School of Social Work Archives - UConn Today Thu, 30 May 2024 17:06:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Health Disparities Institute Leader on a Community Mission to Make Change Wed, 08 May 2024 13:02:20 +0000 UConn Today sat down with the director of the Health Disparities Institute at UConn Health, professor in the School of Medicine, and faculty affiliate in the School of Social Work, Dr. Linda Sprague Martinez, as she settles into her new role at UConn to hear more from her personally including her latest exciting plans for growing HDI programming.

Q. How is your new role at UConn?
A. I have enjoyed transitioning into the new role at HDI. I have particularly appreciated my new HDI colleagues, who have been incredibly welcoming. HDI has done wonderful work in the community over the years to advance health equity. For me one of the benefits of working at UConn, a land grant institution, is its public mission. In addition, the institution values community engagement, and our role in advancing community change. As a public scholar focused on community partnerships, knowing my institution supports and celebrates community engagement is a blessing. In terms of the day to day, I am enjoying getting to know more about Connecticut communities and local organizations. There are many local and state efforts focused on advancing health equity and I have appreciated how welcoming people are here as well as their openness to partnering with HDI. We recognize people in communities know what they need to be healthy, and that we, researchers, health care providers, and policy makers need to listen better and learn from them. We, specifically, have a lot to learn from people in communities when it comes to developing interventions to address pressing public health issues like health inequity.

Q. What is your biggest hope for HDI as director?
A. My greatest hope for HDI is that we can become the go to place for community driven research and that we can, together with community residents, influence system changes that contribute to the elimination of racial inequity in health and grow economic opportunity.

Q. What health disparities issues are most important to you right now?
A. All inequity is important to me, and I am specifically interested in efforts to address the impacts of racism on economic opportunity and health. However, when it comes prioritizing areas of focus our goal is to elevate health and social issues that are most important to people in communities who are impacted by the harmful effects of racism.

Q. What big project is next on the horizon for HDI?
A. HDI is working with the state agency Commission of Racial Equity for Public Health. We are currently launching a community-based research project to inform the commissions strategic planning process. We are contracting and training a team of residents from across the state as community research advisors to work with us on the design and implementation of an assessment. No research experience is required, only an interest in making change in the community to advance health equity. It has been exciting to see the level of interest and engagement from Connecticut residents. We screened 108 applications from Connecticut residents in areas highly impacted by racial inequity across the state. The positive response from community members has been just phenomenal! People in Connecticut clearly care about community health and health equity, and they are willing to get involved. We are excited to launch this research and action training program and to find more ways to support the involvement of residents in health equity research and action.

Q. When it comes to health disparities, how is Connecticut doing?
A. Racial inequity in Connecticut is pervasive across health, wealth, employment, and educational outcomes. So, in that sense Connecticut is no different than other states. However, Connecticut is rich in resources. The key is figuring out how to make sure all Connecticut residents have opportunities to benefit from the State’s resources. This will require rethinking how systems operate and unintended consequences that create significant barriers to opportunity. Health is much more than health care. We know that health is driven by social and economic factors, thus efforts to advance economic mobility and financial security are critical for advancing health.

Q. Why is youth engagement in our communities critical?
A. We know that patterns established in childhood and early adolescence impact health across the lifespan. Young people have a lot to offer when it comes to thinking about community health and well-being, yet we rarely engage them in community health efforts including for research and policy. This is a missed opportunity. There are many benefits to partnering with young people. When we partner with them, we can develop solutions that are meaningful for young people. There are also benefits for young people including increased college and career readiness, civic-mindedness, and interest in health careers to name a few. These can translate into benefits for the broader community over time. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the benefits to us as researchers, when we partner with young people, listening, learning, and engaging in power-sharing can enhance our perspective and the way we see the world too.

Sprague Martinez grew up in Southern New Hampshire receiving her B.A from the University of New Hampshire, M.A in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Rivier College, M.A and Ph.D. in Social Policy from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.

UConn School of Social Work Celebrates Class of 2024 Wed, 08 May 2024 12:47:11 +0000 The UConn School of Social Work (SSW) celebrated Commencement on Saturday, May 4, 2024 at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts. The Commencement speaker was Jodi Hill-Lilly, MSW, the recently appointed commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families, a longtime partner of the SSW.

The Class of 2024 included 157 graduates in total, including 135 receiving their Master of Social Work (MSW) degrees, 19 receiving their Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degrees and three Ph.D. graduates.

After marshals led the procession of students to their seats, Dean Laura Curran welcomed UConn President Radenka Maric, Commissioner Hill-Lilly, Associate Deans Scott Harding and Jennifer Manuel, the two student speakers, faculty, staff and students. Award-winning opera singer Miles Wilson-Toliver offered a soulful rendition of the National Anthem, followed by a Land Acknowledgement by Dean Curran. Professor and Zachs Chair Cristina-Mogro Wilson shared a moving message about the late Alex Gitterman, a longtime professor at the SSW and a legend in the field of social work.

In her message to graduates, Dean Curran noted that social work is a challenging profession yet one the graduates are well prepared to embrace. “We’re tasked with addressing some of the most complex and intractable social issues while maintaining a deep sense of empathy, compassion and our commitment to social justice,” she said. “We know that as social work students you’ve had many difficult conversations that have challenged the ways you think and you’ve learned to approach others with respect, compassion and empathy. Your ability to create bonds across differences is a core social work value.”

Student Voices

Each spring, two student speakers representing the bachelor’s and master’s degree programs offer their thoughts for fellow graduates. One speech is delivered in English; the other in Spanish. In his speech, BSW graduate Juan Torres noted that he and his fellow BSW classmates had invested “an average of 4,500 hours on this journey.” After sharing details about the personal obstacles he faced along the way to receiving his degree, Torres offered these encouraging words: “As we embark on the next chapter of our journey, let us carry with us the lessons learned, the friendships forged, and the unyielding determination to make a difference in the world.”

In her remarks, the MSW graduate speaker Sonia Aponte shared in Spanish how her journey to becoming a social worker started 25 years earlier when she left Puerto Rico to arrive in a place where the language and customs were quite different. But with support she overcame many challenges and encouraged graduates from all three degree programs to “recordemos que nuestras acciones, por pequeñas que sean, tienen el poder de provocar un cambio significativo y elevar a los necesitados,” which means “let us remember that our actions, no matter how small, have the power to bring about significant change and uplift those in need.”

Commencement Speaker on Superpowers and More

In her keynote address, Commissioner Hill-Lilly detailed four points about how the Husky graduates might use their new degrees. Her points included knowing their superpowers, or unique interpersonal gifts; being a trailblazer and trail “widener” by empowering others; being mindful of the types of people they keep in their personal lives; and taking care of themselves in order to care for others.

“Each of us brings unique interpersonal gifts to our world – gifts like patience, enthusiasm, creativity, laughter, encouragement and generosity,” Hill-Lilly said. “Superpowers are closely aligned with your passions. They are attributes that have been with you most of your life. It’s what you have been born to do and purposed to do.”

In encouraging graduates to be “trail wideners,” she recounted a time when while traveling by plane, she assisted a fellow passenger who was having a panic attack. “The woman asked me what I did for a living. I said, very proudly, I am a social worker,” Hill-Lilly recalled. “We do what we have to do. We blaze and widen the trails for others.”

Hill-Lilly ended her speech by breaking into the song “Rise Up,” by Andra Day:

As social workers… we rise up!
we rise like the day,
we rise up,
we rise unafraid,
we rise up
and we’ll do it a thousand times again.

We rise up
high like a wave,
we rise up,
in spite of the ache,
we rise up
and we’ll do it a thousand times again.

The keynote was followed by the presentation of BSW candidates, presentation and hooding of the MSW and doctoral candidates, and the conferral of degrees by President Maric.

The UConn School of Social Work was established in 1946 and graduated its first MSW student in 1948. It celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2023.

Celebrating UConn’s Class of 2024 Fri, 03 May 2024 12:30:15 +0000 In 1883, the very first commencement at what is now the University of Connecticut looked like this: six graduates, all male, received certificates rather than diplomas in a ceremony at Storrs Congregational Church presided over by J.M. Hubbard, a trustee from Middletown.

Things will look a bit different this May, some 141 years after that humble gathering.

In the newly launched website dedicated to this year’s graduates, you will meet Huskies who are veterans, Huskies who are philanthropists, Huskies who are already well into professional careers, Huskies who saw UConn as the pathway to a new life, and Huskies who are carrying on a family tradition of earning a UConn degree.

UConn students cheering in Gampel Pavilion.
Excellence is something that Huskies have become accustomed to (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

More than 8,000 degrees will be awarded to Huskies who have come from as far away as Malaysia and as close to home as Mansfield, their ranks full of doctors, nurses, dentists, teachers, Air Force officers, professional basketball players, engineers, entrepreneurs, attorneys, farmers, artists, social workers, pharmacists, chemists, biologists, journalists, and other things that J.M. Hubbard and his audience of six could have scarcely conceived all those years ago.

One thing hasn’t changed, though: the commitment to education for and by the public that rests at the heart of UConn’s mission.

The Class of 2024, having weathered the COVID-19 pandemic and a host of less dramatically disruptive challenges, strides forward in May to serve their towns, state, nation, and world. In big and small ways, in endeavors that will make headlines and in everyday acts of grace that will never be known by more than a handful of people, the newest UConn Husky alums will make the world a better place.

Congratulations, and remember: you may no longer be students today, but you’ll always be Huskies Forever.

UConn Celebrates Promotion and Tenure of 91 Faculty Wed, 17 Apr 2024 15:51:04 +0000 The University of Connecticut Office of the Provost is pleased to announce the award of promotion and/or tenure to 91 faculty across its multiple campuses.

Evaluations for promotion, tenure, and reappointment apply the highest standards of professional achievement in scholarship, teaching, and service for each faculty member evaluated. Applications for promotion and tenure are reviewed at the department level, school or college level, and finally at the Office of the Provost before recommendations are forwarded to the Board of Trustees.

This process involves significant work on the part of each faculty member, as well as assistance and support of colleagues and administrative staff who provide guidance and manage many of the logistics through each stage of the promotion and tenure cycle. It is a notable milestone for each faculty member awarded these promotions, as well as for their colleagues.

