Professor Shalini Tendulkar teaches community-centered approach to research in year-long course

The Tufts School of Arts and Sciences’ mission statement says that the school educates students to take on “transformational leadership in communities around the world.”

In many ways, community health Professor Shalini Tendulkar takes that message and applies it not to communities throughout the world, but to the communities closest to Tufts through her year-long research course, CH182: Community Health Theory and Practice.

According to Tendulkar, the course approaches research through the lens of Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR), which she described as a collaborative, equitable approach to research that includes the input and expertise of everyone involved in the research process.

During the course, students participate in a year-long research project in direct partnership with local community organizations. Additionally, Tendulkar said the course‘s structure forces students to think outside of a traditional academic research mindset that values outcomes and results over the entire research and academic process, starting with the course’s syllabus. 

“As a student, you come into a class, and you’ve got your expectations, your syllabus and your exams … this [class] is not necessarily one that aligns well with that mold,” Tendulkar said. “So students who come into CH182, this theory and practice year-long class, have to be willing to let that go a little bit because I am not going into the class with a well-defined syllabus. The syllabus is co-constructed.”

According to Tendulkar, when approaching community health research through the lens of CBPR, the researcher’s role is not necessarily to solve public health issues, but to identify the most prevalent issues in specific communities by paying attention to the concerns of those who live and work there. They then try to increase awareness of and access to existing organizations that are already working to address these public health concerns.

CH182, she explained, is therefore not just an opportunity to interact with the community around Tufts or to single-handedly “solve” a community’s problems. Rather, she views it as a chance for the students, herself and community partners to co-construct an experience for the benefit of all parties involved.

“It’s not like there’s one solution necessarily [to the chosen issue],” she said. “Because there are other forces in the community, like history and politics, that kind of also feed into how things happen.”

Tendulkar highlighted that the nature of these issues is why she approaches community members with receptiveness and an open mind, stressing that being able to adapt previous assumptions or hypotheses is key to CBPR’s success. 

“You can’t just dive in and say ‘I’ve arrived and I have the answers,'” she said. “You need to be willing to listen, and you have to be mindful of who you’re listening to, who the partners are, who the gatekeepers are [and] whose voices are being heard.”

During last year’s section of CH182, students conducted CBPR in Medford, working on a project entitled Medford and Tufts Community Health (MATCH) Research Collaborative, Tendulkar said. They contacted 52 partners from Medford to assess the city’s prominent health needs, according to a report compiled by students in the course.

Diane McLeod, the director of diversity for the city of Medford and a previous Tisch College of Civic Life board member, was one of last year’s partners, and said that one of the biggest contributions made by students in last year’s CH182 was updating the Medford Welcome Book. The booklet lists several health and financial resources in different languages for people who are unfamiliar with Medford’s resources.

The booklet had been outdated for a few years, and McLeod said that help from CH182 students was vital in keeping it relevant, adding that she would not have gotten around to updating it herself without them.

Junior Ravali Mukthineni, who was a student in CH182 last year, said she appreciated being able to use the knowledge she gained from the course to address local community health issues based on actual input from Medford residents. 

“What’s great about CH182 is that we apply what we’ve learned,” Mukthineni said. “In CBPR, the community members play a large role in shaping the research process.”

She added that she learned the importance of determining the focus of research based on direct input from community organizations.

“Even though as a class we were discussing what we’d like to focus on — things like mental health — it wasn’t until when we started talking to the organization leaders in Medford and listening to some of their health concerns based on the people that they worked with that we shifted our research process,” she said.

This year, Tendulkar said CH182 is partnering with the Medford Family Network, a program run through the Medford Public Schools that aims to connect families with young children to community resources, other families and community agencies, according to the network’s website.

Tendulkar has a long history of engaging with communities to address public health concerns. After completing her undergraduate degree at Wellesley College and obtaining a Masters and a Doctorate degree in Maternal and Child Health from the Harvard School of Public Health, she began working for a research and evaluation organization called the Institute for Community Health (ICH), an organization based in Cambridge at the time that has since relocated to Malden, MA.

She said she spent seven years there conducting community-based research and evaluation before becoming a professor at Tufts.

“I had a real interest in always doing more community-engaged work,” she said. “I did not want to use the skills I gained through my doctorate to necessarily do work that wasn’t placed in or at least engaged with communities.”

Now having served as a lecturer in the community health department for three years,  she said she still sometimes feels like a newcomer here.

“I was saying to one of my students today that I still need to do a campus tour because I don’t know where some of the buildings on campus are,” she said.

In addition to CH182, Tendulkar teaches a few research-based courses at Tufts, but because of her values and research background, she said that she tries to incorporate hands-on research experiences into her theory-based classes as well. In addition, she makes a point to treat her students as equal collaborators in the research process in all of her classes.

“I feel like one of the things I’m really committed to at Tufts through my classes is helping students understand the value of community engagement, so when I engage [with them] it’s kind of just an extension of that,” she said. “I think in many ways, I see students as potential research partners. I see them as myself, but just earlier on in their training.”