Students Think Outside the Textbook

— Heidi Sfiligoj, News Staff

woman walking out of large book titled: School of Social WorkThroughout the country, students at schools of social work are getting involved in their communities. A number of students have initiated their own projects, while others have devoted time and energy to a cause they are passionate about.

Below are some of the students from across the nation who are taking action to make a difference and finding ways to act out of social work values.

Making a difference "from our islands" across the world: In 2007, after Paul Tran, a professor of social work at Hawaii Pacific University, showed students the documentary "Invisible Children: Rough Cut," which tells the stories of night commuters and child soldiers in northern Uganda, college students from Hawaii Pacific University created Invisible Children Hawaii to relieve the suffering of children in Hawaii and the rest of the world. ICH aims to unite on a community, national, and global level to end the atrocities in Northern Uganda, as well as to the rest of Africa where there is violence against children and families.

ICH organized two sleepovers at Hawaii's capitol building to express support for the protection of child soldiers. ICH also works to educate students about the tragedies taking place in northern Uganda by presenting screenings of "Invisible Children."

In May, ICH urged state representatives to pass a resolution condemning violence against children in northern Uganda.

Aya Sato was the Education Student Chair for ICH for the 2007-2008 school year, working to promote awareness to schools, churches, organizations, events and communities in Hawaii, including the state capital. Dr. Elaine Valdov of the United Nations invited Sato, along with 2007-2008 ICH President Sara Ortiz, to attend the Youth Assembly at the United Nations in New York in August. The two were asked to conduct a presentation on ICH.

"Through raising awareness about the violence and atrocities in Uganda, I hoped to show Hawaii that we, too, can make a difference from our islands all the way to those in Africa," Sato said. "Through education, fundraising and advocacy, I aimed to teach people that we can do more than sympathize or empathize for their suffering. I think our movement was able to make change locally, nationally and globally."

Improving child welfare system fatherhood practices: Four graduate students from the Rhode Island College School of Social Work greatly contributed to the Child Welfare Fatherhood Project, which aims to empower disenfranchised fathers.

Derek Belisle conducted focus groups with professionals in child welfare and community organizations, while Jorge Ferreira and Barry Noel conducted focus groups with fathers who are impacted by issues of poverty, histories of incarceration, minority status and adolescent status. Belisle, Ferreira and Noel also piloted a newly developed clinical-mapping tool to give voice to the experiences of fathers who are otherwise invisible and to use this full picture of the father's life to reinforce their value as fathers. In addition, Jennifer Lauler created the Rhode Island Resource Manual for Dads.

All four students used their research and the resources they developed to inform fatherhood practice and policy within Rhode Island's child welfare and community partner agencies. The project was initiated by Tonya Glantz, a Clinical Training Specialist with Rhode Island Child Welfare Institute. The data that the students obtained will be used to implement improvements in child welfare's current fatherhood practices, which are directly linked to safety, permanency and well-being for children and youth involved with child welfare.

Addressing a broad range of community needs: The Association of Student Social Workers at California State University, Los Angeles was awarded the university's 2008-2009 Student Organization of the Year. Over the past year, the group participated in a number of philanthropic activities. More than 20 members participated in the annual AIDS Walk and raised more than $800 for AIDS research. More than 15 students took part in the Los Angeles County Homeless Count, which physically counts people who are homeless in Los Angeles during the evening hours over a three-day period so that they can be better served.

Members of the association also served as active volunteers at Magic Mountain Day, where hundreds of foster children enjoyed a day at the Los Angeles theme park, as part of "Wednesday's Child," a weekly TV show that airs on FOX television stations.

