School of Social Work Archives - UConn Today Fri, 29 Sep 2023 22:49:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Social Work Research Explores the Effects of ‘Enduring Relationships’ for Older Youth in Foster Care Wed, 27 Sep 2023 11:15:13 +0000 Ziba Kashef 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.”

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UConn Social Work Researcher Investigates a Mindfulness Mental Health Intervention for LGBTQIA+ Youth Tue, 19 Sep 2023 11:15:58 +0000 Ziba Kashef When UConn School of Social Work Assistant Professor Gio Iacono was a mental health clinician working with LGBTQIA+ youth, he searched for programs and interventions that would help him better serve his clients who were struggling with significant mental health challenges. As a social work doctoral student, he continued to study, develop, and evaluate culturally responsive mental health programs for this marginalized and underserved youth population.

“There are significant mental and sexual health disparities among LGBTQIA+ youth that require urgent attention,” he says.

A national survey conducted by the Trevor Project in 2021 found that 70% of LGBTQIA+ youth and young adults in the United States reported poor mental health, with trans and non-binary youth experiencing even greater disparities. In 2022, another study found that 45% of LGBTQIA+ youth seriously considered suicide during the past year. Moreover, LGBTQIA+ youth of color face multiple, intersecting forms of discrimination.

Despite these data, “queer and trans youth are basically overlooked in terms of mental health intervention research, and generally underserved in social work and clinical mental health practice,” Iacono notes. LGBTQIA+ youth also face significant political and legislative attacks, and increasing marginalization in schools and communities where conflicts over gender identity, education, and sports often play out.

With his research on Tuned In!, an innovative LGBTQIA+ affirming mindfulness-based intervention, collaboratively developed with LGBTQIA+ youth, Iacono aims to be a part of a movement to tackle these pressing issues. “As part of a comprehensive political strategy, we need public health and mental health interventions to help address these disparities,” he says.

A Tailored Mindfulness Program

Prior to launching his own research, Iacono investigated one of the few interventions available for LGBTQIA+ youth called AFFIRM. The eight-week mental health program is evidence-based and uses cognitive behavioral therapy, but it is one of only a few approaches tailored to the needs of LGBTQIA+ youth.

In 2017, Iacono started to partner with LGBTQIA+ youth, local youth-serving agencies, and community-based organizations to develop Tuned In! In Connecticut, he has recently collaborated with Connecticut TransAdvocacy Coalition, the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, UConn Rainbow Center, and the Department of Children and Families. In addition to creating an advisory board that includes some of these collaborators, he recruited a youth advisory board to meaningfully involve LGBTQIA+ youth voices in implementation of the program.

We saw improvements in depression, anxiety, and internalized oppression. — Assistant Professor Gio Iacono

“There aren’t any systematically developed mindfulness-based interventions specifically tailored for queer and trans youth, despite robust literature indicating that mindfulness can improve mental health,” he explains. “We needed to be culturally responsive and collaboratively work with LGBTQIA+ youth to tailor interventions to meet their unique needs.”

Unlike cognitive therapy, which teaches individuals to challenge their negative thoughts, mindfulness focuses on acceptance and awareness of the present moment. “It’s a skill and practice of developing kindness toward oneself, awareness of thoughts and feelings, and also stepping back and seeing thoughts and feelings for what they are, which can improve mental health and potentially help us become more involved in community and social change,” he says.

The Intervention

Tuned In! involves eight 90-minute sessions that include check-ins, group discussions, mindfulness-based practices like meditation, and weekly action plans for LGBTQIA+ youth. Sessions are led by licensed mental health facilitators trained in mindfulness and with at least a year of experience working with LBGTQIA+ youth.

In the sessions, youth learn coping skills to reduce their feelings of anxiety and depression. They specifically explore issues such as internalized homophobia, transphobia, and racism while also learning how to address common issues faced by LGBTQIA+ youth such as bullying, family and peer rejection, and victimization.

Tuned In! is distinct from other behavioral programs in that it encourages political awareness, consciousness raising, and engagement. “One of the exciting things about Tuned In! is that it includes strategies and practices to become more politically and socially engaged — exploring how youth can meaningfully connect to programs or organizations that do advocacy work, or how to become more politically involved in general,” says Iacono.

Pilot Study

Iacono has published preliminary research about the feasibility and utility of Tuned In! After collaborating with LGBTQIA+ youth and community partners to develop and fine-tune the intervention, Iacono and colleagues launched a pilot study in 2022. The research team recruited 50 LGBTQIA+ youth in Connecticut between the ages of 16 and 29 to participate.

Before and after the study period the youth provided feedback through surveys and focus groups. “We saw improvements in depression, anxiety, and internalized oppression. We also saw improvements in sexual self-efficacy, or the ability to refuse certain unsafe sexual practices,” he says.

The youth reported progress in terms of proactive coping, or coping in healthier ways rather than resorting to harmful strategies. “We also saw significant improvements in mindfulness and self-compassion, which is such a critical component of the program’s mechanism of change,” notes Iacono.

These positive results were maintained for six months. “I learned so many tools and resources for mindfulness in my daily life, grounding, and self-compassion,” says youth participant Evan Horton. “I can only compare it to having crutches; I needed the support in that moment so that I’m now strong enough to stand on my own.”

The findings support Tuned In! as a mental health intervention that LBGTQIA+ youth found both feasible, accessible, and useful. The success of the pilot study has led to plans to increase the scale of the research and assess the sustainability of outcomes over time. The researchers are also considering adapting the study even further to meet the needs of diverse LGBTQIA+ youth populations, such as youth of color.

Iacono will seek funding to expand the program across New England and offer the intervention in-person as well as online. The researchers would also like to establish the program as a resource for youth to connect to needed services such as housing and food. The long-term goal is to expand to a national, randomized trial of Tuned In! and evaluate it in communities across the country.

“I think early intervention — ideally prevention — is the way forward with LGBTQIA+ youth mental health,” he says. “It’s important that LGBTQIA+ youth have the opportunity to develop skills to cope with these stressors. It’s equally important that youth are supported by LGBTQIA+ mentors and allies and have opportunities to get politically involved. Together, we can not only transform the disparities among this population but also work towards addressing the political and legal attacks faced by LGBTQIA+ youth and LGBTQIA+ communities in general. Healthier and thriving LGBTQIA+ communities will be able to be more effective in creating sustainable social change.”

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UConn Holds Steady at No. 26 Rank Among Public Universities Mon, 18 Sep 2023 11:30:48 +0000 Stephanie Reitz UConn has retained its impressive No. 26 position among public universities in this year’s U.S. News & World Report rankings, also jumping nine spots overall in the list that includes all public and private institutions.

The annual rankings, released Monday, mark the second consecutive year in which UConn has held the No. 26 spot, with particular strength in critical areas such as timely graduation rates, reputation among peer institutions, and retention of first-year students.

In the overall rankings that comprise all public and private institutions nationwide, UConn jumped nine spots from No. 67 last year to No. 58, affirming its national reputation as a leader in student success and academic excellence.

Students also continue to return to UConn after their first year in numbers much higher than the national average, and the percentage of alumni who leave UConn with federal student loan debt has continued to drop, along with the amounts they owe.

And with students graduating in an average of 4.1 years – tied with four other institutions for the quickest time-to-degree among public universities – UConn continues to provide students with a solid foundation upon which to build careers, and to produce a highly educated workforce for employers throughout Connecticut and the nation.

The U.S. News ranking comes in the same month that UConn was recognized in a separate Wall Street Journal ranking as the No. 46 institution in the U.S., and No. 9 specifically among public colleges and universities.

“While we know that rankings cannot capture all aspects of UConn’s many strengths, we are pleased that the University continues to be recognized so positively and consistently for its indicators of student success,” President Radenka Maric says.

“We want our students to embark on their careers with an education that prepares them to build fulfilling and happy lives through creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, emotional intelligence, and critical life skills such as financial literacy,” she adds.

“The latest ranking from U.S. News underscores the important work taking place on our campuses every day to help students take full advantage of UConn’s offerings while they’re here, and then to extend their skills after graduation into our communities,” she says.

UConn’s No. 26 ranking among public universities this year comes despite significant financial pressures facing the university, and in the face of fierce competition nationwide for top students as the number of high schoolers continues to shrink regionally and throughout the U.S.

Despite those challenges, UConn drew a record-high pool of more than 48,800 applicants for the Class of 2027, which joined the University this semester. The class also is the largest and most diverse in UConn’s history, with the highest-ever percentage of students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in higher education.

Almost one-third of the Class of 2027 are the first students in their families to attend college – a metric that isn’t tracked by U.S. News, but which helps to provide a holistic view beyond rankings of the ways in which UConn provides access and opportunity to students.

UConn’s U.S. News ranking has been steadily improving since 2000, when it was No. 38 among public institutions, and it spent 10 years in the top 25 before moving to No. 26 last year. It holds the same spot this year, tied with University of California at Merced and Stony Brook University-SUNY.

As was the case last year, UConn’s scores remained consistently high in most areas, particularly in key indicators of student success, and its position just short of the top 25 was not due to a performance dip or other notable declines.

Rather, several other universities have invested in specific areas and made gains over the last few years. That resulted in various moves throughout the rankings that bumped some institutions, like UConn, out of the top 25 despite a strong and consistent track record of success.