The listing of faculty promoted and/or granted tenure is listed below, organized by school, college, or other academic unit. Please join us in congratulating our colleagues on this momentous occasion.


Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources


Promotion To Professor

Jason Henderson, Plant Science and Landscape Architecture

Elaine Lee, Kinesiology

Charles Towe, Agriculture and Resource Economics


Promotion To Associate Professor

Neha Mishra, Pathobiology and Veterinary Sciences


Promotion To Associate Professor And Tenure

Sohyun Park, Plant Science and Landscape Architecture

Haiying Tao, Plant Science and Landscape Architecture


Promotion To Associate Professor In-Residence

Maryclaire Capetta, Kinesiology

Eleni Diakogeorgiou, Kinesiology


Promotion To Extension Professor

Thomas Worthley, Extension


Promotion To Associate Cooperative Extension Educator

Shuresh Ghimire, Extension




Promotion To Professor

Resul Cesur, Finance

Vishal Narayan, Marketing


Promotion To Associate Professor And Tenure

Stefan Hock, Marketing

Chrstina Kan, Marketing

Tao Lu, Operations and Information Management


Promotion To Associate Professor In-Residence

Alexander Amati, Finance




Promotion To Professor

Ali Bazzi, Electrical & Computer Engineering

Kay Wille, Civil & Environmental Engineering

Liang Zhang, Electrical & Computer Engineering


Promotion To Associate Professor And Tenure

Derek Aguiar, Computing

Necmi Biyikli, Electrical & Computer Engineering

Kristin Morgan, Biomedical Engineering

Sina Shahbazmohamadi, Biomedical Engineering

Xueju Wang, Materials Science & Engineering

Yuanyuan Zhu, Materials Science & Engineering

Yi Zhang, Biomedical Engineering


Tenure As Associate Professor

Shalabh Gupta, Electrical & Computer Engineering


Promotion To Professor In-Residence

Reza Sheikhi, Mechanical, Aerospace & Manufacturing Engineering


Fine Arts 


Promotion to Professor           
Solomiya Ivakhiv, Music


Promotion to Associate Professor and Tenure 

Jennifer Scapetis-Tycer, Dramatic Arts

Sophie Shao, Music

Alexander Woodward, Dramatic Arts




Promotion To Professor And Tenure

Jessica De Perio Wittman


Promotion To Clinical Professor

Mary Beattie


Promotion To Associate Clinical Professor

Ashley Armstrong

Rachel Reeves

Rachel Timm


Liberal Arts and Sciences


Promotion To Professor          

David Embrick, Sociology

Delia Furtado, Economics

Debarchana Ghosh, Geography

Julie Granger, Marine Sciences

Jason Hancock, Physics

Jie He, Chemistry

Nicholas Leadbeater, Chemistry

Marcus Rossberg, Philosophy

Beth Russell, Human Dev And Family Sciences

Michael Whitney, Marine Sciences

Sarah Willen, Anthropology

Yaowu Yuan, Ecology And Evolutionary Biology

Jing Zhao, Chemistry


Promotion To Associate Professor And Tenure

Dexter Gabriel, History

Aoife Heaslip, Molecular And Cell Biology

Sean Li, Mathematics

Daniel McCarron, Physics

Linnaea Ostroff, Physiology And Neurobiology

Alexandra Paxton, Psychological Sciences

Evan Perkoski, Political Science

Debapriya Sarkar, English

Ilya Sochnikov, Physics

Clay Tabor, Earth Sciences

Tracy Llanera, Philosophy

Xiang Chen, Geography


Tenure As Associate Professor         

Scott Wallace, Journalism


Promotion To Professor In-Residence     

Lisa Blansett, English

Michael Finiguerra, Ecology And Evolutionary Biology

Susan Herrick, Ecology And Evolutionary Biology

Sherry Zane, Women’s Gender And Sexuality Studies


Promotion To Associate Professor In-Residence

Jessica Dafhne Aguirre, Chemistry

Anne Basaran, Communication

Tianxu Chen, Economics

Sarah Decapua, English

Jeffrey Divino, Physiology And Neurobiology

Vindya Pathirana, Mathematics


Promotion To Clinical Professor     

Nicole Gallagher, Speech, Language, And Hearing Sciences


Promotion To Associate Clinical Professor

Kacie Wittke, Speech, Language, And Hearing Sciences


Promotion To Associate Research Professor     

Jamie Vaudrey, Marine Sciences




Promotion To Librarian 2
Thomas Lee, Academic Engagement


Promotion To Librarian 3
Roslyn Grandy, Academic Engagement
Edward Junhao Lim, Academic Engagement
Renee Walsh, Academic Engagement

Neag School of Education


Promotion to Professor

Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Curriculum and Instruction

Devin Kearns, Educational Psychology

Allison Lombardi, Educational Psychology

Bianca Montrosse-Moorhead, Educational Psychology

Jennie Weiner, Educational Leadership


Promotion to Associate Professor and Tenure   

Grace Player, Curriculum and Instruction



Promotion To Associate Professor and Tenure

Louise Reagan


Promotion to Associate Clinical Professor

Valarie Artigas

Denise Bourassa


Social Work


Promotion to Professor

Kathryn Libal

Q&A: Meet the School of Social Work Ph.D. Student Emily Loveland Tue, 16 Apr 2024 14:16:28 +0000 Emily Loveland is a Ph.D. candidate at the UConn School of Social Work (SSW). She teaches courses on Macro Practice and Human Rights and Social Work.

What is the topic of your dissertation?

A. My dissertation looks at SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, through a human rights lens, critically examining that program. Traditionally, I think SNAP policy is informed by issues of worth and worthiness, self-sufficiency and the rhetoric of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. I take a critical approach, bringing a human rights lens into it by talking to people who are directly impacted by food insecurity so that we can more closely align people’s experiences with the policies and programs that are meant to solve those challenges.

How does a human rights lens affect how you look at SNAP and food insecurity more generally?

A. Typically, when we look at policies in the United States, we use what I call a needs-based or a charity-based approach. What are your basic needs? With food, if people are not using SNAP, they are often using food pantries or soup kitchens to help make ends meet. That’s what I mean by a charity-based approach. A human rights approach stands in stark contrast to that by saying everyone has a right to food. It’s really a progressive contrast to the current way that we’re looking at policies and programs by saying food is both a basic need and something that everyone has a human right to.

It’s supplemented by what’s called the legal human rights instruments. There are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenants and international human rights principles. These are concepts – like universality – that support everyone’s right to adequate food or participation; that everyone who is affected by issues of food should be involved in the decision-making process around policies and programs related to securing the right to adequate food. That’s what my dissertation tries to do – bring folks who are affected by food insecurity to the table.

How are you conducting your research?

Headshot of School of Social Work Ph.D. candidate Emily Loveland
School of Social Work Ph.D. candidate Emily Loveland

A. It’s two-pronged: One piece is a human rights policy analysis, which contains a qualitative document review and also a quantitative secondary data analysis. The second prong is a case study design where I am conducting in-depth, semi-structured interviews with individuals who are eligible for SNAP but not using SNAP benefits, as well as individuals who are advocates or volunteers that assist with SNAP processing. That’s getting at that human rights principle of participation and getting folks who are directly affected by food insecurity involved in talking about how they might better envision achieving food security and economic security.

What is the state of food insecurity in Connecticut right now?

A. Food insecurity rates have varied substantially. According to Feeding America, in Connecticut, 1 in 10 individuals face hunger. Food insecurity increases and decreases with the economy. We’re facing an increase in economic instability right now, so we’re bound to see increased rates of food insecurity and SNAP use as well.

Do you have preliminary findings to share?

A. In terms of my human rights policy analysis, I found that states are able to implement a fair level of control over SNAP participants. In my qualitative document review I found repeated references to terms like “impose,” “allow,” “permit” and “eligible food,” which highlight how regulations make SNAP eligibility conditional.

From my case study design, I found that policies were really incongruent with people’s lived experiences. Specifically, people’s interactions with case workers were a bit fraught. Though not always, at times case workers were either lacking empathy or rude or even attempting to wield power over the participant. Advocates I interviewed – social workers or people working in nonprofit settings, like a soup kitchen or a food pantry – were a critical lifeline to accessing SNAP benefits because they help people navigate this really challenging social safety net.

What is the impact you hope to have with your findings?

A. I want to offer recommendations to the Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS), but I also want to investigate what’s going on with these policies and interactions with case workers. Are case workers shutting down because they don’t know how to apply these policies that are incongruent with people’s lived experiences? Perhaps instead of trying to interpret the policy so it best fits a person’s circumstance, case workers make the easiest choice.

Another factor I thought about was empathy interventions. Can you train eligibility workers at DSS on how to be more empathetic so that they can apply policies in a way that achieves the goals of an anti-hunger program? To that end, I think I would have to talk to eligibility case workers first to hear their perspectives regarding interactions with SNAP participants. For my next steps, I would like to work with eligibility staff to parse out what’s going on when they sit down with a SNAP applicant and try and apply these challenging policies to a person’s circumstances. Is it that we need to improve the role of empathy in these interactions or are other factors at play?

You are defending your dissertation this summer. What are your plans after UConn?

A. I’m actively on the academic job market. I plan to teach macro social work, thinking about policy and continuing this research. Wherever I go, I would love to replicate this work, talking to SNAP participants and case workers to see how we can improve these interactions.

If you were talking to a group of prospective Ph.D. students, what would you say about your experience at UConn?

A. I came back to UConn after earning my MSW in Policy Practice to pursue the Ph.D. program because I love the close-knit, collaborative environment. I found that the program was rigorous and collaborative, which is really unique for an R1 school. I can’t recommend it enough.

UConn School of Social Work Rises in 2024 U.S. News & World Report Rankings Tue, 09 Apr 2024 14:26:50 +0000 On April 9, U.S. News & World Report released its national rankings of graduate schools of social work, with the UConn School of Social Work (SSW) ranked at No. 28. That ranking, which is up from No. 36, puts the UConn SSW among the top 9% of graduate social work programs nationally.

With this ranking, the UConn SSW continues to lead graduate social work programs in Connecticut and be a top choice for students across the country.

