Open Your Mind: A Q&A with York PhD candidate Vivian Stamatopoulos

Vivian Stamatopoulos PhD Candidate Department of Sociology
Vivian Stamatopoulos PhD Candidate Department of Sociology

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Vivian Stamatopoulos, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Graduate Studies. Stamatopoulos is exploring the role of children and youth who are caregivers, or “carers” in the family. Many provide hours of unpaid supportive care to family members. Stamatopoulos explores the impact of being a young caregiver and why they are largely invisible.

Stamatopoulos is also the proud recipient of a 2015 President’s University-wide Teaching Award. In her response to YFile, she speaks about the importance of good teaching and the classroom experience.

Vivian Stamatopoulos PhD Candidate Department of Sociology
Vivian Stamatopoulos, PhD candidate, Department of Sociology

Q. Please describe your field of current research.
A. My research focuses on children and youth who provide substantial unpaid familial caregiving. These ‘young carers’ are typically under the age of 25 years and provide substantial unpaid support to a family member due to factors including (but not limited to) familial or parental absence, disability, mental health issue(s) or problems with alcohol and/or other drugs. In other parts of the world, these children possess legal rights which afford them a range of educational and employment-based supports, dedicated social service programming and/or weekly stipends to help pay for extra caregiver supports. In Canada, very little is known about these children, the term “young carer” is a virtual unknown and no dedicated federal or provincial policies exist to support their needs.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?
A. My own experiences as a young adult carer undoubtedly inspired my research. For about 10 years I have been helping to care for my grandparents and at many times have struggled to balance my educational, familial and work-related demands. It was only when I stumbled upon the UK-based Young Carers literature that I realized there were many others (some much younger than myself) going through something similar. I always wondered if other people were in my shoes but realistically, when you (or anyone) is in the thick of caregiving, you don’t really have time to stand back and place yourself within a larger cohort of carers. Only when I was able to do that did I realize I had to learn as much as I could in the area and help raise awareness for these kids across Canada.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?
A. The need for familial caregivers in Canada has grown markedly over the past 30 years and will only continue to grow over the next 30 with our ageing Canadian population, changing family arrangements (for example, dual earner households, lone parent households), the structural shift from hospital to home care and the continued lack of accessible and affordable long-term care housing. Compared to the past, when adult women performed the majority of full-time, stay-at-home child and elder care, today’s demands of familial caregiving are being passed down to youth who are seen as more flexible in providing certain facets of care. Consequently, increasing numbers of youth are taking on more and more of these care duties − duties that often remain unrecognized and unspoken of in their social circles and potentially lead to a range of personal and professional consequences for which these youth are ill-equipped to handle.

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?
A. Most of the global young carer research has emerged out of social work, nursing and psychology disciplines which have provided predominantly micro-level accounts of youth-based caregiving. My roots in sociology have enabled me to approach the phenomenon from a macro-level perspective, grounding both its recent rises and growing social and political saliency within a historically significant moment of change underway across Western global capitalist society.

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?
A. My research fills a gap in the field by offering a unique socio-historical lens that addresses not only why we are seeing a rise in youth-based caregiving but how the act itself signals a transformation in the life-course trajectories of 21st-century children. Specifically, I reveal how youth-based caregiving signals but one key piece of evidence for the growing incompatibility of previous definitions of “childhood” with post-modern, contemporary society.

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? 
A. Pursuing this line of inquiry has been simultaneously eye-opening, heartbreaking and immensely gratifying − my group interviews with a sample of Ontario young carers is particularly meaningful. Probably the most surprising finding involved the lack of awareness on the part of young carers for how much their caregiving was affecting their lives. When initially asked the question, most young carers stated very little to no impact. Only after additional probing did a wide array of unanimously experienced consequences emerge, ranging from: heightened stress and anxiety; limited time for themselves; sleep difficulties; constant worrying about their family member(s); a lack of free time outside of school to socialize with peers or engage in extracurricular activities; trouble completing homework; difficulty concentrating in class; and, increased school absences and lateness. Also surprising was how in the face of substantial hardship, these youth remained remarkably positive and highly valued their caring roles.

Q. Every researcher, from novice to experienced, encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?
A. Without a doubt the largest roadblock thus far has been gaining access to young carers. Most young carers tend to struggle in silence, often unaware they are even caregivers and subsequently do not self-identify as such. I was lucky to build working relationships with the directors of the only three Canadian young carer programs who were able to put me in contact with their young carer user base. Without those organizations, the task of finding young carers would be next to impossible given their current status as a hidden population. This methodological limitation is something I plan on addressing in more depth for my follow-up research.

Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?
A. Since I have conducted my doctoral research, my mind has yet to stop thinking and planning for the many ways I may extend my postdoctoral research to help advance the budding Canadian young carer movement. Whether it involve collaborating with global young carer experts to launch a multicultural, multiregional, and multinational (3M) young carer survey program to proposing joint partnerships with educational institutions and medical professionals to develop multi-sectoral strategies for recognizing and referring young carers to available supports to, there is much left to do!