For instance, UConn remains number one in the country when it comes to the time in which students earn their degrees: an average of 4.1 years, a place shared with four other public research universities in the country, according to the UConn Retention & Graduation Task Force’s most recent analysis.

Those factors play into attempts to limit graduate indebtedness, a metric in which UConn also performs strongly in the U.S. News analysis.

The average federal indebtedness of UConn graduates dropped by more than $2,000 between fall 2019 and fall 2022, and the percentage of alumni with loans to repay fell during that same period from 55% to 51%.

The U.S. News ranking and other external assessments are among many tools that UConn considers as it engages in new strategic planning to bring the University to the next level.

According to the rankings, UConn continues to show consistently strong performance in several areas:

• The four-year average for retention of first-year students is 93%, remaining among the highest in the nation and far above the national average of 80% at four-year public universities.

• A consistent rate of 84% of UConn students earn their undergraduate degrees in six years or less, markedly higher than the national average of 63% among public institutions.

• UConn’s peer institutions continue to hold a consistently positive opinion of its academic reputation as reported in survey responses from presidents, provosts, and admissions leaders. U.S. News officials say that measuring reputation is important to help capture advances that aren’t otherwise easy to quantify, such as institutional innovation and a range of other areas.

UConn was one of 227 national public institutions that were part of this year’s U.S. News & World Report survey. Overall, the rankings included 439 public and private institutions.

In addition to its positions as the No. 26 public university and No. 58 overall, UConn was recognized for several academic and student services programs that ranked among the top 50 in their realms:

• Institutions with best learning communities (No. 25)
• Best undergraduate nursing programs (No. 31)
• Best colleges for veterans among national public institutions (No. 33)
• Best undergraduate psychology programs (No. 39)
• Best undergraduate business programs (No. 47).

U.S. News has changed its methodology and no longer factors in the percentage of living alumni who donate to their institutions. However, the UConn Foundation recently reported its fourth straight record-setting year; more than 22,500 donors gave $157.9 million in new gifts and commitments in FY22, up from the previous record of $115 million the year before.

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Q&A: Meet the School of Social Work Ph.D. Student Madri Hall-Faul Tue, 29 Aug 2023 12:38:05 +0000 Ziba Kashef Madri Hall-Faul is a Ph.D. student at UConn School of Social Work and an instructor of Analysis of Social Welfare Policy and Social Delivery Systems in the Master of Social Work program.

What is the topic of your dissertation?

A. My dissertation focuses on the impact of decentralized policy implementation on the social and economic rights of families living in poverty. I’m interested in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) specifically because it’s a good example of a social safety net program that gives a lot of discretion to states in how they implement it. I’m writing a three-article dissertation that takes a broad and narrow approach to this question of how decentralization impacts the rights of families.

Can you say more about what it means for a policy to be decentralized?

A. The way the United States structures its social welfare programs is through what’s known as federalism, meaning there’s this overarching belief that states and localities are best positioned to implement and shape policies. States have the ability to decide, depending on the level of decentralization of the policy, who is eligible, how much they get for benefits, and what happens if they don’t comply with the rules of the program.

TANF is a block grant, which means that states get this lump sum of money, and they essentially get to decide how they want to spend it. It has very few requirements. Other programs like SNAP, or what’s known as food stamps, have more federal protections and states have more rules to follow in terms of who has access. With TANF, there’s no minimum benefit level. There’s no minimum amount of people that have to be served. It’s not what’s known as an entitlement program. You have this varying level of discretion in how the program is implemented in states. That’s the central idea of my dissertation — looking at what shapes those program implementation decisions and who makes them.

How did you come to focus on this topic?

A. Before I came to the Ph.D. program, I worked for an area agency on aging doing a lot of coalition work focused on the health and well-being of older adults. Over and over again, I saw that older adults with resources had access to better treatment and supports than those who were living in poverty. It seemed to me that poverty was the driving force behind the care that people received and how they aged. It was important to me to address that root cause of economic inequality.

Describe how you’re conducting the research.

A. I’m beginning with the conceptual idea of looking at the policy through a human rights lens for my first paper. Instead of thinking about a needs-based approach that we often see, especially in social work, I’m using a rights-based approach and asking whether this policy recognizes the human dignity of participants. Does it provide for an adequate standard of living? For my second paper, I quantitatively analyze predictors of TANF spending for all 50 states. I look at the factors that shape how budgets are allocated within a state.

My third paper is a case study of Connecticut’s implementation of TANF. I’m curious about how Connecticut ended up with such a restrictive TANF program. Until last year, we had the second shortest time limit in the country. Families could only receive cash assistance for 21 months in their lifetime, with a few exceptions. So, I’m looking into decision making, power, and advocacy in the TANF program in Connecticut to better understand the human rights implications of such a decentralized policy.

What are the preliminary findings?

A. I think one of the most interesting pieces is this idea that TANF can be seen as cash assistance given to states and not to families. States are given this large infusion of money and they use it in whatever ways they see fit. In Tennessee, for example, it was revealed a year ago that they were hoarding more than $700 million in TANF funds that they just weren’t spending on anything or anyone.

In my case study, I’ve seen Connecticut is very efficient in spending its TANF grant. It spends every cent, but it doesn’t spend it on TANF specifically; it spends it on case management for families in the foster care and child welfare systems. It spends it on tax credits initiatives. Connecticut specifically sees its TANF program as a revenue source rather than the program aimed at families and poverty. That perception of TANF is different than how advocates see it. I think that view of the state is an important piece for advocates to know because it could shape how they try to lobby to get the program to expand its reach and be more generous. It could also inform movement for more federal protections to ensure that the money is spent on the intended recipients.

How do you hope to use your findings in the future?

A. I hope to publish my results and to create policy briefs or work with advocacy organizations to translate my research into something that can have meaningful impact. Wherever I land after my Ph.D., I want to form relationships with legislators to provide information about how this program works because many legislators know very little about TANF. A goal I have is to take my research out of the academic context and into more digestible policy briefs for legislators.

Anything else to say about your plans after you complete your dissertation?

A. I hope to get a position at a research university and continue focusing on policy implementation and human rights. I think that we often talk about human rights in an international context, not in a domestic context. It’s important to me to continue thinking about the social and economic rights of families within U.S. borders in both in my dissertation research and other research that I’ve done with Dr. Kathryn Libal, focused on food justice as well as refugee resettlement. These themes of human rights and policy implementation, and how power operates within policy formation, is what I hope to be the common thread throughout my research.

Policy is such an important piece of social work and I hope it comes across in my teaching. I’ve gotten feedback from students that they didn’t care about policy before taking my class, but are now really fired up about it, so it’s exciting to me.

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Supporting the Mental Health Crisis Workforce to Address the Needs of the LGBTQ+ Wed, 23 Aug 2023 18:02:55 +0000 Tom Breen As the nation works to build the systems and services necessary to respond to the U.S. mental health crisis, the workforce within those systems require support and specialized training to effectively address the needs of vulnerable populations and to meet the growing demands for care.

The UConn School of Social Work’s Innovations Institute leads a Center of Excellence for LGBTQ+ Behavioral Health Equity (COE), funded by U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to provide behavioral health practitioners with vital information to support LGBTQ+ people.

Innovations—experts in instructional design and in behavioral health—has launched a new COE training designed to provide crisis counselors and first responders with in-depth knowledge to address the specific needs of and improve outcomes for LGBTQ+ populations.

In October of 2020, Congress passed the National Suicide Hotline Act, designating 988 as the new nationwide number for suicide prevention and mental health crisis. And in Spring of 2022, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced $35 million in funding opportunities to strengthen and expand community mental health services and suicide prevention efforts.

These groundbreaking efforts paved the way for expanded services and support 24/7—important for LGBTQ+ people—a community that has been markedly impacted by negative mental health outcomes due to stigma, prejudice, and inequitable access to care.

“The current data on LGBTQ+ communities highlight the need for tailored and culturally responsive mental health services, particularly at times of mental health crises. Through trainings like this one we are implementing change strategies to directly address behavioral health disparities in the LGBTQ+ community and improve outcomes,” says COE Principal Investigator Marlene Matarese.

The Trevor Project’s 2023 National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ+ Young People found that 41% of LGBTQ+ young people between the ages of 13 and 24 seriously considered attempting suicide in the 12 months preceding the survey. Their findings also highlighted that 56% of respondents were not able to access mental health care when they needed it in the preceding months.

Research also found that LGBTQ+  adults are at higher risk to suicide when compared to their straight and cisgender peers, and that older LGBTQ+ adults report high levels of isolation and loneliness, contributing to negative health and life outcomes. Disparate mental health outcomes are compounded for LGBTQ+ people of color who face multiple forms of discrimination.

Designed to improve mental health outcomes for LGBTQ+ people, the new self-paced online training was developed by the COE in partnership with Vibrant Health—administrators of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Titled Introduction to LGBTQ+ Populations with Special Considerations for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline the training addresses disparities; introduces accurate and respectful terminology, mental health considerations, the coming out process; and outlines the ways that 988 crisis counselors can support LGBTQ+ people over call, chat, and text.

Crisis counselors responding to those reaching out through 988 can build their knowledge and skills to address the needs of LGBTQ+ populations, thereby ensuring everyone who reaches out through crisis lifelines feel supported. The course takes approximately 60 minutes to complete and provides 1.0 CECs or a certificate of attendance.