On April 2, the Social Work Student Association at California State University's School of Social Work sponsored a research symposium at its San Bernardino campus about re-entry services for incarcerated citizens who are being released into California's Inland Empire community. SWSA also remains active in its community in other ways, such as by making donations. During the 2008-2009 school year, SWSA donated 55 cell phones to a recycling center for soldiers in Iraq and 30 blankets to a camp in Ontario, Calif., where more than 400 residents who are homeless live. Cash donations were made to organizations for AIDS and spina bifidia awareness as well as to Future Social Workers in Action and Phi Alpha Honor Society for a future sober living facility in the Inland Empire for pregnant teens with substance abuse issues.

Capping payday lending rates: While interning at the NASW Ohio Chapter office during the 2008 presidential election, Rachel Yoder, then a BSW student from Cedarville University, coordinated a social work student movement to get a 'Yes' vote on a payday lending rate cap referendum, Issue 5 on Ohio's ballot. The referendum passed last November.

Prior to the election, Yoder rallied students from social work programs across Ohio to join advocacy efforts.

"Students canvassed neighborhoods, distributed literature, wrote opinion pieces for student and local newspapers, staffed booths, gave class presentations, promoted 'Vote Yes' at events and presidential rallies, and held campus-wide forums to discuss the issue," said Yoder, who is now an MSW student at the University of Pennsylvania.

The students worked with a statewide campaign effort that had only $500,000 to spend on the campaign, while the payday lending industry had a campaign budget of $22 million.

"When students mobilized around 'Vote Yes,' the campaign took on a new energy. Students had the unique ability to reach and connect with their peers and college campuses, an audience that can be easily overlooked," Yoder said. "It was incredibly inspiring to watch the future generations of social workers take such a strong stand against injustice."

Preventing homelessness among military veterans: Annie Bryant, an MSSW student at the University of Texas, is starting House a Hero, a nonprofit organization that offers family-style transitional housing to assist recently discharged combat veterans as they readjust to civilian life. Bryant presented her idea for the organization at this year's second annual Clinton Global Initiative University conference in Austin.

"As I looked into registration, I learned that one had to make an 'action commitment' in order to attend. I decided to submit my idea for House a Hero as my action commitment. I received a lot of positive feedback from CGI personnel and was asked to display my idea at the conference," she said.

The first program will be launched in Texas in spring 2010. The initial pilot will last three years, placing a group of 25 recently discharged active-duty veterans in family settings during the second year. Veterans will remain in the family settings for up to one year. A social worker will support each veteran's progress throughout the year, and help each one find employment or enroll in school.

Preventing high school students from dropping out: Another master's student from the University of Texas, Mary McKay Duncan, established a program called the Collaborative Dropout Reduction Pilot Program. The integrated program prepares and supports students in the search for employment that they can sustain while keeping school and graduation a priority.

Duncan got the idea for the program while interning at Johnston High School in East Austin, Texas, where a number of students were dropping out because of conflicting work and school schedules. She developed a weekly training and partnered with managers in the community who promised to interview any student who completed the training.

The Texas Education Agency recently awarded the Austin Independent School District a $250,000 grant to fund the program for two years at Eastside Memorial High School.

Promoting the social work profession through community action: At Campbellsville University in Kentucky, the SWITCH (Social Workers In Touch Can Help) Club, an organization made up of social work students, continues to promote the social work profession through community action.

On April 17, the club hosted the second annual Cardboard Nation, a simulation homelessness experience where participants spend a night in a cardboard box. Participants rent the boxes for a minimum of $25 and each is asked to raise sponsorship money. More than $4,000 was raised, to be donated to Green River Ministries, the local shelter for people who are homeless.

Matching students to meet needs: Fara Afayee, a BSW student at Rutgers University, created a social action project, called "Friends Without Borders," at her school. Both domestic and international students sign up for the program and fill out an application. Afayee then matches each domestic student with an international student.

"I match students up based on their similarities and schedules," she said. "For example, I matched a domestic student trying to learn Spanish with a Fulbright scholar from Spain."

She also encourages other students at schools of social work to get involved in their communities.

"We have special skills that really allow us to connect with other people," Afayee said. "Sometimes we get so caught up in school work, but it's important to put it into practice."

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