Featured Student: Chelsey Thul (Ph.D., 2012, M.A., 2008)

Dr. Chelsey Thul is a “double Gopher,” having received both her masters (2008) and her Ph.D. (2012) from the School of Kinesiology. Over the course of her career, Thul has developed a unique and specialized research agenda, combining public health, sport psychology, and prevention science. Her dissertation in particular explores how Somali females use and conceptualize physical activity spaces.
The impetus for her dissertation project stemmed from a 2008 study with her adviser Dr. Nicole LaVoi. The purpose of this study was to explore Somali and Ethiopian adolescent females’ experiences with and beliefs about physical activity, and their suggestions for promoting active living. The data showed that the girls faced many barriers that impeded their physical activity participation. To overcome barriers, the girls suggested that a culturally relevant, female-only physical activity program be developed.
According to the girls’ wishes, in 2008 the Girls Initiative in Recreation and Leisurely Sports (G.I.R.L.S.) program was created for primarily Somali adolescent and young adult females, and implemented at the Brian Coyle Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. Thul had many roles in the program, as a participant, a volunteer, an observer, and a consultant. It was in these roles that she noticed the gym and other physical activity spaces in the neighborhood appeared to be contested spaces wherein “real and symbolic boundaries have been drawn to limit access.” She observed the usage and conceptualization of physical activity spaces were affected by the intersection of gender, race, ethnicity, class, religion, and cultural markers of identity.
Thus, the purpose of Thul’s dissertation study was to explore Somali G.I.R.L.S. participants’ experiences with, and perceptions of, the intersection of the markers of identity and perceived, conceived, and lived physical activity spaces in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, and to understand the implications for locating and implementing future programming. Data collection included a quantitative participatory mapping activity (n = 30) to assess perceived space and focus groups (n= 27) to explore the intersection of the identity constructs within conceived and lived spaces.
The overarching finding of Thul’s research was that physical activity spaces for Somali females are contested terrain. Perceived space mapping trends indicated the Brian Coyle Center was the most desired physical activity space, males had more access to physical activity spaces than females, indoor physical activity spaces were perceived as more relevant than outdoor ones, and females perceived low accessibility to physical activity spaces. Conceived space themes suggested an intersection of identity markers influenced a variety of gender ideologies and expectations of females, social constructions of femininity, cultural and religious beliefs and tensions, and ethnic Somali cultural norms. Together the perceived space, conceived space, and identity markers impacted an array of lived space perceptions and experiences regarding a lack of freedom, gender spatial inequality, surveillance tensions, familiarity tensions, inclusivity tensions, accessibility, and strategies for change. The complex findings suggest multi-systemic efforts are essential for achieving spatial equality for G.I.R.L.S. participants.


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