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Social Work Research Informs Effort to Improve Equity in Early Childhood Intervention Tue, 15 Aug 2023 11:30:00 +0000 Ziba Kashef Children of color and those from diverse backgrounds who have a disability are less likely to receive early intervention services than other groups, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education. This inequity starts early and can contribute to developmental delays and educational disparities for young students with disabilities that persist through high school and college.

The need to improve outcomes for diverse infants and children with disabilities is a driving force behind the new Early Childhood Intervention Personnel Development Equity Center, for which UConn School of Medicine was recently awarded a $10 million federal grant. The Equity Center is part of UConn’s Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research and Services (UCEDD), directed by Mary Beth Bruder, principal investigator of the Equity Center, professor of pediatrics at UConn School of Medicine, and professor of educational psychology in the Neag School of Education.

Cristina Mogro-Wilson, professor in the UConn School of Social Work and a member of the Equity Center leadership team, has long had research interests in early childhood, disabilities, and Latino families. For the next five years she will be collaborating with her colleagues at UConn, other universities, and over 40 national professional organizations to address the root causes of these inequities, including a lack of diverse early childhood professionals.

“In order to start providing more equitable services to kids and families with disabilities that come from diverse cultural backgrounds, we need a diverse workforce to meet those needs,” says Mogro-Wilson. “One of the aims of the Equity Center is to recruit and retain faculty in institutes of higher education that are from diverse backgrounds.”

Barriers to equity in early childhood intervention

As a social work educator and Latina scholar, Mogro-Wilson understands the challenges facing Latinos and other diverse families with children who have disabilities. “In Latino families, the kids are getting diagnosed later,” she says. “The later they get diagnosed or the later they receive services, there’s a lag in child development over time.”

The reasons for late diagnosis in this growing population are myriad, including long-standing structural and systemic barriers such as stigma surrounding disabilities and special education. Latino families may not be aware of the services or hesitant to access them due to their immigration status. If families from diverse backgrounds do not have their children in preschool due to cost or lack of available programs, their young children may not be identified as in need of services.

Another barrier may be lack of cultural responsiveness among providers in a field that is predominantly white. A lot of early intervention services for young children with disabilities – such as help with feeding, speech and language services, and occupational therapy – are provided in the home. Diverse families may not be comfortable with a service provider who is not from their culture, Mogro-Wilson notes.

Social workers are particularly poised in their jobs to be able to provide services to a diverse set of families. — Prof. Cristina Mogro-Wilson

Mogro-Wilson’s own research, and that of her social work doctoral students, will help inform the work of the Equity Center in addressing these access barriers. She is completing a study about how Latino cultural characteristics influence levels of stigma experienced by families who have a child with a disability, and how to mitigate the effects of such stigma on health and well-being. One outgrowth of that research is a multi-disciplinary collaboration with UConn Associate Professor of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences Dr. Bernard Grela and doctoral student Emily Jackson to explore speech and language services for Latino families with disabilities and how to better serve these young children.

She’s also collaborating with SSW Ph.D. student Emily Longo on a grant that aims to look at the training of doctoral students interested in children with disabilities. Another one of her students, Leah Holle, recently co-authored a research paper which found that spiritual and religious beliefs were important for parents who have a child with an emotional disability. Given the stigma and stress associated with emotional disabilities, religious and spiritual beliefs and practices may be reliable and accessible resources that early childhood practitioners should be familiar with and competent in eliciting.

This broad range of research points to why Mogro-Wilson believes in having the voice of social workers at the table. “Social workers see kids that are particularly disadvantaged from high risk groups that might be experiencing trauma, neglect, and then may be also experiencing some delays and development, like autism, or delays in walking, talking, eating, or learning,” she says. “Social workers are particularly poised in their jobs to be able to provide services to a diverse set of families.”

Building a pipeline of diverse providers

To begin to address the diversity of early childhood intervention providers nationwide, the Equity Center will collect data from states. “What we’re initially doing in the beginning phases of the grant is working with our partners to collect data,” she explains. “If we want to show improvement in the diversity of our providers, we need to know what the current state is.” With this baseline data on provider diversity, the Equity Center team will focus on model states to work with to further diversify providers from a range of disciplines that serve children with disabilities.

In addition to collecting and analyzing data, the Equity Center researchers will meet with partners in state agencies to define what equity means for early childhood for diverse children and families with disabilities. “Part of our work is developing an equity framework for institutes of higher education,” Mogro-Wilson says.

With this framework, over the five-year grant period, the Equity Center’s goals include increasing the capacity of institutions of higher education to develop their early childhood programs; recruit and retain more diverse faculty; and prepare more diverse student scholars using an equity-based curriculum.

These strategies will lead to a more racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse early childhood workforce, which research shows will benefit children of color.

The institutions of higher education will also partner with state agencies to prepare diverse students and support them to enter and stay in the early childhood profession as intervention teachers, therapists, and specialists. “Ultimately that will lead to improvement of outcomes for all children with disabilities, particularly the most marginalized and underserved,” she adds.

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UConn Medical, Dental Students Complete 18th X-Country Bike Tour Wed, 09 Aug 2023 15:59:33 +0000 Christopher DeFrancesco '95 (CLAS) Five cyclists with their bikes on the shore
Claire Surkis, Maura Radigan, Audrey Grotheer, Olivia Hudson, and Rogan Kaisen start their summer-long cross-country bike tour on the Pacific shore in Ana Cortes, Washington, June 2023. (

The largest group of students to complete UConn Health’s traditional summer-long cross-country bicycle tour is home, completing the journey Tuesday on the Atlantic shore at Hammonasset Beach State Park.

Eight students took part in Coast to Coast for a Cause, the 18th edition of the ride that originated with a pair of medical students spending the summer pedaling home from the Pacific to raise money for leukemia research.

The beneficiaries have changed over the years; this year’s cause is the REACH (Reproductive Equity, Access & CHoice) Fund of Connecticut.

Eight cyclists hoisting their bikes with their feet in the water on the ocean shore
The 2023 Coast to Coast for a Cause cyclists celebrate reaching the Atlantic shore, at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, Aug. 8, 2023. (Photo provided by Maura Radigan)

This year’s group split into teams. Dental student Keelin Hurtt and medical students Liz Narwold and Kayla Kendall made up one team, while the other team included Olivia Hudson (master’s, social work) and medical students Claire Surkis, Maura Radigan, Audrey Grotheer, and Rogan Kaisen.

Three cyclists in front of Logan Pass sign, mountains in background
Kayla Kendall, Liz Narwold, and Keelin Hurtt reach Logan Pass in Montana’s Glacier National Park. (

“I am so proud of my team members, all that we’ve overcome on this journey, and the cause we’re supporting,” Surkis says. “It’s bittersweet to be off the bike, but I am forever changed and forever grateful because of this experience.”

In less than two months, they pedaled roughly 3,000 miles, primarily along the bike route known as the Northern Tier, which briefly took them into Canada by the Great Lakes and back into the U.S. near Niagara Falls.

“I’m sad to say goodbye to this adventure,” Narwold says. “Mixed into the sadness is a feeling of love for my fellow bikers and pride for what we’ve accomplished. We are so much stronger than we ever could’ve imagined.”

Along the way, two of them got engaged. Kaisen says the group helped him find the ideal spot in Montana’s Glacier National Park to propose to Hudson.

Marriage proposal in the outdoors
When Team 2 got to Glacier National Park, Rogan Kaisen took a moment to propose to Olivia Hudson. (

“I pretended that I left my phone at the park and asked Olivia if she would come back with me,” Kaisen reports in the cyclists’ blog. “She was confused why I wanted her to come back, and was more interested in a butterfly on the road (which is very understandable). Eventually, despite a pounding heart, I was able to get down on one knee and propose to the love of my life. And she said yes!”

Grotheer, Radigan, Surkis, Hudson, and Kaisen arrived on the UConn Health campus in Farmington in the rain Monday afternoon, greeted by family, friends, and classmates, including Kendall, Narwold and Hurtt, who had returned to campus two days earlier.

Two cyclists on a ferry dock
The bike trail Kayla Kendall, Liz Narwold, and their Coast to Coast for a Cause teammates took back from Washington State includes a few days in Canada. (

“I saw the school and then heard the cheers,” Kendall recalls from her approach to campus. “OMG this was it, we had done it! I had to try to hold it together or else I wouldn’t be able to bike. I couldn’t believe it. I was so proud of us.”

As they reached the East Coast, they had raised $23,000 so far. There’s still time to support the students and their cause.

Learn more about the 2023 Coast to Coast for a Cause.

See additional details from the students’ journey on their blog.

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Jonathan XV has Arrived, and Doggone it, He’s Adorable Fri, 30 Jun 2023 11:01:58 +0000 Stephanie Reitz

UConn Nation got a doggone great surprise on Wednesday with the introduction of mascot-in-training Jonathan XV, a bundle of soft fur and happy puppy energy who’s learning the ropes from UConn’s resident good boy, Jonathan XIV.

With his ocean-blue eyes and facial markings that mirror the Husky logo, UConn’s 15th canine mascot arrived on campus earlier this month and has been happily settling in with his new de facto big brother.

On Wednesday, he made his public debut at the UConn Board of Trustees meeting with handlers from the co-ed service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. He’ll soon be a fixture walking on campus with Jonathan XIV, and eventually attending University events as his training progresses and he is ready for the spotlight.

Jonathan XV was part of a six-puppy litter born in Atwood, Ontario, Canada on April 19, and was picked up by handlers on June 17 – which happens to be National Mascot Day -- and brought back to Connecticut.