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?
A. This field is extraordinarily interdisciplinary. Indeed, most of the experts I have met in the area have come from the medicine (especially nursing), social work and psychology. In the United States, for example, the field emerged due to pediatricians’ concerns for the physical, academic and psychosocial aspects caregiving was observed to have on their young patient’s growth and development. Within Canada, social workers and non-profit community agencies have been instrumental in planting the roots of the movement here.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?
A. I initially started my undergraduate career majoring in psychology (having decided I was going to be a psychiatrist) but my exposure to sociology courses during my early undergraduate years changed everything: I quite simply fell in love with the discipline. The thing about sociology is, it is so all-encompassing that it truly is the interdisciplinary discipline. Students will benefit immensely from an education in this field and I firmly believe my specialization in it has made me not just a stronger educator and researcher but more importantly a better human being.

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?
A. While at York University, I have focused my teaching in the area of Sociological Research Methods as I firmly believe students need to properly acquire these skills in order to be successful in any discipline. It also tends to be a course that students fear so for me the challenge and gratification comes from using my real-world research expertise to make the material less daunting and actually fun.

Q. How long have you been pursuing a career as a researcher and teacher? Where are you hoping to go once you have finished your graduate work? Are you hoping to work as a researcher or teacher or both?
A. During my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, I was asked to be a Teaching Assistant for Sociological Research Methods and from that moment on, I was hooked to a career of teaching. My love for research emerged more gradually over the ensuing decade of graduate work and professional research experience. In my perfect future scenario, I will continue teaching and advancing my young carer research at a Canadian or international university.

Vivian PUWTA
Receiving the 2015 Presidents University Wide Teaching Award (PUWTA) at Spring Convocation

Q. You recently received a President’s University Wide teaching award; can you talk about your approach to teaching at York University? Are there aspects of your approach that are influenced by your research?
A. My approach to teaching has never been merely instrumental. While covering the subject matter is always at the forefront, I aim more broadly to develop a sociological imagination within each and every one of my students, one which I firmly believe lasts within them long after we part. As famous sociologist C. Wright Mills put it, the power of the sociological imagination rests with its ability to connect the personal troubles of man to the broader issues of society. What I find most notable about possessing this mindset is its fundamentally unifying and compassionate quality. It creates what we call in methodological speech, Verstehen, a German term representing a sense of empathetic understanding developed from placing oneself in the position of those one wishes to study. Watching my students move from passively accepting what they may see, hear or read to actively using their own critical eye to recognize oppression and inequality, whilst having the tools to affect positive change, is one of the most fulfilling parts of my job. I think my students truly value this more global approach to teaching that nurtures both the mind and soul.

Q. In your opinion, what are the qualities of a good teacher?
A. If you nurture your students and treat them with dignity and respect, it will make all the difference in the world. My students know that I genuinely care for them and have their best interests at heart and I find that goes a long way to not only how they treat me but how I see them treat one another. Flexibility and attention to detail is also critical. Whether it involves enabling my students to bring their young children to class when daycare issues arise or pausing my lesson if I sense just one student is confused, I try to consistently find ways to cater to the unique educational needs of my students. Finally, genuinely loving my subject area and the craft of teaching has enabled me to bring a level of energy and excitement to the classroom that I have noticed is contagious.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?
A. To this day, I remember the book that made me fall in love with sociology and pursue it as a career –Michel Foucalt’s The History of Sexuality. It was one of the first books I read in my undergraduate (sociology) theory course and its brilliance changed my life. To this day, his legacy as an intellectual, teacher and activist motivates me to be the best intellectual, educator, and activist that I can be.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?
A. Right now I am reading Nancy Folbre’s The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values – a wonderfully powerful account of how the reliance on the “invisible hand” of the free market and its competitive individualism facilitates an attendant loss of the other necessary component of a healthy society: “the invisible heart” (i.e., the care system for children, the elderly and the infirm that develops out of an ethic of solidarity and reciprocity). A good friend also recently introduced me the world of podcasts and I just listened to a fascinating one on Freakonomics featuring Anne-Marie Slaughter titled: “Meet the Woman Who Said Women Women Can’t Have It All”.

Vivian after receiving the 2013 John O’Neil Award for Teaching Excellence from members of the Sociology Undergraduate Student’s Association (S.U.S.A)
Vivian after receiving the 2013 John O’Neil Award for Teaching Excellence from members of the Sociology Undergraduate Student’s Association (S.U.S.A)

Q. What advice would you give to students thinking of pursuing a graduate degree or embarking on a research project for the first time?
A. Do not be afraid to ask for help and/or speak to fellow graduate students and professors for their advice. In my experience, people are usually happy and willing to provide advice and expertise if given the opportunity. Oh, and do take Sociological Research Methods with me beforehand!

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?
A. Michel Foucault. For the reasons mentioned above but also because he was known to suffer from horrible bouts of depression that impacted his early educational career. For me, it makes the fact that he forged ahead to become one of France’s most famous intellectuals all the more inspiring.

Q. What do you do for fun?
A. I love music so getting out to see some of my favourite artists perform is definitely a key pastime of mine (having most recently seen One Republic, The Weeknd, Banks, U2, Rhye, Death Cab for Cutie, Elbow and Lee Fields & The Expressions). I hate to admit it but I also watch a lot of television. I have an embarrassingly impressive roster of television shows that I follow. I love to get outside and do anything from kayaking to stand-up paddle-boarding to hiking.