, grounded in the existing relevant body of literature. The POV Challenge encourages the same principles—along with an encouragement of creativity and allowing the exploration of data with fresh eyes.

We decided to look at which factors most directly impacted Opportunity Youth rates. While we started with a review of existing research, we also allowed ourselves the creativity to consider what possible datasets are out there for us to use (which gratefully, in the 2020s, encompasses more possibilities than ever before) alongside key Census data.

Finding reliable sources was an important part of the data gathering process. We wanted to be creative in the way we explored possible contributing factors to Opportunity Youth rates, but did not want to share flawed data. We did our best to limit our data to government sources and other datasets widely regarded as reliable. For data sources we were less sure about, we manually looked through the data to ensure accuracy.

The data discovery journey became a generative learning process for us. As we explored existing information, we learned more about related datasets. We wanted users of our data dashboard to have this same experience of learning and discovering new information. This goal guided our creation of a tool that would encourage users to consider factors about the Opportunity Youth population that they may not have before.

“Throughout the process, we relied on our unique strengths.”

We opted to work together because we have very different skill sets, so we could focus on different parts of the work. For this project, Dania used her background in R coding and data cleaning to develop the dashboard, while Elizabeth used her background in research and writing to find good data sources and share our findings effectively.

Embracing New Opportunities

Our decision to participate in the CX100 POV challenge was somewhat impulsive and last-minute. Elizabeth saw a poster on campus and reached out to Dania to ask to collaborate on the project. Without knowing anything about what our competitors’ work would look like, we genuinely had not expected to win. Neither of us had studied Opportunity Youth before. Instead, we went in with the mindset of “Why not?” Worst case scenario, we figured, we would dedicate a few days to learning about an important topic and practice our skills.

Participating in anything new and unfamiliar can be intimidating. On top of that, we imagine many students considering the POV Challenge are thinking about what both of us had to weigh: whether they have the time and capacity to pick up yet another project. It a valid concern. But, in our experience, the nerves often end up being harsher than the actual work. Most projects seem completely overwhelming at the start, but once you start working on them, you may be surprised by how much you are able to accomplish, and the quality of the product you create with your teammate(s).

Anxiety around an opportunity like this can also come from fear of failure. It is easy to view this as a competition (after all, it is the CX100 POV Challenge) but to anyone considering applying, we would recommend thinking about it as an opportunity. The POV Challenge is an opportunity to showcase what we as the UNC community can accomplish together when we set our minds to it and an opportunity to showcase the diversity of skills and talents within our community.

Whatever you do, be prepared to be surprised: at the results of your project, at the incredible showcases of talent across UNC, at the bond created between you and your team, and maybe even at yourself and the skills that you didn’t know you possessed.

“As further motivation, you get to enjoy the knowledge that your project is contributing to an important, timely cause benefiting community members and teams all across of North Carolina.”

While winning the POV Challenge last year was a lot of fun, it was just as enjoyable to walk around during the reception and see everyone’s exhibits. We learned a lot from how other student teams from across campus approached the prompt. It was inspiring to know that this wide-ranging group of people had researched and learned about Opportunity Youth for the first time to create tools to help the state. When you look at the POV Challenge as an opportunity to connect with others and do a positive service for North Carolina instead of as a competition, a lot of that fear of failure dissipates, and so does the anxiety that comes with it.

Read more from students who participated in the 2023 POV Challenge.

Learn more about the 2024 POV Challenge and register by Friday, February 16th.

Dania Khan is second-year graduate student at the UNC School of Government, working toward her Masters in Public Administration. She earned an undergraduate degree in Manufacturing Engineering Technology from Purdue University.

Elizabeth Wilkes is a second-year graduate student at the UNC School of Government, working toward a Master in Public Administration. She earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia in Geography and Anthropology.