Currently about the size of a well-fed house cat, Jonathan XV is a fast learner who’s been picking up behavioral queues from Jonathan XIV, though he’s chattier than his big brother. He’s also curious and very sociable, quickly warming up to people and generous with kisses.

Huskies named Jonathan have represented UConn dating back to 1935 in honor of Jonathan Trumbull, the last colonial governor and first state governor of Connecticut. Alpha Phi Omega has helped to care for the Jonathans since the 1970s, including this perky newcomer.

Jonathan XV poses outside of Wilbur Cross on his first trip to the Storrs campus.
Jonathan XV poses outside of Wilbur Cross on his first trip to the Storrs campus. (Sydney Herdle/UConn Photos)
Jonathan XV stands next to the Jonathan the Husky statue at the Wolff Family Park outside Gampel Pavilion
Jonathan XV stands next to the Jonathan the Husky statue at the Wolff Family Park outside Gampel Pavilion on June 20, 2023. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Jonathan XV walks in front of Gampel Pavilion
Jonathan XV walks in front of Gampel Pavilion on his first trip to the Storrs campus. (Sydney Herdle/UConn Photos)
Jonathan XV and Jonathan XIV playing with a toy basketball in the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center
Jonathan XV and Jonathan XIV playing in the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center. (Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)

“When I saw him for the first time, he was so incredibly adorable that my eyes turned to hearts, so to speak,” says Jenna Epstein ’24 (CLAS), one of two co-chairs of the APO Husky Committee, which coordinates the dogs’ activities. “He’s such a smart boy. When you talk with him, you can see that the wheels are turning in his head and that he’s very intelligent.”

Epstein and fellow co-chair Laura Centanni ’25 (CAHNR) introduced Jonathan XV on Wednesday at the Board of Trustees meeting, and are building the same bond with him that they’ve long enjoyed with Jonathan XIV.

“Seeing them together is so cute because they look so much alike,” Centanni says. “Jonathan XV really looks up to his older brother, and really seems to watch and learn from him.”

Though he came to UConn at a modest 10 lbs., the puppy’s lineage suggests he’s likely to grow to about 55 to 60 lbs. That’s about the size of the all-white Jonathan XIII who’d preceded the current Jonathan XIV, who weighs in at 77 lbs.

Speaking of Jonathan XIV, no need to fret: He isn’t going anywhere.

As he approaches his 10th birthday in October, he’ll be easing into a mascot emeritus role and continue making appearances with his successor, just as Jonathan XIII did when XIV was introduced as a puppy in early 2014.

Jonathan XIV underwent surgery in January to remove his spleen and a non-cancerous mass that had grown on it, but fully recovered in time to join the UConn Men’s Basketball team in March in Houston, where they won the NCAA Championship.

Like Jonathan XIV, the new puppy is a purebred Siberian Husky, a breed known for its energy and friendly, gentle demeanor. They are most happy when on the move, so Jonathan XV’s sprightly spirit is expected to continue long after he moves past puppyhood.

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Dual-Degree Student Brings Social Work Concepts to Law Clinic Tue, 13 Jun 2023 13:12:39 +0000 Diana Nearhos Joyce A. Lopes ’24 always knew she wanted to go to law school, but an undergraduate internship with the Baltimore County Public Defender’s Office revealed a missing piece to her plan.

When Lopes heard a social worker share mitigating information on the background of a juvenile being sentenced for murder, she wondered if an early intervention could have kept the defendant from reaching that point.

Lopes decided to pursue a dual degree in law and social work would give her a more complete approach to helping people. She brought that approach to UConn School of Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic this academic year.

Recognizing that clinic has many clients with mental health and social service needs, Director Anna VanCleave reached out to the School of Social Work to offer field placements to students like Lopes who are pursuing a JD and a master’s degree in social work. VanCleave believes the criminal defense field has been slow to recognize the need to adopt interdisciplinary elements in criminal defense lawyering.

“Our partnership with the School of Social Work dramatically improves our ability to serve our clients’ legal needs, and Joyce’s impact in particular has been immeasurable,” VanCleave said. “Her training and experience as a social work student help us to tell our clients’ stories to courts and prosecutors and to find resources that keep clients in the community. Moreover, having a social worker in the classroom helps all of us to see what multilayered, client-centered advocacy can look like.”

Lopes is the first student to work at the Criminal Defense Clinic to fulfil one year of the School of Social Work’s fieldwork requirement.  She is helping build social service infrastructure to place clients in programs that meet their needs and help their criminal cases. She also started a project to put in place best practices for defenders who encounter clients with suicidal ideation.

As she has worked with clients from a legal perspective, Lopes has brought social work principles to bear, considering the whole person and focusing on strengths. She has revamped the initial interview and intake process to better communicate with clients.

“Social work has a very deep understanding of meeting each person where they’re at, understanding their environment and looking at that person as a whole person,” Lopes said. “With the clinic, we need background and factual information but then get right to what happened. Giving them a chance to talk about that and their feelings gets the relationship off on a much better start.”

There have been times when incongruities have arisen between the two disciplines. Lopes said social work is very focused on recognizing the individual’s need to make their own choices and have their own autonomy, where in law the attorney must sometimes make a decision. Both roles have a specific set of ethics. She has worked with VanCleave and her School of Social Work field instructor, Regina Grant MSW ’09,  to help reconcile those issues, which she said has not been difficult.

Lopes’s work involves building mitigation for clinic clients, including cases carrying serious charges. What she is learning in her social work classes – with a concentration in individuals, groups and family practice – has helped her build relationships with clients and make them feel comfortable opening up to her.

“Joyce, as a JD/MSW student, has been able to recognize the clinical needs of her clients assigned within her legal clinic field placement to provide appropriate advocacy within the judicial system,” Grant said. “She’s undoubtedly been an asset to this field placement.”

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Laura Curran Named as Next Dean of UConn School of Social Work Tue, 09 May 2023 16:01:59 +0000 Ziba Kashef Laura Curran, Ph.D., a highly regarded social work educator and researcher, has been selected as the 15th dean of the UConn School of Social Work.

Dr. Curran currently is the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Prior to serving as Vice Provost, Dr. Curran held the position of Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the Rutgers University School of Social Work.

Laura Curran
Laura Curran (contributed photo).

She starts her new role as UConn School of Social Work dean on August 11.

Anne D’Alleva, UConn’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, announced Curran’s appointment in a letter today to the school’s faculty, staff, and students, noting she was a top choice from an “exceptionally talented pool of applicants.”

“Dr. Curran demonstrates a clear understanding of the mission of our School of Social Work, with a commitment to social, racial, and economic justice and the improvement of human well-being, both locally and globally,” D’Alleva says.

“She has led several DEI initiatives and has a record of interdisciplinary collaboration and understands the demands of research and faculty advancement. She is also a strong supporter of students, serving as a mentor for supervised research assistantships for social work graduate students over the last two decades.”

In her role as Vice Provost, Dr. Curran was responsible for strategic initiatives that support faculty leadership, mentoring, recruitment, and retention as well as directing the Center for Faculty Success.

She served as a key member of multiple high-level strategic planning initiatives including the Academic Master Plan, which encompassed initiatives addressing student, faculty, and staff well-being as well as inclusive pedagogy and teaching excellence.

Dr. Curran’s scholarship focuses on three main areas: social work and social welfare history; women’s perinatal health and well-being; and social work education. Her work has received funding from the New Jersey, Department of Health, the New York Community Trust, and the Association of Social Work Boards, among other entities.

“I am incredibly honored and humbled to join the UConn community and lead the deeply talented faculty, staff, and students at the UConn School of Social Work,” says Curran. “I hope to build on the School’s incredibly strong foundation, work in close collaboration with our state and community partners, further enhance our research portfolio and educational programs, and advance the school’s social justice mission.”

Dr. Curran will succeed Nina Rovinelli Heller, who plans to return to the faculty after eight years as the school’s dean.

“I am delighted to welcome Dr. Curran to our UConn SSW community,” says Dr. Heller. “She brings a strong and demonstrated commitment to social work education and research, faculty development, and student mentoring. This background, and prior work in the Rutgers’ Provost Office, position her well to work closely with colleagues across the university, our community partners, and to advance the national profile of the school.”

Dr. Curran earned her B.A. from Barnard College, an M.S.W. from Columbia University, and her PhD from UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare.

Prior to entering academia, Dr. Curran practiced as a social worker in the areas of community mental health and child welfare. She is currently an elected member of the Board of Directors of the Council of Social Work Education.

Dr. Curran comes to the UConn School of Social Work as it celebrates its 75th anniversary as a leader in graduate social work education and research, and its faculty reported $4.5 million in research expenditures in FY 22.

The School of Social Work is also tied for no. 36 by U.S. News and World Report annual rankings, placing it in the top 12 percent of graduate social work programs nationwide.

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2023 Commencement at a Glance Mon, 08 May 2023 11:30:50 +0000 Combined Reports

The members of the Class of 2023 arrived at UConn as part of a diverse and academically accomplished cohort, determined to make their mark on the state’s flagship public university.

They did that and more, navigating the challenges of an unprecedented global pandemic while setting new standards in sustainability, entrepreneurship, activism, and student scholarship. And, on their way to their next adventure, they got to celebrate the first NCAA men’s basketball national championship in nearly a decade.