“The UConn School of Social Work stands strong among graduate social work programs nationwide,” says Dean and Professor Laura Curran. “Building upon more than 75 years of history, we have a growing research portfolio, innovative academic programming, and long-standing partnerships that impact communities locally and globally.”

The U.S. News social work rankings were calculated and published in 2024, based on surveys in fall 2023 and early 2024. Those surveyed included 318 social work programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education Board of Accreditation.

The UConn SSW is the first public university in Connecticut to offer bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in social work, and its research doctorate is the only public social work Ph.D. program in the region. Areas of distinction include child and adolescent well-being, health and behavioral health, LGBTQ youth and families, aging, policy practice and community organizing, and global social work.

In 2023, the UConn SSW expanded its national footprint by welcoming Innovations Institute, an interdisciplinary, translational research center. The SSW is actively involved in a growing number of interdisciplinary collaborations within the University – including with UConn Health and the Gladstein Family Human Rights Institute – and has extensive collaborations with public and private human service agencies.

Earlier this year, the SSW launched a new fully Online MSW program to provide greater access to aspiring social workers across the state and region.

SSW graduates – more than 8,800 strong – play major roles in planning, administering, and providing social and mental health services in Connecticut, the region, and beyond.

In Memoriam: UConn School of Social Work Professor Emerita Ruth R. Martin Mon, 01 Apr 2024 17:09:46 +0000 Ruth R. Martin, a highly respected alum, former associate dean and professor emerita at the UConn School of Social (SSW), died on March 24, 2024, after a long illness.

Martin was born in Smoaks, South Carolina in 1930. Despite limited opportunities for African Americans to receive an education beyond high school in her state, she finished high school and later graduated from Tuskegee Institute with a bachelor’s degree.

She served as a welfare case worker on both coasts. After receiving her master’s degree in social work from UConn in 1970, Martin worked in Groton Public Schools for a decade. Later, she returned to UConn to earn a doctorate at the School of Education.

Martin started her career in academia at the University of South Florida in Tampa where she was a professor of social work. She returned to UConn again as a professor at the School of Social Work and later became an associate dean.

Edna Comer, a former associate professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the SSW, overlapped with Martin for a short period of time but developed a lifelong friendship. They both had the experience of becoming academics later in life after serving for years as social work practitioners. “She was very helpful to me in making that transition,” says Comer. “Often there were few sources of support in the academy for faculty of color, especially Blacks or women. Dr. Martin was instrumental in helping us to deal with our concerns and challenges. ”

Before retiring in 1999, Martin embarked on an ambitious goal to document the history of the SSW for its 50th anniversary. She organized an oral history project with the assistance of 27 of her students, who interviewed more than 40 individuals, including professors, deans, administrators, alumni, staff, and former professors and deans. The work culminated in a thorough and unique history that illuminates the evolution of the school and the field of social work.

“Working on an oral history of the UConn School of Social Work in time for the 50th anniversary was a privilege that allowed my students and I to learn and reflect on the differing perspectives that built the school and profession,” said Martin in 2023. “As an alum of SSW, I was able to appreciate my cohort’s contributions and the influence of the tumult of the 60s. The school has been a huge part of my journey.”

In addition to her textbook, Oral History in Social Work, perhaps one of the most significant of her contributions is a memoir she wrote with her daughter Vivian B. Martin, a journalism professor at Central Connecticut State University. The title of the book, Beatrice’s Ledger: Coming of Age in the Jim Crow South, refers to a ledger kept by Martin’s mother, Beatrice, that contained details about their family’s daily struggle to survive in Smoaks. A review says the memoir “weaves history, humor and family lore into a compelling narrative about coming of age as a Black woman in the Jim Crow South.”

Comer notes that Martin stayed in contact with colleagues over the years and remained invested in developments at the SSW years after her retirement. Martin was also a long-time member of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), serving as former NASW/CT board treasurer.

She is survived by her six children – Vivian B. Martin, Valerie R. Martin, Maxine C. Martin, Anthony F. Martin, Sonya L. Bornheimer (Michael) and Rutrell Yasin (Khadija) – and several grandchildren.

In Memoriam: UConn School of Social Work Professor Alex Gitterman Wed, 27 Mar 2024 13:30:52 +0000 Professor Alex Gitterman, a highly regarded member of the UConn School of Social Work faculty for more than 20 years, died on March 24, 2024.

Gitterman’s national reputation in the field of social work derived from his many publications and presentations in social work practice areas, including the life model, vulnerability and resilience, mutual aid, and social work education and supervision.

“The School of Social Work community was deeply saddened to hear of Professor Gitterman’s passing,” says Dean and Professor Laura Curran. “He was a beloved member of the faculty at UConn and he had an outsized impact on social work education and the profession more broadly.”

Gitterman graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree in 1960 before earning his Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from Hunter College School of Social Work two years later. He worked in social service agencies and at the City University of New York before earning his doctoral degree in education from Columbia University Teachers College in 1972, where he taught for more than 30 years.

In 1999, he joined the UConn School of Social Work as a visiting professor before becoming a full professor in 2000. At UConn, Gitterman taught courses in the Individuals, Groups and Families Practice concentration, micro foundation method, and comparative social work practice. In 2007, he was named Zachs professor and director of the Ph.D. program, a role he served in for eight years.

“He was the finest example of a social work faculty member who demonstrated equal zeal, commitment and accomplishments in social work scholarship, teaching, mentoring and professional engagement,” says Professor and Dean Emerita Nina Rovinelli Heller, who worked and collaborated with Gitterman during his two decades at the School.

Heller notes that Gitterman was also a prolific writer whose most recent book, The Life Model of Social Work Practice: Advances in Knowledge and Practice (Columbia University Press), is in its fourth printing and is still widely used in social work education. In addition to his published books and articles, Gitterman shared his expertise through presentations at several other schools of social work, educational institutions and professional organizations. He was also a consultant for a number of social agencies.

A beloved teacher and mentor, Gitterman prepared generations of social work practitioners and scholars across the country and globe, says Heller. “Whether in person or online, Alex created a learning environment characterized by warmth, intellectual rigor, mutual aid, and the fostering of both curiosity and professional identity among his students.”

Gitterman’s many contributions were recognized with prestigious awards, including the Significant Lifetime Achievement in Social Work Education Award from the Council on Social Work Education; a Lifetime Contribution Award from the International Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups, Inc.; and a Robert Wood Johnson Exemplary Publication Award, among others.

He is survived by his wife Naomi and two children Sharon and Daniel.

Social Work, CLAS Professors Co-Lead Effort to Promote a Policy Agenda for Latino and Puerto Rican Communities in Connecticut Thu, 07 Mar 2024 12:21:34 +0000 The seeds for the first Latino and Puerto Rican Policy Agenda Summit in Connecticut were planted during conversations in the fall of 2023 between UConn School of Social Work Professor Lisa Werkmeister Rozas and Charles Venator Santiago, an associate professor with appointments in UConn’s Department of Political Science and El Instituto: Institute of Latina/o, Caribbean, and Latin American Studies.

“I had some conversations with Charles regarding the Puerto Rican Studies Initiative and its collaboration with the Puerto Rican and Latin@ Studies Project at the School of Social Work,” says Werkmeister Rozas. “As we started to discuss the collaboration, we talked about the overall needs of the Latine community in Hartford and in Connecticut overall.”

Venator Santiago had also been having similar discussions with Werner Oyanadel, the Latino and Puerto Rican Policy Director for the Connecticut General Assembly’s Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity, and Opportunity (CWCSEO), about creating a policy agenda for the Puerto Rican and Latine communities. After the three met, Werkmeister Rozas suggested conducting listening sessions throughout the state with Spanish-speaking members of the community to gather data about key concerns and priorities.

The three leaders of an effort to shape a policy agenda for Latino and Puerto Rican residents of Connecticut.
Werner Oyanadel, School of Social Work Professor Lisa Werkmeister Rozas, and Associate Professor of Political Science Charles Venator Santiago are leading an effort to shape a policy agenda for Latino and Puerto Rican Connecticut residents (UConn School of Social Work Photo).

Tuning Into the Latine and Puerto Rican Communities

The first of several listening sessions, dubbed Tu Voz, Tu Influencia – which means “Your Voice, Your Influence” – took place in November 2023 in New London at the Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern CT, a nonprofit that advances Hispanic contributions to the state’s southeastern community. That session was followed by events in Hartford, UConn Waterbury, and in New Haven. More than 100 residents participated in these sessions.

During this time, the three co-organizers also planned the summit event, called “Building a Better Future: The Latino and Puerto Rican Policy Agenda Summit,” inviting local and state officials, including Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz. “We wanted it to take place before the beginning of the legislative session so that it could actually help guide the agenda building process,” says Werkmeister Rozas. State legislators and local municipal leaders were among the approximately 150 people in attendance.

During the daylong summit, speakers and panelists discussed a range of issues affecting Latine communities across the state, including housing; access to health and mental health; education; voting and civic engagement; and language and linguistic justice.

Venator Santiago pointed to the burdens of high rents and mortgages for Puerto Ricans who might spend up to half of their salaries in housing costs.

Language barriers linked all of the issues. “In the listening sessions, there were repeated concerns about educational disparities as a result of the language barrier, as well as difficulty accessing quality health and mental health care due to lack of Spanish-speaking providers or qualified translators. [Community members] often feel marginalized and powerless when navigating English-dominant systems and are often ignored, misinformed or misunderstood as a result of cultural imperialism embedded in all systems,” says Werkmeister Rozas.

Continuing the Conversations

Werkmeister Rozas, Venator Santiago, and Oyanadel will continue to collect data through listening sessions in other parts of the state. They are planning to host another summit in Fall 2024. The co-organizers have also applied for grant funding to support their research and policy-building efforts.

“We are very excited about the response and information gathered and plan to gather and share the recommendations that were obtained in the summit panel sessions, as well as the results from the listening sessions in a report,” Werkmeister Rozas adds. “We would also like to continue conversations with local and state legislators in terms of what might help them with building their own policy agendas.”

While the work continues, the summit was a notable step forward. “The Latino Summit has not only marked a significant milestone in our collective journey towards empowerment but also established a new benchmark for meaningful dialogue and action,” says Oyanadel, CWCSEO Latino & Puerto Rican Policy Director. “Through the unwavering dedication and passion of every participant, we have transformed aspirations into concrete legislative priorities. This achievement proves that together, we can create mechanisms for a future that both honors our rich heritage and addresses the challenges that lie ahead.”

