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Field placement helps MSW student take advocacy skills back to native El Salvador

USC graduate sows the seeds of community outreach, establishing a nonprofit organization in her home country

When Sussanne Martin MSW ’14 was 4 years old, her father, a well-known lawyer who fought for human rights and social justice in El Salvador, was kidnapped and killed during the country’s civil war.

Armed with a desire to continue her father’s legacy and his dream of a more egalitarian El Salvador, she earned a master’s degree at the USC School of Social Work, hoping the experience would enlighten her about the finer points of nonprofit management. Now, with diploma in hand, Martin has started an organization to facilitate positive community outreach, using her newfound advocacy skills to make a difference in her home country.

I am thankful to USC for providing me with a more global understanding of the issues I am passionate about.

Sussanne Martin

She credits a USC field internship with helping her achieve that goal.

Martin, who selected the Community Planning, Organization and Administration (COPA) concentration to learn all aspects of operating a nonprofit, completed a field placement with Developments in Literacy (DIL), an international organization that provides underprivileged children, especially girls, with education across Pakistan.

“I wanted to learn how an organization here in the United States was run and how DIL delivers services in Pakistan,” she said. “At DIL, I got a full understanding of the successes and challenges it takes to run a nonprofit within two countries.”

Coping with multiple challenges

El Salvador policeman on duty

El Salvador police officer on patrol (Photo/courtesy of USC School of Social Work)

Martin’s experience at DIL and Master of Social Work courses helped her develop skills in community assessment, public speaking and advocacy, all of which played an important role in establishing the nonprofit organization Semillas de Educaciòn & Desarrollo (Seeds of Education & Development). She has also relied on Amber Ramirez, clinical assistant professor of field education at the USC School of Social Work, for guidance throughout the process.

Martin quickly learned that running a program in another country required a lot of patience and adaptation to deal with challenges, such as lack of communication due to time and cultural differences.

Consulting with Ramirez helped Martin realize how adjusting her approach when dealing with a different culture was essential to providing the best services possible. The two women would also discuss how to balance these operational challenges while fundraising in the United States and how to evaluate and use programmatic services and results when talking with potential sponsors and donors.

“Sussanne is passionate for El Salvador and had an amazing experience at her placement,” Ramirez said. “It has been helpful to discuss the impactful learning opportunities she has taken away from her internship and utilized in following her dreams.”

Building a safe and productive community

Those dreams took Martin to a small town in El Salvador called Nuevo Cuscatlan (population approximately 10,000) in 2013, sparking her interest with its social programs that include full college scholarships, a free community health clinic with free medication and food baskets for the elderly.

Feeling inspired, Martin reached out to its mayor, Nayib Bukele, through Facebook to become part of the changes in the town. He invited her to Nuevo Cuscatlan to talk about her passion to help the people of El Salvador and how her skill set as a USC MSW student could assist in his vision of creating a safe and productive community.

“Nayib Bukele is a great person, and his heart is in the right place to help his community,” Martin said. “When I reached out to him, he was so open and willing to work with me — without knowing my work or my background. He was giving me an opportunity just like he had to this small and seemingly forgotten community.”

Every time I go [to El Salvador], I am looking in to different areas or communities that I can serve.

Sussanne Martin

After meeting, they decided that Martin would first assist Nuevo Cuscatlan by training its police in conflict resolution and how to regain the community’s trust and respect that had been missing since the country’s civil war.

Using skills in motivational interviewing, domestic violence intervention, gang prevention and criminology learned from her COPA research course and field placement, Martin received favorable feedback from law enforcement after the training. She plans to continue to evaluate the community’s perception of law enforcement to see if the knowledge the police officers gained through the training is being applied in the field.

Team management

“My mission every time I go to El Salvador is to understand the different social programs the country has,” said Martin, who visits family there every year. “Every time I go, I am looking in to different areas or communities that I can serve, such as the police of Nuevo Cuscatlan. I try to do as much research as I can beforehand; that way I have a treatment plan ready once I contact a new community or organization.”

Although Martin is a native of El Salvador and visits annually, she is still seen as a foreigner, and some organization directors have a hard time opening up to her.

Martin recalls what she learned in her field internship to help mitigate the obstacles, and Ramirez frequently talks her through the challenges, such as managing a team from abroad.

“Field placement is the key component to an MSW education,” Ramirez said. “It is where they can take what they are learning in the classroom and actually apply it in a work setting. It is also where students build relationships and learn hands-on experience from professionals currently in the field.”

After graduating with her MSW in May, Martin went back to El Salvador for the summer to lead additional training sessions with police and develop a domestic violence course. She was also invited to be part of a group that is developing a cultura de paz (culture of peace) to champion stronger anti-gun laws.

When she returns, Martin plans to leverage her micro and macro social work skills to grow her foundation and eventually create a counterpart organization in the United States.

“I am thankful to USC for providing me with a more global understanding of the issues I am passionate about,” Martin said. “And I’m thankful to DIL for providing support on how to manage an international foundation with skills such as community assessment, management, and program development and evaluation.”

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Field placement helps MSW student take advocacy skills back to native El Salvador

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