This weekend, students in full regalia gathered with their classmates and processed together to Gampel Pavilion and the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts to hear their names called as they join the great community of graduates stretching all the way back to 1883. Thousands of people – from Connecticut, from New England, from the nation, from the world – joined together to celebrate our next generations of UConn Alumni.

Here are some special moments from those ceremonies, captured by UConn photographers Sydney Herdle, Sean Flynn, and Peter Morenus.

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Celebrating UConn’s Class of 2023 Fri, 05 May 2023 12:15:18 +0000 Tom Breen If there’s one thing the members of the Class of 2023 have learned to handle, it’s the unexpected.

There’s the good kind of unexpected – taking a class that steers you toward a brand-new major and different path in life; making friends with people from backgrounds totally different from your own; celebrating a national championship in the face of doubt and disbelief from the national basketball pundits – and then there’s the other kind, as in, say, a global pandemic that defines the first half of your college experience.

Fans celebrate at Gampel Pavilion after the UConn Men's Basketball team beats San Diego State University in Houston for the NCAA Men's championship title on April 3, 2023
That UConn feeling. (Peter Morenus/UConn photo)

But the graduates of 2023 have demonstrated the ability to navigate any change, no matter how vertigo-inducing it may seem, and emerge on the other side better, wiser, and ready for more. 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 are the first in their family to attend college, and Huskies who are carrying on a proud family tradition of earning a UConn degree.

A photograph from 1883, showing the six young men who would be the first to receive degrees from the institution that is now UConn.
The first students to ever receive degrees from the institution that became UConn, in 1883 (Department of Archives & Special Collections/UConn Library).

Reading their stories – the familiar memories of initially feeling intimidated by the size of the University community before finding a niche; the enthusiasm for work accomplished and plans made; the private jokes and lifelong bonds – gives us a sense of what it means to be a Husky in 2023.

Although many things have changed since that day in 1883 when six young Connecticut residents received the first degrees awarded in the institution’s history, the sense that all UConn’s riches can be contained within the experiences of each student has remained.

This week, thousands of people – from Connecticut, from New England, from the nation, from the world – will join those six original graduates, all the subsequent generations of Huskies: doctors, teachers, public servants, WNBA All-Stars, astronauts, inventors, comedians, folk singers, puppeteers, pharmacists, nurses, civil rights lawyers, journalists – anything and everything that can be done with a first-class education, a will to succeed, and a moral foundation rooted in a diverse, dynamic community.

So, congratulations to the Class of 2023, and remember: as of now, you may no longer be students, but you’ll always be Huskies Forever.

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Data Experts at School of Social Work’s National SOGIE Center Take Lead Role in Supporting Justice-Involved LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit Youth Thu, 04 May 2023 11:01:56 +0000 Tom Breen The National Council of Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) received a newly established $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to establish a National Resource Center to support LGBTQ2S+ youth and their families. The National Center for Youth with Diverse Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression (National SOGIE Center), based at the UConn School of Social Work’s Innovations Institute, is partnering with NCJFCJ in the development of this National Resource Center to support essential youth justice reforms and address the needs of underserved populations within youth justice systems across the U.S. The Center will advance positive youth development practices and be a clearinghouse on policies and practices related to justice impacted LGBTQ2S+ youth. They will also support the workforce within youth justice systems by providing comprehensive training and technical assistance.

Building on the Biden Administration’s support for LGBTQI+ rights, OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan has stated “Our Office and our programs embrace all youth. We honor every young person’s right to live their truth—openly and in safety.” In receiving this newly established grant, NCJFCJ partnered with the National SOGIE Center, and with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, the Gault Center and the Tribal Law and Policy Institute. The National SOGIE Center, a partnership of multiple organizations, coordinates a national approach to addressing the needs of LGBTQ+ youth involved in public systems and their families.

The National SOGIE Center’s work on this grant is led by the Innovations Institute team of Marlene Matarese, Principal Investigator, and Angela Weeks, Director. Matarese and Weeks will lead the development of content for justice and community stakeholders around best practices when working with LGBTQ2S+ populations to be disseminated through webinars, office hours, tools. Matarese explains The National SOGIE Center’s interest in this project, “We have been developing innovative programs for LGBTQ+ youth in child welfare that serve to create positive outcomes for young people and their families. We are now turning our attention to youth justice systems, using our experience and our understanding of LGBTQ+ populations to ensure best practices, policies, and protocols are utilized, and to support the workforce interacting with young people.”

National consultants on SOGIE data collection, Matarese and Weeks conducted a pivotal study in 2021 with the Division of Children and Families in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, finding that fully 32% of youth in foster care in the Midwest were identifying as LGBTQ+—almost four times the national average of youth ages 13 to 17. This study built on two previous studies in Los Angeles in 2014 and New York in 2020 and highlights a nationwide overrepresentation of LGBTQ+ youth in public systems. Matarese and Weeks have recently launched a learning community with the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors for leaders in youth-serving systems to learn how to collect SOGIE data safely and respectfully to better understand and serve the populations in their care.

Weeks notes, “Our data show a disproportionate number of Black and brown youth who identify as LGBTQ+ within child welfare and behavioral health; this overrepresentation is even greater in the youth justice system. Young people involved in these public systems are often harmed by racism, anti-LGBTQ+ bias, and a lack of trauma-informed care. Across our systems work, we try to address disparities through that lens. Through this new center, we strive to positively impact these young people through the support, training, and resources we provide to the adults who serve them.”

The more likely that child welfare and behavioral health systems can provide affirming support for young people of diverse SOGIE, the less likely they will be to encounter the youth justice system. For those young people who do enter the justice system, the National SOGIE Center are working to train the workforce to address the needs of young people to ensure they receive support toward a brighter future.

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Inaugural InCHIP Dissertation Assistantship Award Supports Public Health Research Thu, 20 Apr 2023 11:10:27 +0000 Danielle Faipler The University of Connecticut’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) has announced the recipients of its first-ever Dissertation Assistantship Award.

The assistantship aims to fill a gap at UConn by providing support to graduate students in the social sciences as they complete dissertations related to human health. In addition to the financial support, awardees will benefit from InCHIP’s network by working alongside InCHIP investigators who are leaders in the fields of public health and applied social and behavioral research.

“We are excited to have received many outstanding applications for InCHIP’s inaugural Dissertation Assistantship Award and thrilled to congratulate Maritza Vasquez Reyes and Jude Ssenyonjo on their impressive proposals,” says Tricia Leahey, Ph.D., Interim Director of InCHIP. “Their social justice and global health research projects are innovative, timely, and have the potential for significant public health impact.”

Maritza Vasquez Reyes, a Ph.D. candidate in the UConn School of Social Work, is one recipient of the InCHIP Dissertation Assistantship Award.

Maritza Vasquez Reyes, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Social Work, will work with her major advisor, Caitlin Elsaesser, associate professor in the UConn School of Social Work, to examine how youth organizations support well-being and sustain youth engagement in positive social change.

Vasquez Reyes worked as a medical social worker and case manager at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, NY for 12 years. Her research interests include economic and social justice, particularly poverty and inequality issues and policies, community organizing, and international social work. Vasquez Reyes feels passionate about social change at the local, national, and international levels and plans to pursue an academic career in social work and critical youth studies.

“My upbringing in a developing country, years of schooling in the fields of social work and sociology, and my experience as a medical social worker and in research all led to my interest in scholarship addressing the wellbeing of youth of color who live in neighborhoods with high rates of violence,” said Vasquez Reyes. “This award will provide me with the support to focus on my dissertation data analysis and writing, enabling me to graduate next year.”

Image of Jude Ssenyonjo
Jude Ssenyonjo, a Ph.D. candidate in Allied Health Sciences Health Promotion Sciences program in the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources, has received the InCHIP Dissertation Assistantship Award.

Jude Ssenyonjo is a Ph.D. candidate in health promotion sciences at the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. Under the supervision of Michael Copenhaver, a professor in the Department of Allied Health Sciences (College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources), Ssenyonjo’s dissertation will examine HIV prevention among female sex workers in Uganda and evaluate the efficacy of a behavioral intervention to promote Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), HIV testing and counseling, and condom use.

“Uganda is still one of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa with a disproportionately high HIV prevalence compared to other nations and the incidence of HIV in female sex workers is significantly higher than the national prevalence. This prompted my interest to engage in this research to understand the barriers to safer sex practices and engage female sex workers to design a tailored health intervention using PrEP, HIV testing, and promoting condom usage to reduce the prevalence of HIV in this sub-group,” said Ssenyonjo. “The Dissertation Assistantship will support my research and provide a platform to showcase my academic work in behavioral science research.”

Ssenyonjo has 22 years of experience in public health, designing and implementing intervention strategies and social and behavior change (SBC) programs in HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Tuberculosis, family planning, nutrition, and maternal and child health and Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19).

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New Scholars in Aging Program Prepares Social Work Students to Serve Growing Older Adult Population Wed, 19 Apr 2023 11:30:31 +0000 Ziba Kashef Shalamiesha Gilbert ’23 MSW had not thought about using her social work degree to work specifically with older adults until she took a course in Social Gerontology at the School of Social Work (SSW) in the Fall of 2020. During her first year of graduate school, she had interned at an elementary school and enjoyed it. But the gerontology course piqued a new interest.