Despite the fact that a majority of Latinos in Connecticut do not participate in politics, Venator Santiago hopes the summit was “an opportunity to begin a conversation on how to develop a collective agenda for the state.”

The summit event was highlighted in a report by NBC Connecticut.

The summit was supported by a number of partners at UConn and in Connecticut, including the CWCSEO, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, Latin Financial, the Latino Endowment Fund, as well as the SSW’s Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work. The co-organizers report will be published on Puerto Rican Studies Initiative website.

Cristina Wilson, Ph.D., appointed to the Zachs Chair in Social Work Wed, 28 Feb 2024 18:57:30 +0000 The University of Connecticut Board of Trustees has approved Cristina Wilson’s appointment to the Zachs Chair in Social Work. The Judith M. and Henry M. Zachs Chair in Social Work was created through a gift from the Zachs Family Foundation in 1999. The purpose of the Endowed Chair is to provide leadership of the School of Social Work’s Doctoral Program. The inaugural Chair of the Ph.D. program was appointed in 2002 and the most recent chair, Nina Heller, Ph.D., stepped down in Spring 2023. Wilson will assume the chaired position and directorship of the Doctoral Program in Fall 2024 for a three-year term.

Wilson is a nationally and internationally recognized researcher in the area of health disparities, with a specific emphasis on Latino communities. Her research has made significant contributions to improving the lives of Latino families by identifying modifiable factors associated with parenting outcomes and substance use prevention. Her work identifies distinct strengths of Latino fathers, family, culture, and parenting practices that can be applied in intervention and prevention efforts. Focused on culturally adapted interventions with Latino families, Wilson’s scholarship informs culturally responsive practices and education.

Wilson also served as Research Director at the UConn University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) from 2019 through 2021 where she oversaw a staff of emerging scholars and a $10 million research portfolio. In this role, she led research and the evaluation of interventions designed to promote the full inclusion of people with disabilities in education, work, and community life. She also oversaw training grants supporting emerging scholars and practitioners in this substantive area. Wilson is the author of 45 peer-reviewed articles as well as numerous book chapters and editorials. Over the course of her career, she has presented over 100 conference papers. Her research has received significant external funding support totaling over $23 million. These awards include, but are not limited to, federal support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Health Resources and Services Administration.

In academic year 2023-24, Wilson is serving as interim co-Director of the Ph.D. program. She regularly teaches classes in the social work research sequence in the School’s master’s and doctoral programs. She has mentored numerous doctoral students and has served as a major and associate dissertation advisor for numerous Ph.D. candidates. She is currently co-leading the implementation of curricular reform recommendations based on a recent external review of the program.

Wilson is a leader within academic social work. She was recently named Editor-in-Chief of Families in Society, a preeminent social work journal. Previously, she was an associate editor of the Journal of Social Work Education. She has served on several committees of the Council of Social Work Education, the profession’s educational accreditation body, as well as multiple committees of the National Hispanic Science Network.

Wilson has contributed to UConn throughout her tenure. These efforts include membership on the President’s Research Advisory Council (PRAC), serving as an elected representative to the University Senate, and participation on the Consumer Advisory Board for the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) at UCHC. In 2011, Wilson received the UConn Provost’s awards for Excellence in Public Engagement for work with the Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Project. She is a committed colleague at the School of Social Work and has supported the School through her participation as chair of the School’s Promotion and Tenure Review committee, Chairs of the Research Curriculum Committee, and as Director of the SSW Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Project, among other efforts.

UConn’s Campaign School for Social Workers Challenges Everyone Affected by Politics to Get Involved Wed, 28 Feb 2024 15:16:37 +0000 “Consider yourself asked” is the tagline and central message of the Campaign School for Social Workers, held this year on February 23 and 24 in Hartford. For two days every year, the Campaign School brings together students, social workers, faculty, and advocates with the goal of inviting them to engage in politics and campaigns as volunteers, advocates, and candidates.

“Politics can feel like an insiders’ game, so we work to give attendees the knowledge, skills, and confidence to participate. We want them to know they belong, and they are qualified to run for office,” says Tanya Rhodes Smith, director of The Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work at the UConn School of Social Work (SSW).

In a presidential election year like this one, national politics dominate the news and social media. But decisions that are made at the state and local level have just as much impact—if not more—on the daily lives of citizens. “Many issues like clean water, education, economic development, policing and safety, environmental policy, and zoning are decided at the local level,” she adds.

“Healthy democracies foster healthy people. When more people participate in civic life through voting and political engagement, there are significant benefits to communities and individuals, including better outcomes in areas like employment, education, and health,” Rhodes Smith says. Through her work as Humphreys Institute director and an instructor in residence at UConn SSW, she examines voting as a social determinant of health, collaborates on research related to political participation and efficacy, and leads programs like the Campaign School for Social Workers that work to bring more people into civic life.

What started as a small training in 1996 now brings together more than 120 students, social workers, and faculty from across the country as well as internationally. According to Rhodes Smith, more than a dozen schools, including Stonybrook University, Howard University, Michigan State University, the University of Tennessee, the University of Houston, and the University of Dusseldorf in Germany, send cohorts of students every year. This year, attendees represented 16 states and 25 colleges and universities. The Campaign School also welcomed UConn students, including from UConn’s Leadership Legacy Experience program, the School of Public Policy, and the new Civic Leadership Program through UConn’s Office of Engagement.

Political Social Work

The Humphreys Institute was founded in 1995 to increase the political participation and power of social workers, as well as the communities they serve. This vision of Nancy A. Humphreys, a former dean at UConn SSW, is a driving force behind the Campaign School, which is in its 28th year. At this year’s event, UConn SSW Dean Laura Curran welcomed participants and acknowledged the lasting legacy of Humphreys.

Panelists at the UConn School of Social Work's Campaign School discuss topics related to political campaigning.
Katrina Huff-Larmond, MSW, City Council member in Randolph, Massachusetts; Bianca Shinn, MS, MPH, League of Women State Board Member; former Bridgeport mayoral candidate Lamond Daniels, LCSW; and Ayesha Clarke ’06 (CLAS) ’18 MSW, executive director of Health Equity Solutions (Lianne Gumtang/UConn Photo)

In her opening remarks, Rhodes Smith highlighted that social work was founded as a political profession. The first woman elected to Congress, Jeanette Rankin, the first female Cabinet Secretary, Frances Perkins, and the longest serving female Senator, Barbara Mikulski were all social workers. “Social work in Connecticut is different than in most other states,” said Rhodes Smith. “When we walk into our state Capitol, it’s social workers we see throughout the building. We have eight elected social workers in the state legislature, which is the highest of any other state, and many more who serve on school boards, city councils and other offices.”

Day One of Campaign School 2024 focused on the nuts and bolts of electoral campaigns, including messaging, fundraising, and networking.  “The skills you will learn today apply to any leadership practice,” said Kate Coyne-McCoy, a lead trainer on Friday. Coyne-McCoy is a social worker who has trained more than 9,000 individuals to run for elected office, is a former candidate for Congress, and leader of the Harvard Kennedy School’s From Harvard Square to the White House Program.

Throughout the two days, the Campaign School brought together elected officials and former candidates for important conversations about what it’s really like to work on a campaign, serve in office, and navigate barriers as people of color or other historically marginalized individuals. Rhodes Smith pointed out that nearly every one of the panelists is a social worker: “The Campaign School is taught through the lens of social work’s professional values and Code of Ethics. This rises above party politics. We work to show them how their professional and personal values can help them navigate in a system that will challenge them every day.”

Connecticut State Rep. Anne Hughes, D-135th District (Easton, Redding, Weston), and Franklin Perry II, chief of staff for the Connecticut House Democrats, joined Coyne-McCoy to tackle the question, “What’s it really like on a campaign?” Perry, who is a social worker and lawyer, said “…a social work degree is a degree that touches every single industry and that ranges from health care to education to government to the law.” He shared a riveting story about how his longtime friend and colleague, Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-1st District (Hartford), won his first race by just two votes.

During the panel Hughes recalled how she first got into politics after 2016. “We’re social workers,” she said. “We’re comfortable knocking on people’s doors.” Despite being a first-time campaigner, she flipped a seat in her district and has held office ever since.

Social Work and Democracy

On Day Two, State Rep. Kai Belton, MSW, D-100th District (Middletown); New York Duchess County legislators Cristin McCarthy-Vahey, MSW, and Barrington Atkins, MSW; and Bethany Board of Education member Shannon Lane ’09 Ph.D., joined a morning panel called “Inside the Studio.” The panelists shared how they use their professional identities, training, values, and ethics to shape their agendas and lead. That discussion was moderated by MSW student Emmy Franklin and Bridgeport Board of Education member Jennifer Perez, who attended the Campaign School last year.

Another theme of the Campaign School is the importance of representation in politics. “Democracy reflects the priorities of those who participate, so it matters who votes, who is elected to office, who shapes policy, and who is counted,” says Rhodes Smith.

All the attendees of the 2024 Campaign School pose together for a group photo.
The attendees of this year’s Campaign School (Lianne Gumtang/UConn Photo).

Social workers are trained to look around to see who is missing from circles of power. Rhodes Smith points out that one of the most important and powerful discussions, “Representation is Power,” centered those voices and their experiences. Ayesha Clarke ’06 (CLAS) ’18 MSW, executive director of Health Equity Solutions, moderated the discussion with League of Women State Board Member Bianca Shinn, MS, MPH; former Bridgeport mayoral candidate Lamond Daniels, LCSW; and Katrina Huff-Larmond, MSW, City Council member in Randolph, Massachusetts, about how they navigate issues of racism and difference in politics, and how social workers can build and support a more representative, inclusive and responsive democracy.

These issues could not be more important this election year. The growth and impact of the Campaign School – with more than 2,600 alumni from across the country and globe – are evident in the increasing number of Campaign School veterans who have gone on to serve as elected officials, leaders, advocates, and organizers.

