Story posted July 31, 2007
Liz Leiwant '08 started her life's work in eighth grade, as well-meaning teenagers so often believe they are doing. What sets Leiwant apart is that eight years later, her research and her passion are still going strong. She is deeply concerned about the issue of child care in the United States: Is it available and affordable for parents who need it? Are the child-care centers good places for the children who enroll there and the employees who work there? And what are the social and economic implications when the answer to these questions is no?
Piece by piece, Leiwant has pursued these questions in places as diverse as Cuba and New York City, and from Chile to Maine. This summer, Leiwant received a prestigious Breckinridge Fellowship to interview parents of different incomes and circumstances about their experiences with child care in Brunswick.
Her qualitative research expands on the quantitative survey her advisor, economics Prof. Rachel Connelly, did several years ago in collaboration with the Maine Child Care Bureau. Leiwant hopes to broaden her scope to the rest of Maine and possibly other states as the subject of an independent study project in the coming year, and present her findings to the Child Care Bureau.
"I think research is really important, but it's important for it to be used," Leiwant said. "I want my work to be useful in the current discourse. I don't want this to be something that sits on my professor's desk."
It's hard to imagine Leiwant's work gathering dust on a shelf.
"Liz is just an amazing student," said Connelly, Bowdoin's Bion R. Cram Professor of Economics and faculty liaison to the Center for Learning and Teaching. "From the time she got to Bowdoin, she's been doing the right things, gaining sets of tools and moving through our curriculum. There's a wonderful continuum going on with her research."
In eighth and ninth grade, Leiwant worked after school at a child-care center near her home in New York City. When she was a sophomore in high school, she attended a camp that took a cultural exchange trip to Cuba.
"My mother mentioned that Cuba has a national child-care system, so I visited some centers and talked to parents in Cuba, and presented a comparison between the Cuban and U.S. systems to the rest of the camp," she said. "I went back to Cuba the next summer, and in my senior year, I did an independent study comparing the Cuban system with Head Start."
As soon as she got to Bowdoin, Leiwant designed her own major in educational and social policy so she could investigate the social and economic implications of child care.
"I don't think you can separate the sociology from the economics," she said. "All the issues are intertwined."
For a class on Maine Social Research, Leiwant interviewed parents whose children were enrolled in the daycare center at the Brunswick Naval Air Station. For an education/law class, she did a research paper on vouchers, and how education policies play out in the courts. A trip with the School for International Training to Chile, where the child-care system is similar to a national voucher system, continued that research.
Leiwant said she feels fortunate to be able to do this level of research as an undergraduate, and to have the support of professors in many disciplines as she crafts a major around her personal passion.
And she takes it in stride when reminded that she has placed herself squarely in the middle of a national debate.
"One of the biggest barriers is getting our society to value this and to value parents enough," she said.