Then, a chance encounter with one of her professors at the grocery store led Gilbert to sign up for a newly launched Scholars in Aging program at the SSW.  A stipend-based internship program, Scholars in Aging prepares Master of Social Work (MSW) students with specialized classroom and field training to serve the growing number of adults aged 65 and older in a range of diverse community and institutional settings.

Countdown to Commencement word mark

The School of Social Work established the Scholars in Aging program, with the support of donor and alumna Judith Zachs ’77 MSW, in 2022 because of a growing need for social workers to serve the increasing older adult population. The number of individuals aged 65 and older in the United States is projected to nearly double by 2060, rising from 16% of the population to 23%. The program also addresses a state workforce need, as Connecticut has the 6th highest population of older adults in the nation.

“As the world’s population gets older, the need for Scholars in Aging has grown,” says Zachs, who has devoted her professional social work career to gerontology. “This program is both the beginning and the future to educate students and experienced social workers to meet the needs of our growing senior population.”

Gerontology consultant to the program Kathryn Betts Adams agrees. “The rapidly aging population here in Connecticut, as in many other parts of the United States, provides a dramatic demographic imperative to increase services, housing, livable communities, health care, and mental health care for older adults. In order to do that, we must educate and train the workforce to serve current and future older adults in community, health care, and residential settings, and also advocate for and help shape aging-friendly policies at organizational and government levels.”

‘They Still Want to be Treated the Same’ 

While taking the course that sparked her passion for working with seniors, Gilbert and fellow students participated in a program called Tea @ 3 Community. Facilitated by the nonprofit group For All Ages, the program pairs students with older adults who they call to chat with for an hour once a week.

“I really liked the senior I was paired with, and I could see myself working with the senior population,” she recalls. “So, for my second year, when I did field education, I really wanted to work with seniors. For me, my personality, their personality, just clicks.”

Gilbert’s current field placement is in the adult and family services division of West Hartford Social Services. For 15 hours a week, she helps seniors with a range of needs, such as applying for Medicare, finding transportation, accessing Meals on Wheels, and getting tech support. In addition to doing occasional home visits, she also runs a Memory Café, a monthly meet-up for older adults with dementia and their caregivers to socialize in a “judgement-free” space, at the Bishop’s Corner Senior Center in West Hartford.

“They don’t want to be treated like babies,” she says of her clients. “They want to be seen as equals, even if they might have some memory loss. They still want to be treated the same.”

The Scholars in Aging program, which has a small cohort of eight students, also brings student scholars together weekly to discuss readings and issues affecting seniors. “It’s really nice to have a small intimate group to talk to, or to hear about other people’s cases,” she says. “It’s really supportive and really informative.” Through her coursework and internship, she’s learned that older adults are more diverse economically and socially than she realized and have challenges that range from evictions to substance misuse.

In addition to her coursework, Gilbert recently took a course sponsored by the town of West Hartford and is now a Certified Dementia Practitioner. The program has convinced her to continue serving older adults when she graduates. “I would like to work with the aging population. That’s my ultimate goal,” she adds.

‘We’re All Going to Age One Day’

Like Gilbert, Jhanelle Bailey ’23 MSW, also did not initially envision serving older adults as a future social worker. Since she had interned at a public school while getting her bachelor’s degree, she wanted to try a different setting, such as a hospital that served various populations, for her required field education experience. Her field advisor suggested Masonicare, a Connecticut-based provider of health care services and senior living. That field placement qualified her for the Scholars in Aging program.

In her coursework, Bailey has gained insight into the needs of older adults as well as the gaps in research about the senior population, particularly elders of color. “There’s a lack of research when it comes to sub-populations of older adults. I’ve also learned about how prominent the issue of isolation is when it comes to older adults and how impactful that was especially with the COVID pandemic,” she says.

At Masonicare, Bailey starts the day conducting group psychotherapy sessions. If a new patient arrives, she performs a biopsychosocial intake, gathering information from the individual, family member, or guardian to determine what services they may need. She also checks in with existing patients one-on-one. Her day typically wraps up with discharge planning, which might involve making calls to long-term care facilities to find space for departing patients.

“When it comes to long-term care, especially for people with dementia, there are not a lot of facilities in Connecticut that have space available for the older adult population,” she notes. “For one patient, sometimes I’m calling up to ten facilities trying to get someone to say, yes, we have beds available.”

On other days, she might sit in on a court hearing in which decisions are made about how to handle a patient’s finances or refusal to take medication. This varied and practical experience differs from her prior internship placement where she mainly shadowed her supervisor. “I’m actually working as a social worker. I am implementing different types of interventions with a patient or just connecting with them through one-on-one sessions,” she says.

Bailey has also benefited from meeting with other students in the program to share their experiences. “We talk about different cases that we might encounter and brainstorm what we could do to either support that student or just help them process whatever they’re going through,” she notes.

The program has confirmed her plans to continue working with older adults after graduation. “My primary goal when searching for jobs is to make sure that I am working with older adults or the aging population,” says Bailey. “I want to make sure that I make some form of contribution because we’re all going to age one day.”


The program — which is open to MSW students who have chosen the Individuals, Groups, and Families concentration — provides a stipend to students upon completion of coursework and field education requirements in each semester during the last year of their program.

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UConn Research Announces First Recipients of Seed Funding For Inclusive Research Initiatives Thu, 30 Mar 2023 11:25:23 +0000 Matt Engelhardt Six projects have been granted UConn’s first-ever seed funding dedicated to research and collaborations the address societal issues such as equity and inclusion.

UConn Research recently announced the recipients of the JEDI Research initiative. The awards advance innovative research, scholarship, and creative work on topics contained in the acronym – Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

Selected interdisciplinary projects include investigations into traffic safety inequities in environmental justice communities and alternative approaches for school safety. Other awarded submissions explore discrimination experienced by transgender and non-binary youth, establishing a memorial and museum at the former Mansfield Training School, and researching the practice of ethnic studies across the United States.

“Congratulations to our first cohort of researchers to earn these prestigious awards, which reflect so much of what UConn represents as an institution,” says Pamir Alpay, interim Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship. “These projects break down disciplinary silos to embrace critical research topics of growing relevance to our state, nation, and the world.”

Three projects received $20,000 in funding for scholarly or creative expansion, designed to support JEDI-themed projects in the fine arts, the development of scholarly book projects focusing on equity and diversity, and the establishment of innovative partnerships among disciplines. Two projects received $60,000 in funding, reserved for larger scale research projects so they can be better positioned to seek greater funding in the near future.

UConn Research announced the JEDI Research Initiative last May – coincidentally just after Star Wars Day. Research Development Services Manager Matthew Mroz said the initiative was successful in its mission to generate creative interdisciplinary proposals from faculty, as evidenced by the quality of the awarded submissions and the number of disciplines that participated in the program.

The 2021-2022 JEDI awardees are:

Emma Amador, History – $19,638
Bright Futures: Antonia Pantoja and the Practice of Ethnic Studies in US History

Alaina Brenick, Human Development and Family Sciences – $19,997.19
Validating a measure of school-based interpersonal and institutional discrimination experienced by transgender and gender non-binary youth

Brenda Brueggemann, English – $20,000
The UConn – “Mansfield Training School” Cross-Institutional History:  A Memorial and Museum

Kiel Brennan-Marquez, Law Instruction and Research – $20,000
Reimagining School Safety—in Connecticut and Beyond
Co-PIs: Sukhmani SinghSchool of Social WorkMiguel de FigueiredoSchool of LawKen BaroneInstitute for Municipal and Regional PolicyAndrew ClarkInstitute for Municipal and Regional PolicyCasey Cobb, Neag School of Education

Sukhmani Singh, Social Work Instruction and Research – $59,998.64
An Intersectional Examination of the Educational Trajectories of Youth Sentenced to Probation

Davis Chacon Hurtado, Civil and Environmental Engineering – $60,000
Equity in livability: An exploratory analysis of spatial equity in roadway safety and driver behavior using naturalistic driving data
Co-PIs: Alexandra PaxtonPsychological SciencesJohn IvanCivil and Environmental EngineeringKerry MarshPsychological Sciences

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UConn School of Social Work Celebrates 75th Anniversary Tue, 21 Mar 2023 11:35:06 +0000 Ziba Kashef This year, the UConn School of Social Work commemorates 75 years of graduating social workers committed to social, racial, and economic justice for individuals, families, and communities, both locally and globally. The School’s signature Master of Social Work (MSW) degree program is the longest-running and highest-ranked MSW program in Connecticut, and among the top 12% of social work graduate programs nationwide.

“The School of Social Work continues to stand strong among the nation’s leading graduate schools for social work,” says Dean and Zachs Chair Nina Rovinelli Heller, who has served as dean for eight years. “We also continue to be responsive to the evolving needs of our students, the community, the state, and the field of social work with offerings, programs, and cutting-edge research that address the most challenging human service issues of our times.”

Honoring the Past

The history of the School of Social Work has been chronicled twice, first by one of its early and longest-serving deans, Harleigh Trecker. His work, which covered the School’s first 30 years in 838 pages, detailed how the University and the social work profession collaborated to establish the School, starting with early discussions in the late 30s.

The School of Social Work was initially conceived as a one-year graduate program with courses to be offered in Hartford and New Haven. Delayed briefly by World War II, plans for the School would not be denied and it officially opened in 1946 under then-University President Albert Jorgensen. That year, it had just six full-time and 16 part-time students enrolled in the MSW program and a single full-time faculty member. One student received his MSW in 1948.