“Social workers are beautifully interwoven within the fabric of society in ways I had never considered. The Campaign School represented a chance for me to continue to explore my social work identity, commitment to social justice, and belief in being a change agent – now within the political arena,” said Yvonne Mbewe, LCSW, a Ph.D. student at UConn SSW and a Civic Leadership Program participant.

To date, more than 15 schools of social work and chapters of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) have brought the Campaign School for Social Workers to their universities, including The Ohio State University and University of North Carolina Wilmington. There are two more Campaign Schools planned for March, one hosted by the University of Tennessee and another hosted by a consortium of 11 schools and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)-PA in the Philadelphia area.

The event was supported by Fairfield County’s Community Foundation Fund for Women and Girls, the Connecticut Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, and Jo Nol.


Q&A: Meet the School of Social Work Ph.D. Student Alberto Cifuentes, Jr. Wed, 14 Feb 2024 15:48:55 +0000 Alberto Cifuentes, Jr. is a Ph.D. candidate at the UConn School of Social Work (SSW). He teaches macro social work courses, including Human Oppression and Analysis of Social Welfare Policy.

Describe the topic of your dissertation.

A. My research studies how male sex workers internalize stigma, process stigma, and contradict or counteract it. Stigma is an under-researched area, and male sex work itself is under-studied. I think there can be more done to make sure that stigma research is conducted whether that’s through more community-engaged research or quantitative and qualitative research.

How did you come to focus on this topic?

A. During my graduate work, for my MSW at the UConn School of Social Work, I was studying HIV and STI prevention. I coordinated a “Stop the Stigma” series where I led programming for people who are living with HIV to come and talk about their experiences. I led a conversation about PrEP, which is a pill that you take once daily to reduce the risk of HIV.

I noticed that sex workers were not represented in the HIV prevention literature. They were a high-risk population but they were not really studied. I wanted to fill that gap. I wanted to improve the health outcomes of sex workers because I felt that it was a dereliction of research duty to ignore the impact that stigma was having on the sex work population.

What are some of the issues facing male sex workers?

Headshot of School of Social Work Ph.D. Alberto Cifuentes, Jr.
School of Social Work Ph.D. Candidate Alberto Cifuentes, Jr.

A. They face this narrative that they all have risky sex, that none of them have safe sex. I think that’s a destructive narrative because it relegates male sex workers to [being perceived as] “vectors of disease,” stereotyped as all having HIV, that they don’t use condoms or PrEP. This false narrative should be challenged in the research.

We don’t typically think of male sex workers as being victims of abuse and violence. I think it’s important to recognize that male sex workers can be subjected to harassment and that male sex workers face issues regarding economics. They are often relegated to the streets, and they don’t have enough aid when it comes to housing and health care. We also believe that male sex workers only engage in their work in isolation and that they don’t engage with other sex workers to help improve their health outcomes. But male sex workers do engage in community work, and I think male sex workers are doing a lot to increase their political participation and involvement.

How are you conducting your research?

A. I’m taking a mixed methods approach. I did a national, Internet-based survey of 250 male sex workers. Most of them were from New York City, but there were also participants from L.A., Chicago, and other cities. I used snowball sampling, which is when people within a network recruit by word of mouth. To recruit for my study, I used Facebook and X primarily, and I posted ads with agencies that provided assistance to male sex workers.

For my qualitative study, I conducted semi-structured interviews that were about an hour in length. I asked questions about how participants experienced stigma. I also asked them about some of the ways they coped with stigma and how they challenged it in their everyday lives. Through Facebook and X, I was able to get 22 participants for that part of the study.

Do you have preliminary findings that you could share?

A. For the survey, I looked at different forms of stigma and the impact they had on substance use outcomes. I found that my hypothesis was correct: that stigma had negative effects on substance use, increasing substance use among male sex workers. There was a direct relationship between them. I also looked at different moderators or protective factors, such as social identity, activist orientation, and social support, and whether those factors had any effects on substance use.

While activist orientation and social support did not have significant effects on substance use, social identity was often a moderating factor. Social identity refers to the strength of their identity being part of a group. When social identity was low, rates of substance use were higher. That was a really interesting finding for me.

For the qualitative study, I found that male sex workers experienced multiple forms of stigma. Most of them experienced some form of discrimination; that was the most pervasive form of stigma among participants.

What else did you learn?

A. Male sex workers use a lot of techniques to negotiate stigma. They used what’s called information control or selective disclosure where they only disclosed that they were sex workers to a select few so that they didn’t have to fear being discriminated against. They also used what’s called ‘reframing the narrative,’ where they framed sex work as legitimate work. They also built community, and that sense of community helped them cope with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

What do you hope to do with these findings? 

A. I’m hoping this research will lead to better interventions to help sex workers, male sex workers specifically, and that this will result in better biomedical and behavioral interventions to not only help prevent substance misuse but also help male sex workers cope with and resist the negative effects of stigma. I’m hoping that I can do more community-based participatory research where I can involve male sex workers in their own liberation. They can become co-researchers and be involved in the data collection and analysis, and they can have more of a voice in how the research is conducted.

Once I have my Ph.D., I’m also hoping that we can change policy and decriminalize sex work. Decriminalization of sex work has been shown to increase health outcomes for sex workers in countries like New Zealand. I think that once we advocate for policies that improve the health outcomes of sex workers, we can do a lot to decrease the effects of stigmatization.

What would you say to prospective Ph.D. students about your experience at the School of Social Work?

A. The UConn SSW has a really supportive, nurturing atmosphere. I started off in the program with a lot of insecurities, a lot of doubts and I was in a cohort of one. But my fellow students took me under their wing, and they really helped me feel less of that imposter syndrome that people often get in these programs – like they don’t belong. My classmates and the faculty were helpful and supportive in terms of lessening these feelings of insecurity and doubt. In this environment, I was encouraged to pursue my research interests, even if they were outside the box. Even though no one was doing the research I was doing, I could draw from the skills of the expert faculty and collaborate with others.

UConn School of Social Work Launches Fully Online and Part-time Master’s Degree Program Wed, 31 Jan 2024 12:15:33 +0000 Social workers are in demand in Connecticut and across the country due to a rising need for clinical practice providers in mental health, substance misuse, and child and adolescent well-being.

To ensure access and affordability to more individuals who have a passion for helping others and promoting social justice for individuals, families, and communities, UConn School of Social Work (SSW) has launched a new Online MSW program.

The program is fully online and part-time to accommodate the schedules of busy students as well as individuals working in social service and related fields who want to advance their careers. It also offers a competitive tuition rate for out-of-state students who want a UConn degree without having to move or commute long distances.

“Our new Online MSW will provide the same rigorous education and training as the on-campus program for students who want to attend our top-ranked social work graduate program,” says Dean and Professor Laura Curran. The UConn SSW is ranked in the top 12% of graduate social work programs nationally by U.S. News and World Report, making it the number one option in Connecticut.

Employment of social workers was projected to grow 7% from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The new Online MSW program, which will start in Fall 2024, is accepting applications now.

Designed to provide comprehensive education and training, UConn’s Online MSW combines theoretical knowledge with extensive hands-on experience through field internships with the School’s more than 250 agency and community partners.

Students will be taught and mentored by nationally recognized faculty experts who generate impactful research and scholarship in increasingly critical areas, such as aging, child and adolescent well-being, immigrant and refugee rights, health and behavioral health, and LGBTQ+ youth and families.

“The Online MSW curriculum mirrors the high-quality teaching and field experiences of our on-campus program, with the flexibility that part-time students need to complete their degrees,” says Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Scott Harding.

With a deep commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism, UConn’s MSW program prepares graduates to address complex social issues and advocate for positive systemic change for marginalized communities.

Alumni leave the program with a wide range of career options available to them, including as mental health counselors, medical social workers, school social workers, geriatric social workers, and as addiction and substance use counselors, among others.

“The launch of the new online MSW program reflects UConn’s commitment to provide accessible, high-quality education to a diverse population with different needs. The flexibility afforded by an online modality will greatly benefit students and is made possible by the innovative leadership and faculty of the School of Social Work,” says Anne D’Alleva, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs.


For more information about the Online MSW program and how to apply by Feb. 15, please visit:



Kesem: Camp, Care, and Connections for Kids Impacted by a Parent’s Cancer Thu, 21 Dec 2023 12:30:42 +0000 Camp Kesem is like any other summer camp: young adult counselors lead younger campers in a fun-filled week of outdoor games, arts and crafts, and campfire nights, capped off with a group talent show. 

But there are a few things that set this camp apart: it is provided completely free of charge; it is run entirely by volunteer college student teams; and all the campers have been impacted by a parent or primary caregiver’s cancer diagnosis. 

The nationwide organization Kesem was launched in 2002 with a goal of providing fun, community, and normalcy to children experiencing a parent’s cancer. The summer camp is its flagship program, but the organization has since expanded to include year-round support structures, like care packages and activity days. 

UConn’s Kesem chapter was founded in 2020 by Nathan Pérez-Espitia ‘22 (CLAS). Pérez-Espitia participated in Yale’s Kesem chapter in high school, in the wake of his mother’s cancer diagnosis.  

“It gave him motivation; it made him feel like a regular, normal kid who could have fun despite the illness of his mother, and gave him a sense of purpose,” recalls Catina Caban-Owen, Pérez-Espitia’s great aunt, who is an adjunct professor at the UConn School of Social Work. 

Pérez-Espitia lost his mother to cancer during his sophomore year of high school. When he got to UConn, he was determined to start a new Kesem chapter, which would increase the number of kids in the region who could access Kesem’s vital resources. 

Students and counselors throw colorful powder at each other.
Fun outdoor activities color kids’ experience at Camp Kesem — like this game of tag with rainbow powders. (Courtesy of Megan LeMay)

Getting Off the Ground

The first attempt was an uphill battle, he recalls. In order to launch a new Kesem chapter, applicants must demonstrate community buy-in through a local fundraising and voting campaign. As a first-year student who was commuting to Storrs from Willimantic without a car, Pérez-Espitia had had little opportunity to establish the grassroots network he would need to draw on. 

“But I knew, like in my head, I have four years here — I’m going to make it happen,” he says. 

Learning from the previous year’s difficulties, Pérez-Espitia mounted a bigger and better campaign as a sophomore. He booked a table near the entrance of the Homer Babbidge Library for 10 hours every day, which was constantly staffed with volunteers who would tell visitors about Kesem and help them cast their vote for the UConn chapter online. 

