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Social Work doesn’t stop during spring break

MSW student Evelina Giang, left, and USC MBA student Brian Slade in Brazil
MSW student Evelina Giang, left, and MBA student Brian Slade in Brazil Photo/Cristian Liu

Spring break: a time of year for college students to blow off some steam and kick back before the stress of finals arrives at the end of the school year.

But some USC School of Social Work students, faculty and even alumni have made so much more of this traditionally carefree week.

MSW student Evelina Giang spent her spring break in Brazil surveying how hypertension and diabetes patients are faring in the country’s public health system. Along with researchers from Brazil’s Escola Superior de Ciências da Saúde and the University of Brasilia, Giang assisted in gathering information on these patients’ habits, especially as they related to diet. She visited people’s homes and helped conduct focus groups in clinics, as well as analyzed the operations of the electronic medical system that connects hospitals and clinics in Samambaia, just outside Brasilia.

“[This experience] brought me back to why I went into social work in the first place – to learn about people’s lives and help them,” said Giang, who hopes to use this experience to conduct research on health care operations systems in the future.

Giang traveled to Brazil with classmates from “Global Healthcare Operations Management,” an elective class she is taking at the USC Marshall School of Business. She said being a part of an interdisciplinary group that included management students from USC Marshall and public health students from the Keck School of Medicine of USC has helped her learn how people from diverse backgrounds can work together to address a single issue. Case in point: The class worked together to create the survey it administered in Brazil.

Giang’s training and education gave her a unique view on the work she and her classmates performed.

“What we did was ask about their problems; what we could not do was provide them with solutions right away. [But] I began to think through the social work lens and realized that by interviewing these patients, we were already making some sort of impact,” Giang said. “One could even say these interviews could be a source of empowerment for these patients in the remote town who may have no one else to talk to.”

Ph.D. student Erica Lizano elected to spend her break helping others in El Salvador. As part of a group of USC students sponsored by the USC Caruso Catholic Center’s social justice committee, Lizano helped build homes for Salvadoran civil war veterans to replace their rural clay dwellings. One of four Salvadoran-American students on the trip, Lizano also participated in planting a garden and making other improvements at a music school for at-risk youth, providing them with an alternative to street life.

The arrival of USC students, especially those from Salvadoran backgrounds who were earning their doctorate degrees, of which there were three, including Lizano, garnered national attention.

Hugo Martinez, the Salvadoran equivalent of secretary of state, greeted the students at the music school and specifically named Lizano and the other Ph.D. students in a speech he gave to media in attendance. Spanish-language Univision covered the event and interviewed Lizano for the story, which was broadcast in the United States.

The trip hit home for Lizano, whose family left the country during the Salvadoran Civil War of the 1980s. As she toiled in weather that exceeded 100 degrees at times, she pushed on, knowing she was a part of a movement larger than herself.

“I became keenly aware that I have a responsibility to my community and as a part of an international community,” she said.

Even though the trip didn’t directly relate to her doctoral research, which focuses on administration in human service organizations and worker well-being, the experience lent itself to work that Lizano does in the Salvadoran-American community in Los Angeles.

She is a mentor in the Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund’s Mi Futuro program, which encourages youth to attend college and become leaders in their communities.

“Service is part of our roles as researchers, especially as social workers,” Lizano said.

Marleen Wong, clinical professor and assistant dean of field education at USC, also spent her spring break in the service of others, though her experience dealt with turning her research into a real, usable program – a hallmark of the kind of translational science the social work profession strives to create.

Wong traveled to Osaka, Japan, to speak at the National Forum on School Safety and Mental Health Support on her model of psychological first aid for children in schools.

Funded by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the conference was attended by more than 200 elementary and secondary educators and university professors leading efforts in Japan to develop safe schools programs for both man-made and natural disasters.

Since 1995, when a 6.8 earthquake hit Kobe, Japan, the country’s teachers unions and the Ministry of Education have gathered information from the United States and other countries to develop crisis management and school safety models.

The need for such programs has become even more apparent since a 2001 mass stabbing of children and teachers at the Ikeda Elementary School in Osaka left eight children dead and more injured, as well as last year’s massive earthquake and tsunami that killed tens of thousands and leveled towns in the Sendai region.

Rafael Angulo, clinical associate professor of field education, also traveled across the miles over spring break to help others, though in a very different way.

Angulo, who teaches a social justice documentary class at the School of Social Work, went to Haiti as a consultant on a documentary film being made by Myong Kim MSW ’07 and Julisa Morales MSW ’10.

The film’s focus is on the cholera outbreak in Haiti following its devastating 2010 earthquake and the humanitarian and United Nations’ responses to the public health problem. About 7,000 people have died from the effects of cholera since the earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 and displaced more than 1 million.

Angulo said that even though Haitians live with the consequences of this disaster every day, including sickness, poverty and the presence of armed United Nations soldiers, few would talk about the earthquake itself.

“It’s like when someone close to you dies, and you don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “It’s a collective tragedy [for the Haitians].”

However, Angulo and the filmmakers did get people to talk about their experiences with the cholera outbreak, which has affected about half a million people. They also spoke about their needs in terms of services, such as electricity. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and is considered the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

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