Esther Pahl ’52 MSW, who was one of the School’s first eight MSW graduates, has fond memories of her time at UConn. “The outstanding study and training that I received at UConn School of Social Work not only prepared me for a professional career as a practitioner but also encouraged academic growth to ready me for an outstanding career in the helping profession,” she says. During her years as a student, she recalls the School did not have its own building, so classes were taught at Hartford Public High School by mostly visiting professors from Trinity College, the University of Chicago, Boston University, and Yale.

The School of Social Work's former location at the Greater Hartford campus, prior to UConn Hartford's move to the capital city.
The School of Social Work’s former location at the Greater Hartford campus, prior to UConn Hartford’s move to the capital city (Peter Morenus / UConn Photo).

The second chronicler of the School’s history is Professor Emerita Ruth Martin ’70 MSW, who began organizing an oral history project to mark the School’s 50th anniversary in the late 90s. Martin enlisted 27 of her students over the summer of 1997 and spring of 1998 to interview 41 individuals with deep knowledge of the School, including professors, deans, administrators, alumni, staff, as well as former professors and deans. They shared their perspectives on everything from the School’s early years, student life, milestones, programs, philosophy, and the future.

“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,” says Martin. “As an alumna 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.”

The oral history chapter on milestones included references to notable developments in the School’s first five decades, including but not limited to: the 20th anniversary of the Community Organizing sequence, which continues today as a program concentration; early links to state government agencies such as the Department of Social Services and Department of Children and Families; first courses on women and on aging; creation of the Institute for the Advancement of Political Social Work Practice (now the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work) and first campaign school; start of the Puerto Rican Studies Project; and first courses for people with disabilities, gays and lesbians, and people with HIV; among many others.

The School has inspired long service by several deans, faculty members, staff, and alumni. Professor Louise Simmons, who has been at the School for 46 years, and worked under eight deans, recalls the days before the University had computers. She initially worked in the Field Education office and later directed a service-learning program called Urban Semester in addition to teaching.

Simmons observes that over the years, the School has placed a greater emphasis on faculty research, now a key pillar of the School’s strategic plan. It has also brought in more young faculty members and greater diversity, including faculty researchers who address racial justice, international issues, and LBGTQ issues. “We express diversity in different ways,” she says. “There are connections with different parts of the local community. The school is healthier for that now because we consider those issues to be very important.”

An undated brochure for the School of Social Work.
An undated brochure for the School of Social Work (Department of Archives & Special Collections/UConn Library)

The School is distinguished, she says, by its specialized concentrations for master’s students, which include Individuals, Groups, and Families Practice; Community Organizing; and Policy Practice. “We have a very strong macro program,” she says. “Some alumni have been in the state legislature, speaker of the house. Others have gone on to play important roles in advocacy and policy groups.”

Celebrating the Future

Today, the School has greatly expanded to encompass a Bachelor of Social Work program and a Ph.D. program, which is the first and only public Ph.D. social work program in New England; it celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Some 403 students are enrolled in all three programs, and more than 8,700 alumni are recognized social work leaders throughout the region and nationally.

For several years the School was based at the UConn Greater Hartford campus in West Hartford, and is now situated in the heart of downtown Hartford, the state’s capital city. This location, close to a diverse urban center and accessible to hundreds of human service agencies statewide, allows the School to maintain its strong public service commitment and provide a wide range of hands-on field internship experiences for students.

Most recently, the School welcomed Innovations Institute, an interdisciplinary translational research center that greatly expands its national footprint, particularly in the area of child welfare. The Institute brings $12 million in grant funding and partnerships with 42 local and state governments to improve supports, systems, services, and outcomes for children, youth, and families across the country.

“The Institute strengthens our commitment to academic-public agency partnerships,” says Heller. “Their expertise in policy, finance, intervention design and installation, along with translational research, is core to the mission of SSW, and for the profession, and aligns with our strategic goals of increasing research, providing life-transformative experiences, and increasing community engagement.”

In April, the School will celebrate its 75th anniversary with a special event in Hartford. A 75th anniversary page also highlights achievements of just a few of the School’s distinguished and influential alumni.

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Social Work Researcher Seeks to Re-engage Black and African American Older Adults Isolated by COVID-19 Tue, 07 Mar 2023 12:30:18 +0000 Ziba Kashef School of Social Work Assistant Professor Rupal Parekh has long been interested in studying the impact of social isolation and loneliness on the health and well-being of Black, Hispanic, and immigrant older adults. When the opportunity to apply for a National Institutes on Aging (NIA) grant presented itself, she pursued it to study a persistent problem resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic: the isolation of a vulnerable community of older African Americans in Hartford.

“Black and African American older adults were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” says Parekh, whose pilot study is supported by part of the $7 million NIA Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center grant awarded to UConn Center on Aging. The data show that African Americans have higher rates of infection and death from the virus. Their continued isolation only compounds the risks to their well-being.

Parekh says the research shows a direct relationship between isolation and negative health outcomes for older adults, such as falls, depression, and poor management of chronic illnesses like heart disease. Her conversations with community partners, including church pastors and providers at senior centers in the Hartford area, revealed that many Black older adults had stopped going to senior centers and to church during the height of the pandemic due to fear of exposure to COVID-19 and other concerns.

The church is the center of social engagement for many Black and African American older adults. Although most churches and senior centers have opened up their doors again, some older adults may still be fearful and uncertain about going back. As such, many remain disengaged.

That’s a focus of my research: how we can create age-friendly communities so that all people can have meaningful opportunities to stay engaged — Assistant Professor Rupal Parekh

“I wanted to better understand the barriers and facilitators of engagement to churches and senior centers among Black and African American older adults, and work with the churches and the senior centers to develop an intervention to re-engage this population,” she adds. Parekh and the research team are collaborating with Co-Principal Investigator Christine Tocchi, assistant professor of nursing at UConn School of Nursing.

With the grant Parekh and her team are trying to better understand how to provide meaningful opportunities for engagement post-COVID-19. To delve into this under-researched area, she plans to first conduct focus groups with key stakeholders, including staff and volunteers at both senior centers and churches that serve Black and African American older adults. Those stakeholders will help define engagement and disengagement from their perspective.

By enlisting the community’s input in the development of the research, Parekh and her colleagues ensure that the project is community-based and participatory. The researchers aim to recruit seniors from both churches and senior centers, and reach a diverse group in terms of gender, to explore potential similarities and differences. “What we’ve heard is that churches have seen fewer men show up because there was a social aspect to church before for men that is no longer there,” Parekh notes. Some seniors have also lost friends to COVID.

Input from the community will also help Parekh and the research team refine other aspects of the project, which include both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. The former method involves a survey. “The quantitative questions are different assessment tools that we will be using to measure depression, physical activity, and participation to name a few factors,” she explains.

The qualitative piece consists of one-on-one, in-person interviews with seniors, which will be conducted by Master of Social Work students who are also African American and Black. The interviewers will explore participants’ engagement and disengagement in everyday activities pre- and post-COVID and look for common themes that will assist in the development of an engagement intervention. The student investigators will maintain research diaries to record notes and impressions in addition to analyzing interview transcripts.

When the data from focus groups and individual interviews are analyzed, Parekh’s team will then organize a workshop to present the findings to the older adults with the aim of “co-developing” interventions that churches and senior centers could implement. A solution might involve, for example, a carpooling service for those who have been missing church because they don’t have transportation or a buddy system for those who don’t have friends at a senior center or church anymore.

“These are the potential types of interventions that we can develop to encourage folks to go back to church and go back to some of these social activities that were meaningful to them,” says Parekh.

The ultimate goal of the work is to re-engage older adults to the activities that sustained them pre-COVID and reduce their isolation, particularly in BIPOC communities, which Parekh has witnessed up close as a former clinical social worker and as the daughter of immigrants. “That’s a focus of my research: how we can create age-friendly communities so that all people can have meaningful opportunities to stay engaged throughout their lives,” says Parekh.

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UConn Nursing, Social Work Awarded $6M to Address Workforce Shortages in Critical Fields Wed, 01 Mar 2023 16:00:35 +0000 Ziba Kashef The UConn School of Nursing and the UConn School of Social Work (SSW) have been awarded more than $6 million through the new CT Health Horizons program to address statewide shortages in social work and nursing.

The funding is from CT Health Horizons, a higher education program designed to address statewide shortages in social work and nursing. Beginning this spring, and over three years, the SSW, which was awarded more than $2 million, will use the funds to increase the number of social workers in Connecticut trained to serve the mental health needs of children and adolescents while the School of Nursing, which was awarded $4 million, will use the funds to increase the number of registered nurses to meet the School’s mission of advancing the health of individuals and communities.

“The School of Social Work is committed to addressing the mental health crisis affecting children and adolescents across our state,” says SSW Dean and Zachs Chair Nina Rovinelli Heller. “The CT Health Horizons award helps us both to support and prepare more students interested in youth mental health and to serve the state’s workforce needs.”

School of Nursing Dean Deborah Chyun adds that the funding comes at a crucial time for the state’s health care workforce.

“The School of Nursing is deeply appreciative that the state has recognized the critical shortage of nurses in Connecticut and has made funds available through the CT Health Horizons project,” Chyun says.

In the School of Social Work, funds will be used to provide $1 million in student stipends, hire faculty, and support two targeted SSW strategies: to increase the number of Spanish-speaking, Master of Social Work (MSW)-level social workers in the state, and to boost the number of social workers in public schools.