Organizing also took place at favorite local pub Ted’s, in crowded lecture halls where Pérez-Espitia addressed the student body, and on social media. Enterprising volunteers papered the Storrs campus with flyers and cold-approached other students to spread the word. 

“We did have a multitude of community support. It was beautiful to see,” Pérez-Espitia says. “I’m going to be forever grateful to the UConn community and to the Willimantic community for coming out and getting it done. It’s still surreal to me, even three years out.” 

The fledgling UConn Kesem chapter hosted its first camp virtually in 2021, with about twelve campers. 2022 saw UConn’s first in-person camp, in partnership with Kesem Rhode Island (which will continue for this year’s camp), with a total of ten campers. 

“It ended up being such a magical week, and one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever been a part of,” says Megan LeMay ‘24 (CLAS), UConn Kesem codirector. “It felt like a big family throughout the whole week.” 

A student places a hand-decorated paper bag luminary on the ground next to others.
Campers create luminaries, decorating them with their camp names. (Courtesy of Megan LeMay)

Camp Traditions

Campers stayed in cabins, rode paddleboards and kayaks, played gaga ball, created friendship bracelets and luminaries, and sang under the stars.  

In a tiny twist on the traditional summer camp template, the children were also invited to participate in one afternoon of “Empowerment,” a guided group reflection on the feelings brought up by their family member’s cancer. The session began by passing around a ball of yarn and twisting it around each camper’s wrist — symbolizing the common “thread” among all of them — with each turn allowing the attendants to express their own feelings as they spoke about their experiences. 

The camp team works hard to create a fun, family-like atmosphere, where campers have the option to unburden themselves from the stress and grief of living with a parent’s cancer, or actively engage with it and process these feelings alongside others with similar experiences. Nobody at camp uses their real names — even the counselors choose aliases for the week — which allows for a conscious break from everyday life. 

“It’s not only a tradition, but it allows us to be whomever we want,” explains Caban-Owen, who volunteers as a mental health professional at camp and goes by the name “WolfMina.” “And it provides not only a fun way to address each other, but also privacy and confidentiality.” 

LeMay becomes “Casper” (like the friendly ghost) at camp. Gitte Joergensen, a research associate in the department of psychology at UConn, is known as “Spooky.”  

Like Caban-Owen, Joergensen volunteers as a mental health professional and comes to Kesem with deep personal connections to the issue, as a cancer survivor who has also lost family to cancer. 

“As soon as I read about the program, I knew that I needed to volunteer,” Joergensen says. “I don’t have children myself, but I’m close to my sister’s kids, who were 10 and 12 when she died of breast cancer. This was in Denmark, where I’m originally from, and unfortunately there was not much support for them there. However, if they had been given the opportunity to attend something like Camp Kesem it would have been invaluable at the time.” 

Three people sit in a room with a colorful mural of a campfire in the background, laughing and tying friendship bracelets.
Kesem campers work on arts & crafts indoors. (Courtesy of Megan LeMay)

“A Cause Close to My Heart”

According to Kesem’s FY22 annual report, 98% of parents felt that their child was positively impacted by Camp Kesem, and 96% credit Kesem with directly improving their child’s (and their own) mental health. In addition to the impacts on campers, Kesem also creates an opportunity for the volunteer and professional teams to join a community and do work they can feel good about. 

“Kesem is really just a cause close to my heart,” says Abigail “A2” Amara ‘26 (CLAS), UConn Kesem’s outreach coordinator. “About two weeks before I moved to UConn, my mom was diagnosed with stage three cancer. Moving to school and just not knowing how to grasp it, not being able to be near her, was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with.” 

Amara came onboard the organization earlier this year and is looking forward to experiencing her first camp this summer. So far, she says, she has enjoyed coordinating events like Friends and Family Day, where campers got to participate in a day of fun activities (like pumpkin painting) at UConn’s Storrs campus. 

“I just like seeing all the families, and seeing all the kids and just connecting with them has made me so, so, so, excited,” Amara says. “It’s a way to continue this journey. I really wanted to be on the outreach board because, personally, I know how to talk about these things and be sensitive, and just be super empathetic to everyone’s situation.” 

While many of the volunteers who make Kesem possible have had their own family experiences with cancer, Joergensen emphasizes that this is not a prerequisite for getting involved. 

“This is open to anybody,” she says. “People sometimes feel like they need to make excuses for wanting to get involved. But I say, if you want to help, help! We have enough tragedy already.” 


UConn Kesem hosts fundraising events throughout the year and is always looking for more volunteers, including UConn students and community members. Those interested can visit the group’s Facebook page or email for more information. 

Study Finds Young Women of Color in Hartford Use Social Media to Navigate Relationships and Meet Developmental Needs Tue, 28 Nov 2023 12:25:20 +0000 The pervasiveness of social media has transformed how teens communicate and connect with their peers. Research suggests that it can be harmful for teen girls in particular, exposing them to unrealistic beauty standards, eating disorders, and cyberbullying.

Yet a study on gender and social media, led by School of Social Work (SSW) researchers, found that girls and young women of color in Hartford use social media in nuanced ways to meet their developmental needs, to enhance their well-being, and to resist violence.

“The study centered girls’ own voices to examine how young women of color living in marginalized neighborhoods perceive, manage, and make meaning of social media threats and conflict,” says Ph.D. candidate Maritza Vasquez Reyes, who was first author on a paper that drew on data from Associate Professor Caitlin Elsaesser’s research lab.

The study, published in the Journal of Youth Studies, stems from a longtime collaboration between Elsaesser and COMPASS Youth Collaborative in Hartford, where researchers recruited 41 mostly Black and Latino/a/e adolescents from Hartford neighborhoods with high levels of violence. More than half, 59%, were female and 42% were male. The youth completed questionnaires and participated in four focus groups at UConn.

During the focus groups, researchers asked the teens about their perceptions of online conflict, whether those conflicts led to in-person violence, and what strategies youth used to de-escalate conflict. Social media “is a key setting where youth form their identities, navigate relationships, and see those relationships grow as well,” Vasquez Reyes explains. “Given that the youth use the platforms so often, it’s also the place where some conflicts occur, or at least get initiated, and some of those conflicts escalate to offline violence.”

The Findings

A body of research has suggested that social media can amplify conflict and lead to violence. However, these studies have mostly relied on boys’ accounts. Through the focus group interviews with girls and boys, the researchers found that experiences of social media and conflict differed by gender. Both girls and boys used social media daily, but girls were more likely to be among heavy users: 53% of boys used social media up to three hours per day, but 63% of girls used social media more than nine hours per day.

In the study, some youth dismissed girls’ involvement in social media as shallow, focused on topics like appearance or dating relationships. But looking at specific accounts of conflict revealed important reasons girls engaged in social media.

Girls were using social media to cultivate their reputation – not simply their body image – and to choose whether or not to engage in conflict. One exchange illustrates the deep desire to be “seen” and “heard” online.

Sonia: People do it just to do it.

Hannah: People just want to be seen.

Sonia: They just want to be heard.

Hannah: Then they get ducky, ducky.

Sonia: Some people do want to fight, and some people just do it just to be seen.

“Some of them candidly said, what we really want is just to be seen and heard,” says Vasquez Reyes. “And that was very powerful to listen to them say that because, in reality, if you think about it, being seen and being heard is such a basic human need for all of us.”

The teen girls’ narratives also suggest they used social media platforms to reflect on themselves and the role of social media in their lives. One participant shared:

We should just all be happy people and try to make social media a good thing again because

it was really refreshing when social media wasn’t seen as such a monster in people’s life. Even,

I don’t know how to explain it, I just think that everybody should try to re-evaluate themselves,

including me. Stop trying to point fingers and put your pride aside and try to re-evaluate

yourself so that we can make society and social media a positive, happy place again. 


What the Results Mean

The researchers found that girls in Hartford were not passive or simply “shallow” consumers of social media but that they in fact had a complex and nuanced approach to social media as a force in their lives.

“Social media allows girls to connect with their peers and friends, to nurture and observe the growth of these relationships, and to work out issues in those relationships,” Vasquez Reyes notes.

While the girls did sometimes choose to engage in conflict on social media, it was often for the purpose of managing relationships and protecting their dignity and reputations. The research team also found that girls would exercise their agency to resist social media conflict as well.

Given the findings, Vasquez Reyes and Elsaesser highlight the importance for violence prevention researchers to bring a critical lens where youth may be reproducing negative stereotypes about girls. Furthermore, Vasquez Reyes and Elsaesser suggest that strategies to prevent social media conflict from escalating into real violence should include partnering with youth. One strategy could be using research to advocate and pressure social media platforms to provide more security features to enhance positive online experiences for youth.

Another take-home lesson from the study is that teachers, social workers, and other professionals who work with teens have a role to play in reducing online conflict and off-line violence. These adults can help youth better process and handle their responses to online slights or threats.

“We know from our previous work that social media plays such an important role in youth’s wellbeing – or their harm,” says Elsaesser. “Vasquez Reyes’ study highlights the importance of understanding specifically how social media conflict is experienced by girls.” The researchers also emphasized that violence is not ultimately caused by social media but rather the structural violence youth face in their communities.

The study calls attention to the importance of collaborating with youth, particularly girls of color, to understand how issues such as respect and strength are communicated online. “The girls, we found, are key experts on the role social media plays in violence and have insights to contribute on how to prevent violence. It is critical that we continue to hear their voices,” the researchers note.

InCHIP Seeds New Projects Aimed at Improving Human Health Tue, 07 Nov 2023 12:01:20 +0000 The UConn Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP), a University-wide multidisciplinary public health research institute, has seeded seven innovative pilot studies that aim to address public and human health concerns consistent with UConn and InCHIP’s missions.

InCHIP seed grants are internal funding opportunities that support pilot work that leads to a future external grant application in human health. InCHIP seeded $137,719 in total costs. The awards ranged from $10,000 to $25,000.

“Congratulations to InCHIP Seed Grant recipients. These awards reflect InCHIP’s mission to foster interdisciplinary research that improves the health and well-being of individuals and communities in Connecticut, the U.S., and across the globe,” says Tricia Leahey, Director of InCHIP.

