Spotlight on Graduate Students and Community Service


Spotlight on Graduate Students and Community Service

""Imagine you are in the ninth grade again. Schoolwork, hormones and peer pressure abound, and managing it all seems overwhelming. 

Now imagine you’ve just moved to a new city—or a new country—and you don’t speak the language. Life as a teenager is hard enough without adding these extras stresses; yet for many teenagers, this is their reality. And they have significant challenges staying in school and finding success.

Enter Refugee Services of Texas and University of Texas School of Social Work graduate students. An organization helping ninth and tenth graders who have just arrived in the United States, Refugee Services of Texas and its UT Austin interns aid these students in adjusting to life in American high school.

Tanya Voss, Field Program Director and Clinical Assistant Professor for the School of Social Work, recently asked some of these high school students to come into her classroom and explain just how vital it was to have UT Austin students aiding them in their transition to life in the United States.

"""It was because of the social workers…that they were able to stay in school,” says Voss.

Voss, who coordinates field placements and internships for more than 400 Social Work students each year, says that these students—who are completing more than 200,000 hours of community service yearly—are key to the success of numerous organizations.

“We have agencies and their clients and their clients’ families who tell us that they are in business because of our interns,” says Voss. “We have agencies who say we couldn’t serve as many clients, meet the needs of (as many people without) our interns.”

While volunteerism and community service have received renewed attention in recent months with the new administration, graduate students at The University of Texas at Austin have long found serving the community to be a vital aspect of their educational experience. 

In addition to giving back to the community that supports them, graduate students at The University of Texas gain valuable experience and perspective from their community work; experience that enhances their scholarly work, as well.

Enriching the classroom experience

Jeremy Goldbach, a doctoral student in social work who specializes in HIV and substance Jeremy Goldbachabuse, agrees that giving back dually benefits both you and those you are helping.

“It makes your classroom experience richer if you have real world experience to bring to the classroom,” he says.

Goldbach currently works for the Department of State Health Services, assisting community coalitions across Texas that do substance abuse prevention. He also serves on the board of the David Powell Clinic, an organization that helps indigent persons living with HIV, and works with the Austin HIV Planning Council—which allocates funding to the Austin community—by assisting them in creating a comprehensive needs assessment so that they know “what’s really going on.”

 “From my clinical work, I saw that there was a disconnect between the policies and procedures that are recommended and they way that they actually play out in the real world,” says Goldbach. “My main interest is community engagement. How do we create programs in our communities that actually resonate with the community we’re trying to serve?”

Goldbach says all of his work has taught him to be much more open-minded and forgiving.

“Everyone’s going through life trying to make the best decisions they can based on their circumstances and what they know,” he says.

Supporting the core mission

At its core, The University of Texas is dedicated to transforming lives for the benefit of society. A prime example can be found in the College of Education, where current and future teachers are being trained to educate today’s youth to be the leaders of tomorrow.

And a special group of UT Austin education graduate students—known as the Proyecto Maestria Collaborative for Teacher Leadership in Bilingual and ESL Education—are ""committed to improving life for Spanish-speaking students in Austin.

“We’re designing our master’s program to serve the Austin community and to improve the quality of instruction for English learners in the Austin area,” says Elizabeth Villarreal-Perales, clinical supervisor and project director of Proyecto Maestria grant and a doctoral student in Cultural Studies.

A collaborative grant with AISD provides scholarship money to recruit bilingual teachers into the masters program in Bilingual Bicultural Equation. Garnered in July 2007, the grant brings about twelve full-time teachers per year into the cohort to get their master’s degrees.

One grant recipient is Lucy Camarillo, a second-grade teacher at Oak Hill Elementary. Camarillo, who has taught for nearly 20 years, decided to participate in the master’s cohort when she realized that, though she grew up bilingual, she needed to know more about being a bilingual educator. 

“I really didn’t feel that I was prepared to teach and to understand everything about bilingual education,” says Camarillo. “I needed to know more about bilingual education than just the language.”

Lucy CamarilloSpanish-speaking students in Camarillo’s classroom are learning to be proficient in both English and Spanish, and Camarillo says that it is her training through Proyecto Maestria that has made her feel more in tune with what her students need.

“(Proyecto Maestria) really focuses our leadership skills and empowers us to make changes,” she says. “It’s given us the academics we need.”

In addition to assisting her students in the classroom, Camarillo is reaching out to their parents; many of whom do not speak English. One way Camarillo and her Proyecto Maestria peers are doing this is through a column in Ahora Si!, a local Spanish-language newspaper that is largely focused on recent immigrants.

Villarreal-Perales successfully pitched the idea for a column that would connect the Spanish-speaking community with experts in bilingual education. Ahora Si! editors were immediately on board, and Proyecto Maestria students began writing for the column this past November.

“My custodian read it and said ‘I wish this had come out years ago!’” says Camarillo. “She said there’s so much out there that parents don’t know.”

Making a personal difference

For Sabrina Mikan, a third-year nursing doctoral student and clinical nurse specialist, helping others is a way of life. Mikan’s volunteer activities run the gamut from the ER and the Sabrina MikanAustin City Limits Music Festival to working with the Austin Chapter of the March of Dimes.

But it is when she speaks about her job at Hospice Austin’s Christopher House, a fifteen-room inpatient facility, that Mikan’s passion for caring is especially evident.

Mikan, who originally hoped to work in the emergency room, changed her plans during the last few weeks of nursing school when a professor suggested that Mikan, who is doing her dissertation on pain management in people with HIV, look into working at Christopher House.

“The first day I was there, I was a little upset,” says Mikan. “But it was also a very interesting and relaxing place….it’s just a completely different feel to medicine all together and I really, really liked it.”

Mikan says she has realized that the most important thing she can do for her patients is to simply be there for them.

“One of my first patients started crying…I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “All I could do was stand there and pat her on the shoulder; it was just being present.”

As for the professor who suggested that Mikan look into Christopher House, Mikan says she is eternally grateful.

“I would probably tell her every time I saw her ‘thank you for thinking about that,’” she says.

By Lauren Edwards, April 2009

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