To serve the growing Latina/o/x community in the state, the SSW will launch Connecticut ¡Adelante!, a program for Spanish-speaking, bilingual social work students. In addition to preparing these students to provide mental health services, the program will also build the linguistic and cultural competencies of students to serve a growing population of Latina/o/x children and families in Connecticut. Students will receive a stipend each semester they remain in the program.

Exterior views of the School of Social Work (SSW) with students walking out of the building.
Exterior views of the School of Social Work (SSW) with students walking out of the building. Sept. 15, 2022. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Connecticut ¡Adelante! will offer specialized courses in Spanish as well as field internships at local organizations that focus on Spanish-speaking families. The combination of education and hands-on training will prepare students to support mental health needs and improve the lives of Latinos in the state.

The program will also leverage the SSW’s long-term partnerships with Connecticut state departments and social service agencies – such as the Department of Children and Families, Wheeler Clinic, and Connecticut Children’s – to develop employment opportunities for students.

“The goals of Connecticut ¡Adelante! are to meet the mental health needs of children and families and to continue to create workforce pipelines for our graduating bilingual social work students to remain in Connecticut,” says Milagros Marrero-Johnson, director of strategic programming at SSW.

The second strategy supported by the CT Health Horizons grant focuses on school social work. Building on existing partnerships with two school districts, the award will allow the SSW to educate and train more social workers to serve in public schools.

The goals are to have social work students support school social workers in addressing the mental health needs of students, increase the number of social work students prepared to enter the field of school social work, and support those school social workers working with our social work students.

The project will help strengthen the school social worker pipeline by putting more social work students, particularly advanced-year MSW students, in Bloomfield Public Schools and Hartford Public Schools. In these school settings, the students will learn about existing mental health programs and work closely with teachers to implement mental health interventions such as conflict resolution. They will also support school social workers with behavioral and educational assessments.

In this way the students will gain greater exposure to school-based teams and strategies while also getting more deeply immersed in the complexities of school social work and mental health interventions. They will also participate in a webinar and complete a course on school social work they will need for certification.

“These funds could not come at a more critical moment,” says Amy Gorin, UConn’s Vice Provost for Health Sciences and Interdisciplinary Initiatives. “Our School of Social Work will put the CT Health Horizons award to immediate use to support and train students committed to helping the lives of Connecticut residents.”

The community will benefit by having a greater number of social work students placed in their schools for their field education experiences at a time when many youth are struggling with social-emotional challenges. The project will increase eight-fold the number of MSW students prepared to serve as school social workers, and also boost the number of BSW students exposed to this increasingly in-demand form of social work practice.

Storrs Hall is seen from the opposite side of Swan Lake.
UConn School of Nursing. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

“This program strengthens the relationship between the UConn School of Social Work and public school systems by working with public schools to address current student mental health and well-being needs,” says Joanne Corbin, SSW associate dean for academic affairs. “Importantly the program ensures that the School of Social Work is preparing students in the areas of most need in the state.”

In the School of Nursing, $1.2M will provide much-needed scholarship support for the school’s accelerated students, who otherwise as second-degree students, have exhausted other sources of support and have limited access to funding. These 122 student recipients will complete their nursing degrees in one-year, along with their classmates, will contribute 150 or more nurses to the workforce each year.  They serve as an important source of nurses who are so urgently needed in the state.  This support will allow them to focus on their rigorous curriculum and ease their financial burden, including their need for outside work.

Nursing faculty, who are in short supply across the country, will also be recruited through this initiative. With $2.8M in funding, UConn will be able to hire an additional seven new faculty, allowing the School to increase its student enrollment. The UConn School of Nursing is highly competitive and has to turn away more than 1,500 applicants each year for lack of faculty and access to clinical sites.

“The nursing shortage demands immediate attention and this CT Health Horizons award will provide a much needed infusion of financial support for students and funds to hire new faculty,” says Gorin. “Our highly regarded School of Nursing will utilize these funds to educate a diverse nursing student body committed to improving the health care of Connecticut residents.”

Dean Chyun concludes that “the University of Connecticut School of Nursing is extremely grateful for the assistance of CT Health Horizons as we strive to meet the healthcare needs of our citizens.”

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$10 Million for National Early Childhood Intervention Personnel Development Equity Center Awarded to UConn Tue, 21 Feb 2023 20:30:31 +0000 Lauren Woods UConn School of Medicine’s Mary Beth Bruder, Ph.D. has been awarded a $10 million federal grant by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education, to provide technical assistance to increase equity in the delivery of early childhood intervention services to infants and young children from diverse backgrounds who have disabilities or developmental delays.

The new Early Childhood Intervention Personnel Development Equity Center is national in scope, and will be working with state systems of early childhood intervention, and institutions of higher education (IHE) who prepare the workforce to provide these services.

The Center is charged with assisting state systems to create more equity in early childhood intervention access, participation, and outcomes for all infants, young children, and their families, especially those who have traditionally been underserved because of racial, ethnic, and/or linguistically diverse backgrounds. The Center will also be creating equity-based curriculum for IHE and state in-service personnel preparation programs who prepare early childhood intervention teachers, therapists, and specialists. The curriculum will be competency based and aligned with practice standards to ensure the early intervention workforce will be able to create and provide appropriate and effective service models that will be welcoming to families and their children from diverse backgrounds.

Mary Beth Bruder.
Mary Beth Bruder (UConn Health Photo)

Another focus of the center is to work with IHEs to recruit students into early childhood intervention personnel preparation programs who are more representative of the population served. That is, students who have diverse racial, ethnic, and/or linguistic backgrounds, and will graduate and become teachers, therapists, and specialists and serve infants and young children with disabilities or developmental delays who are also diverse.

“This large, federal grant funding will grow, diversify, and truly strengthen the nation’s early childhood workforce and provide more equitable interventions for infants and young children with disabilities and their families,” says Bruder, a leading early childhood intervention expert and professor at the UConn School of Medicine and the UConn Neag School of Education.

The latest U.S. Department of Education data show that children of color and diverse backgrounds are less likely to be receiving services than those in all other racial/ethnic groups combined. In addition, the personnel entering the early intervention and preschool special education fields do not reflect the demographics of these young children and families being served, with most personnel being predominately white.

“UConn, other universities, and over 40 national professional organizations are working with us on the center, as the work is so important,” Bruder says. “The combined efforts of all our partners will be needed to improve the current disparities in service delivery that is experienced by families and their children because of their diversity. Likewise, IHE programs have long recognized the importance of attracting, supporting and preparing students from racial, ethnic, and linguistically diverse backgrounds across the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree levels, and supporting them to enter and stay in the early childhood profession.”

According to Bruder, this is a daunting task, as many of the structural and systemic barriers to equity for those with diverse racial, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds have been tolerated for too long. Dismantling these barriers through improved training curricula for a diversified workforce is the first step in societal change for infants and young children and families who have intersecting characteristics of disability and other defining characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and primary language that has compounded the disparities they have experienced. Providing equitable access and participation in early childhood intervention services and supports is the first step to improving and having long term impact on their quality of life.

This February, Katherine Neas, the Assistant Secretary of Education for Special Education and Rehabilitation Services in the U.S. Department of Education, participated in the UConn School of Medicine two-day summit about the newly awarded Early Childhood Intervention Personnel Development Equity Center. This new federal funding stems from President Biden’s June 2021 Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce to strengthen it by drawing further from the full diversity of our nation.

The new Early Childhood Intervention Personnel Development Equity Center is part of UConn’s longtime federally funded cross-campus Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research and Service (UCEDD) based at the School of Medicine, which is also directed by Bruder.

Since the 1980s, it has been devoted to helping those with disabilities and their families to enhance their quality of life. Funded by the Federal Developmental Disabilities Act, the goal of UConn’s UCEDD, one of 67 centers nationwide, is to help persons with disabilities to live as independently as possible, be productive members of society, work in paying jobs, and have the greatest quality of life possible. Bruder and her team achieve this through multidisciplinary scientific research, evidence-based intervention practices, and community-based service delivery and ongoing policy reform, while also training future researchers, community leaders, and others in helping people with disabilities navigate challenges facing them.

Each year, UConn UCEDD trains dozens of graduate students from different professional disciplines and an additional dozen doctoral student scholars in early childhood and disability studies at research universities across the country.

“At UConn, inclusion and belonging is woven into everything we do,” says Bruder. “Our new Early Childhood Intervention Personnel Development Equity Center will be improving the early childhood intervention system and its equity for all children with disabilities including those from diverse backgrounds. We will ensure the future workforce we train, and who cares for children with disabilities, better reflects these children’s demographics.”

In addition to the UConn School of Medicine, The Early Childhood Intervention Personnel Development Equity Center is a collaboration with UConn, the Neag School of Education and the School of Social Work, the Georgetown University Child Development Center (UCEDD), the Federation of Children with Special Needs and the Division for Early Childhood, Council for Exceptional Children, and a large network of other IHEs and for profit and non-profit organization partners.

Dr. Jeffrey F. Hines, the chief diversity officer of UConn Health, applauds the ongoing work of Bruder and her newly established Equity Center’s importance.

“People are best served by people who can identify with those serving them,” says Hines. “A more diversified workforce will help children with disabilities and their families of diverse backgrounds how to navigate. This diversification will create a culture of inclusion to benefit the children and families being served.”

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