For the 2023 fiscal year, InCHIP launched two new funding mechanisms to address college student mental health and U.S. health disparities. InCHIP also offered its traditional faculty seed grant.

InCHIP’s seed grants in college student mental health support pilot work aiming to support and improve the mental health of young adults ages 18 to 24. For many students and young adults, this developmental period can be laden with stress and limited resources.

This opportunity funded two projects:

  • Developing a Mindfulness Intervention for Undergraduate Nursing Students’ Mental Health and Resilience
    • Natalie J. Shook, Professor, School of Nursing
    • Katherine Bernier Carney, Assistant Professor, School of Nursing
  • Creating a Socially Engaged Mindfulness-Based Intervention: Enhancing Social Work Students’ Capacity for Wellbeing and Social Action
    • Caitlin Elsaesser, Associate Professor, School of Social Work; Gio Iacono, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work
    • Co-PIs: Kim Gans, Professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, InCHIP; Jolaade Kalinowski, Assistant Professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies; Lisa Werkmeister-Rozas, Associate Professor, School of Social Work; Vamsi Koneru, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry

Seed grants addressing U.S. health disparities aim to support projects that attempt to improve or mitigate the impact of health disparities. Health disparity populations in the U.S. include racial/ethnic minorities, those with immigrant/migrant/refugee status, LGBTQ+ identities, women, and low socioeconomic status.

This mechanism supported the following projects:

  • A Proof-of-Concept Trial of a Social Media Delivered HPV Vaccination Intervention in Sexual Minority Women
    • Sherry Pagoto, Director, Center for mHealth and Social Media; Professor, Department of Allied Health Sciences
    • Co-PIs: Roman Shrestha, Assistant Professor, Department of Allied Health Sciences; Lindsay Palmer, Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School
  • Feasibility of Mindful Yoga for Sex and Gender Minorities to Bolster Young Adults’ Wellbeing (the SAGE study): A Randomized Controlled Trial
    • Crystal Park, Professor, Psychological Sciences
    • Beth Russell, Co-Director, Collaboratory on School and Child Health; Associate Professor, Human Development and Family Sciences
  • Developing Activity-Based Retail Food Environment Measures as a Policy-Relevant Tool to Address Dietary Health Disparities
    • Xiang (Peter) Chen, Assistant Professor, Geography

Faculty seed grants are available to InCHIP network members who are faculty at UConn Storrs, UConn Health, and the regional campuses for pilot work relating to human health and wellbeing. There were two projects that were awarded funding through this grant:

  • Syndemic Analysis of HIV and Cardiovascular Diseases in Urban South Africa
    • Nicola Bulled, Assistant Research Professor, InCHIP
    • Co-PIs: Samanta Lalla-Edward, Ezintsha, University of Witwatersrand; Eustasius Musenge, Biostatistics, University of Witwatersrand
  • Evaluating Readiness to Provide HIV Prevention Care Among Healthcare Providers in Sao Paulo, Brazil
    • Pablo Kokay Valente, Assistant Professor, Department of Allied Health Sciences
    • Co-PIs: Ricardo Helbert Bammann, Instituto de Infectologia Emilio Ribas; Anna Christina Nunes D’Ambrosio, Instituto de Infectologia Emilio Ribas; Irene Walter de Freitas, Instituto de Infectologia Emilio Ribas

InCHIP research funds are awarded through a panel review process like the National Institutes of Health’s approach. There is both a grant mentoring component and reviewer mentoring process for junior reviewers. Faculty could apply for funding in four categories: UConn faculty; college student mental health; mid-career development funds; rolling seed grants to develop interdisciplinary research teams.

InCHIP has opened the next round of Seed Grants for UConn Faulty. This opportunity will fund four to five pilot projects this academic year. Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis during the fall semester through November 17, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. and the application portal will re-open in January 2024. The spring semester deadline will be April 19, 2024 at 11:59 p.m.

To encourage investigation into how the environment impacts human health and strengthen community-academia partnerships, InCHIP launched two new seed grant opportunities.

InCHIP’s Community-Engaged Health Research Seed Grant will award up to $10,000 for UConn faculty pursuing a pilot study that seeks to address a need identified by or in collaboration with a community stakeholder.

The Seed Grant for Pilot Studies in Environmental Health will provide $5,000 to $10,000 for up to two projects that examine how climate change, exposure to environmentally associated diseases or substances, and hazardous environments affect health and policies that could prevent or mitigate these impacts.


Additional information about InCHIP’s internal funding opportunities is available here.

Dr. Linda Sprague Martinez Named Director of the Health Disparities Institute at UConn Health Thu, 02 Nov 2023 18:58:40 +0000 Dr. Linda Sprague Martinez  is UConn Health and UConn School of Medicine’s new director of the Health Disparities Institute at UConn Health. She is also newly appointed as an affiliate faculty member of the UConn School of Social Work.

She joins from Boston University where she served as associate professor and former chair of the Macro Department at the Boston University School of Social Work and a faculty affiliate with the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Policy and Research. At Boston University, she taught community planning, assessment, and analysis as well as interventions to advance health equity and applied community engaged research. In addition, she was co-director of the Boston University NIH-funded Clinical Translational Science Institute Community Engagement Program at the Boston University School of Medicine.

“We are excited to welcome Dr. Sprague Martinez to Connecticut and UConn School of Medicine in her leadership role as director of our dedicated Health Disparities Institute at UConn Health,” shared Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of the School of Medicine and Interim CEO of UConn Health. “Having formerly worked in municipal and state governance, and as an adolescent mental health provider, she brings to UConn Health and the Greater Hartford Area practical expertise in community collaborations designed to engage diverse communities of color and low-income residents in community planning and intervention development.”

Sprague Martinez is past recipient of Boston Housing Authority, Center for Community Engagement and Civil Rights, Resident Empowerment Coalition, Resident Empowerment Honoree for her work engaging public housing residents and graduate students in community planning.

In addition, Sprague Martinez has an active community engaged research portfolio. Her scholarly interests are centered on research and action approaches to improve living environments and health. She has expertise in community, student- and youth-engaged research; photovoice; community assessment and mobilization; and qualitative research methods.

Her community and youth engaged work has been funded by federal agencies as well as foundations and has been published in journals such as the American Journal of Public Health, Health Affairs, Clinical and Translational Science and Progress in Community Health Partnerships. Sprague Martinez is co-director of the Community Engagement Core for the HEALing Communities Study, Massachusetts and received the 2023 Inaugural NIH HEAL Directors Award for Community Partnerships. She is also funded by MassCPR to lead research and action to advance equity in access Long COVID treatment and information. Recently, she was appointed to a National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine committee working on a definition for “Long COVID.”

A first-generation college student, Sprague Martinez grew up in Southern New Hampshire receiving her B.A from the University of New Hampshire, M.A in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Rivier College, M.A and Ph.D. in Social Policy from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.

UConn School of Social Work’s Innovations Institute Expands Expertise to Promote the Well-being of Infants and Young Children Fri, 27 Oct 2023 11:01:40 +0000 Innovations Institute, in the UConn School of Social Work, is welcoming a new team of specialists focused on the behavioral health of parents, infants, and very young children. Research has demonstrated that the positive social emotional development of very young children serves as the critical building blocks for learning and positive mental health. The work of this Parent, Infant, and Early Childhood team centers around the adults who interact with infants and very young children including parents and caregivers, relatives, pediatricians, social workers, childcare workers, preschool educators, and more.

“For some children the need for mental health support—and the questions their parents have around social and emotional development—start well before school,” Innovations Institute Executive Director Michelle Zabel says. “Having the expertise and capacity to build effective public-serving systems to address these needs at the earliest possible time in a child’s life can have a huge impact for some families.”

Innovations Institute works in partnership with state and local governments, provider organizations, and hospitals, as well as with the federal government to build public systems that effectively serve children, youth, and their families. They are currently working in over 40 states across the country. As an interdisciplinary, translational research center, they hold expertise in health and human services systems, crisis response systems, LGBTQ+ populations, policy and financing, systems design and implementation, research and evaluation, and workforce development all to improve supports, systems, services, and outcomes for children, youth, young adults, and families.

With the arrival of seven new faculty and staff, Innovations is expanding their work to address the first years in a child’s life when positive social emotional health can lay a strong foundation for healthy growth and development throughout childhood and into adulthood. A child’s ability to express and regulate their emotions, to navigate peer and adult interactions and develop trusting relationships, to begin to explore and learn are key factors in their initial and enduring success in educational settings through high school. This team will support the State of Connecticut’s Office of Early Childhood in their efforts to evaluate access and quality of early learning opportunities across the state. They will also collaborate with states across the country to support the design and implementation of systems and services that address the social and emotional needs of children in their communities.

“Now is the critical moment for our team to join nationwide efforts to promote the well-being of infants and very young children in their families,” says Associate Research Professor Margo Candelaria, co-director of the team.

Their work is grounded in equity-informed, developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed, and culturally responsive practices ensuring that the stressors that impact the mental health of families including racism, and poverty are carefully considered in programs and services. Data shows that significant number of infants born in the U.S., particularly infants of color, are growing up with risk factors proven to have long-term negative impacts on their development including poverty, parental unemployment, lack of access to services, and inadequate housing. Investments in policies and programs to reduce these risks are needed to support optimal development for young children and their families.

“Both the rise of the mental health crisis among youth in the U.S. and the corresponding burnout among early childhood educators and childcare providers make the expansion of our work critical,” says Assistant Extension Professor Kate Sweeney, co-director of the team.

Led by Candelaria and Sweeney, the team promotes the use of evidence-based practices to support the social and emotional development of infants and very young children as well as their families including the Pyramid Model for Social Emotional Competence and Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. These models help ensure that those working with infants, very young children, and their parents are well trained in best and innovative practices to promote social emotional skills and address behavioral concerns.

The team has an extensive profile of projects that focus on improving the amount and quality of infant and mental health services across a variety of settings including childcare, pediatrics, among incarcerated parent populations, with substance use and mental health centers, and with agencies serving homeless and housing unstable youth.  Innovation’s Parent, Infant, and Early Childhood team supports evidence-based program implementation, workforce development, and evaluation efforts as critical early childhood investments.

