The HPU Poll: Putting Public Opinion into Perspective

Kelsy Underwood didn’t like answering the phone.

She’d tell you that.

She was “pretty shy,” and she used few words in conversation. But there she was, her first stint in the university’s Survey Research Center, slipping on a pair of headphones and calling someone she didn’t even know.

She came for her Surveys and Sampling course. She is a math major with a statistics minor, and she asked questions about everything from politics to tourism to the importance of a college education.

Over two sessions that lasted a total of six hours, she made 203 phone calls. With every phone call, her nervousness faded; her confidence grew.

A short while later, she realized she helped create national news headlines by finding the state’s pulse.

“When people answer, it gets exciting,” said Underwood, an HPU junior. “You get these results, and you see how people feel, you see what they like and don’t like, and you see how you can make it better.”


HPU Poll photos


Learning by Doing

At High Point University, that’s how learning works. Putting students in the here and now to collaborate with professors, leaders and their community is a hallmark of a liberal arts education.

This work gives them an edge they need when they go after an internship or a job after graduation because they can talk comfortably to others about their own research.

And they can talk about the SRC.

The Survey Research Center, home of the High Point University Poll, launched six years ago. Since then, 800 students have taken part in more than 17,000 survey interviews. They’ve nailed down numbers and information that gauge the mercurial nature of public opinion.

The center gets questions from HPU professors, local newspapers, state agencies and from HPU students themselves. Students like Underwood.

The results are reported by newspapers and on local and national TV and become the grist of TV and online commentaries everywhere.

The HPU Poll demonstrates the credibility of the university. And the survey equips the students with skills necessary for 21st century working environments.

At minimum, students get comfortable making cold calls and learning how to talk to anyone about almost anything in an objective, professional manner. That includes the most sensitive of topics — political views, religious beliefs and beyond.


More Than a Phone Call

When students take a step back, they realize their survey work lays the groundwork for whatever they want to become. And with research playing an integral part in almost any profession, that could be anything.

“I know a lot of students don’t get a chance to do this,” says Gabrielle Hayes, a biology major from Asheville, North Carolina. “Maybe it’s the scientist in me. But I love seeing the whole picture.”

Martin Kifer SRC HPU Poll

Dr. Martin Kifer, assistant professor of political science and director of the HPU Survey Research Center

The whole picture begins in the Survey Research Center as Underwood, Hayes and their classmates listen to SRC director Dr. Martin Kifer give them tips. The students who surround him often use phones to text rather than place a call. Some even feel like Underwood. They don’t like using the phone.

When that happens, Kifer gives them a bit of context. He tells the story he heard from one of his former professors. His professor interviewed Hillary Clinton and asked her why her husband as president was so poll-driven. It was simple, Clinton told him. Her husband talked to voters at county and state fairs, and he shook hands and gathered information with every person he met.

A poll, Kifer tells the crowd of students, is the next best thing.

“We see this as something that we’re doing for the civic life of North Carolina and the nation,” Kifer says. “Public opinion is the people’s voice.”


Final Results

On a Friday morning after making hundreds of phone calls together, Underwood and her classmates talk about the results of their survey. They marvel over questions they asked to more than 400 people — some about the Academy Awards, others about college. The questions they’re asking, their professor tells them, are significant. Then, they all tell stories.

And they all have stories from phone conversations. Like Underwood. She stayed on the phone with someone for 30 minutes, listening to his opinion about Washington, Congress and everything in between.

She didn’t expect that. But the “pretty shy” student from Laurinburg, North Carolina, discovered something new during her hours in a headset.

“People were really nice,” Underwood says. “They liked that I was calling. I didn’t get laughed at. I was able to do it, and you know what, my nerves went away.”

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