EPA Awards $5M Grant to Support UConn’s Technical Assistance for Brownfields Program Mon, 09 Oct 2023 11:35:59 +0000 With support from a $5M cooperative agreement awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a team of faculty and staff at the University of Connecticut will continue providing technical assistance to communities encountering the challenges of assessment, cleanup, and revitalization at brownfield sites while protecting public health and promoting environmental justice. 

Brownfield sites, which commonly contain contaminated or polluted materials from derelict industrial operations, may present environmentally hazardous conditions for residents residing near such properties. Not to mention, these abandoned properties are sources of blight for the surrounding neighborhood, decreasing property values and discouraging investment.  

 “The cooperative agreement not only supports the act of identifying brownfield sites, but we’re able to offer assistance pursing grant opportunities, reviewing technical reports and documents, conducting site reuse assessments, explaining regulatory and economic issues, and engage the local community in the redevelopment process,” says Marisa Chrysochoou, professor and head of civil and environmental engineering (CEE) and director of UConn’s Technical Assistance for Brownfields (TAB) program. “We also support continuing education on diverse topics related to brownfields.” 

A multidisciplinary team spanning the University (including the College of Engineering; the School of Social Work; the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources; the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and UConn Health), TAB is comprised of faculty, graduate student assistants, and staff who have specialized knowledge on environmental pollution and remediation, urban planning, public health, and social work.

The cooperative agreement will support TAB’s efforts from October 2023 through September 2028. The EPA also awarded a $1M grant in October 2021.  

As part of the agreement, UConn’s TAB will focus on assisting small, rural, and underserved communities in EPA Region 1, which serves Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and 10 tribal nations. Remediation sites vary in size from one acre to 44 acres, as at the former Gilbert & Bennet Wire Mill property in Redding.

“In New England states, especially, we’re seeing more and more old mill sites that were left abandoned as people made the max exodus to the suburbs,” says environmental engineer Randi Mendes, Ph.D. ’20 (CEE), program manager and community liaison at TAB. 

Recent Projects

In 2021-22, UConn assisted 110 communities with direct technical assistance. Projects included a record review on environmental site conditions at a site in East Hampton; a data gap analysis for brownfield sites in Brockton, Massachusetts; redevelopment options and planning for projects in Lyndon, Vermont; and community outreach plans in Claremont, New Hampshire and Bridgeport.

In Claremont, New Hampshire, the UConn TAB team hosted an informational workshop for community members concerned with redeveloping an area north of the town’s Sugar River.
In Claremont, New Hampshire, the UConn TAB team hosted an informational workshop for community members concerned with redeveloping an area north of the town’s Sugar River.

In Claremont, the UConn TAB team hosted an informational workshop for community members concerned with redeveloping an area north of the town’s Sugar River. This former industrial area housed a gas plant and machinery company, which left behind coal tar and other debris.

TAB investigated the area and determined that the 9.5-acre property—which was remediated several years ago by the EPA—didn’t pose a threat for contaminates to leach into groundwater. The area was deemed safe for development. During the workshop, residents suggested that a river walk, brew pub, farmers’ market and amphitheater may be good uses of the land.  

mount trash more TAB brownfields graphic
UConn TAB create a storymap and visual timeline of the “Mt. Trashmore” remediation project in Bridgeport.

In Bridgeport, TAB worked with the community and local government on creating an informational storymap regarding the transformation of “Mt. Trashmore” to “Mt. Growmore.” From the late 1980s to 1993, a site at the east end of the city contained a 35-foot-high pile of debris and waste from construction and illegal dumping which spurred an environmental justice movement that continues today. The community, along with local politicians and more than 50 grassroots partners, are working to revitalize the area into a wellness campus that will counter food insecurity, provide workforce development, and create entrepreneurial opportunities for job creation in the food production sector.  

And most recently, Mendes and TAB social worker Katie Malgioglio traveled to Caribou, Maine in July to speak with the city manager about ways TAB can assist the community with awareness of clean-up projects near the Aroostook River. There, the EPA is funding the demolition of a former diesel power plant near the riverfront and town leaders hope to reimagine the site as a new recreational area with trails and a boat launch. TAB has since created an information website that allows members of the community to submit comments on how they envision the area be used.

Student Involvement 

TAB’s Municipal Assistance Program (MAP) helped 38 disadvantaged communities through the activities of the service-learning Brownfields Redevelopment courses at UConn. 

 “The MAP program, in particular, is a wonderful way we can get undergraduates involved in research that helps them grow as students, but also benefits the communities they serve,” Mendes said. “It’s also a way students can gain real world experience and have learning opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have in a classroom setting.”  

Recent UConn alumni Kelly Repaci ’22 (CLAS) and Tori Thornton ’22 (CLAS) for example, spent their spring 2022 semester working on a community engagement project in Bethlehem, New Hampshire. 

In 1978, a Bethlehem landmark—the Sinclair Hotel—burned to the ground leaving behind a 4.8-acre plot of overgrown land, richly contaminated with asbestos and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon. For 41 years, the lot sat abandoned on the town’s Main Street until 2021, when the town began efforts to remediate the site for commercial and residential development. Repaci and Thornton worked with the community development group Bethlehem Reimagined to create a community engagement plan. The plan offers a framework to alert and involve the public during the planning, investigating, and redevelop phase of the overall project.  

This fall, TAB is already hosting a webinar series that offers information on applying for the EPA’s Multipurpose, Assessment, and Cleanup (MAC) grants, and is preparing for the two-day Brownfields Summit 2024 


For more information, visit UConn TAB.

Social Work Research Explores the Effects of ‘Enduring Relationships’ for Older Youth in Foster Care Wed, 27 Sep 2023 11:15:13 +0000 Historically, if youth in foster care didn’t have a biological or adoptive parent to turn to at age 18, they were released from the child welfare system, often with few resources and even less support. But in 2008, a federal law was passed that gave states the option to extend the foster care age up to 21. While this policy change gives foster youth more time to transition into adulthood, many of them still lack the social support they need to successfully leave foster care and thrive.

That reality led researchers like School of Social Work Associate Professor Nate Okpych to investigate the issues that affect the nearly 93,000 youth aged 14 or older who are in foster care in the United States on a given day. These young people are more likely than their peers to experience a difficult transition to adulthood.

“When they hit their 21st birthday, they leave foster care and it’s not guaranteed that young people have long-lasting relationships that many other young people not in foster have with parents, families, siblings, mentors, church friends, and others,” says Okpych. Without these relationships, foster youth may be on their own to manage challenges with education, work, housing, food, and other needs.

To explore the effects of long-lasting, supportive relationships on foster youth, Okpych embarked on one of the first large-scale representative studies of its kind to date. His findings – published in the journal Social Service Review – could influence child welfare policy on foster youth, with the goal of transforming their outcomes and lives beyond foster care.

The study

To explore the role of relationships in the lives of foster youth transitioning into adulthood, Okpych and his research colleagues analyzed data collected from a representative group of more than 700 youth in California, the state with the largest foster youth population in the country. These youth were participants in the CalYOUTH Study, which evaluated the impact of extending the foster care age limit on youth’s outcomes in early adulthood.

In interviews conducted at ages 17, 19, 21, and 23, the researchers asked the youth to name people they could turn to for support. They also queried the youth about the types of support they received, such as emotional support to help them cope with a life problem, practical support like someone they could ask for a ride or borrow money from, and informational support like advice about important decisions.

If the study participants named the same individual at 17 and 21, the researchers considered that an “enduring” relationship, defined as a relationship with an individual who has a long-standing presence in their life and who is a reliable source of support. For youth who have typically experienced several relationship disruptions during childhood, these lasting relationships can be critical. “If they have an enduring relationship – someone in their life that will still be there to support them even when the child welfare system falls away – that’s really important,” he says.

A lot of child welfare scholars say, yes, independent living skills are important, but enduring relationships are also important. — Associate Professor Nate Okpych

The researchers found that slightly less than half – or 48 percent – of the youth studied had an enduring relationship at a point in their lives when the safety net of the child welfare agency was no longer available to them. Most youth had only one enduring relationship, commonly with a biological family member or someone they described as family. That means about half did not have such a relationship.

Okpych also found that there were notable differences in terms of race: Youth who identified as Native American or Black were less likely than peers to have enduring relationships. “It’s concerning because these young people leave care,” he notes. “Some of them will not have relationships that have lasted the test of time and have been there for them in the past.”

Enduring relationships had real consequences for foster youth, reducing the risk of negative outcomes in early adulthood, such as food insecurity, economic hardship, and homelessness. They were also more likely to experience positive outcomes, such as having greater earnings and finishing some college. Surprisingly, the number of individuals the youth said they had in their network was not a key factor. “It’s really about the enduring quality of the relationships – that you have people that have been there with you, through thick and thin, over a period of time,” he says.

From independence to interdependence

One of the main charges of the child welfare system is help youth establish “legal permanence,” which means they are reunified with their family or adopted by someone who is legally responsible for them. Another aim for the child welfare system is to help transition-age youth develop independent living skills. With a child welfare case worker, youth create independent living plans, which include goals focused on education and employment, among other objectives.

Yet the study findings suggest that one vital aspect of transitioning into adulthood is often missing from these plans: enduring relationships. “A lot of child welfare scholars say, yes, independent living skills are important, but relationships are also important for developing interdependence,” Okpych says. “And some reunifications and adoptions, which are marked as positive outcomes from the child welfare system’s perspective, are not always positive and do not always last.”

Co-author Jenna Powers, ’23 Ph.D., agrees. “This study makes a convincing argument for the importance of child welfare practice, programs, and policy focusing more on relational permanence,” says Powers, who is now assistant professor at Western Carolina University.

Considering the benefits of enduring relationships for foster youth, identifying and strengthening these connections – which are a form of social capital – could become a required part of transitional living plans. Case workers and youth could incorporate enduring relationships into the plans and even include a support person in the process.

This shift could also lead to changes in the way that child welfare agencies engage with foster youth more broadly, focusing on youth voice and more collaborative decision-making. Okpych is keeping his eye on pilot research that will center youth in the planning of their lives and futures. “One of the areas is going to be forming relationships, having someone in their life that can be there for them after they exit foster care.”