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Public Affairs

Understanding Cultures, Encouraging Communities

Aug. 30, 2011
By Elizabeth Chapin

Oscar Hernandez wants to help at-risk kids get on the right path. This semester, the CSU Monterey Bay student will begin field work at a local community center where he will mentor youngsters with the goal to lead them to the path toward education, which, for them, leads to a better life.

Hernandez is beginning his second year in the CSUMB Master of Social Work (MSW) program, and comes from a diverse background. He is bilingual, and says speaking another language is beneficial, if not critical, to connect with many kids in California’s underserved communities.

“I want to help them stay in school and make choices that will benefit themselves and their families—education provides a brighter future,” Hernandez said. “Being bilingual was a valuable asset in my experience counseling underserved youth, because a majority of the kids I worked with spoke Spanish.”

Hernandez’s attraction to social work isn’t surprising. Simply put, social workers improve people’s lives. Occupations in the field include public services, counseling and therapy, and address issues including medical, public and mental health. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there’s a need for more trained social workers, especially those who can connect with underserved communities—because the nation’s diverse demographics are growing.

The 2010 Census reports that more than 35 percent of California residents are Latino. Closely reflecting California's state’s demographics, nearly 30 percent of CSU students are Latino. With a diverse student body, the CSU produces graduates equipped to serve the state’s equally vibrant communities.

A study by Cal State L.A. social work professor Valentine Villa reports growing diversity means an increase in populations that are more at risk for health problems and other disparities. For example, Villa’s report indicates that Latinos are two to three times more likely to live in poverty when compared to non-Latino Whites. In addition, they are less likely to have a usual source of care or health insurance. Therefore, Villa reports, they are more likely to need and seek the help of social workers.

“Social workers serve people who are most often overlooked and neglected,” said Mayleen True, director of the Master of Social Work program at CSUMB. “So they often provide care that low income families can’t afford.”

True says it’s imperative that today’s social workers are in tune with the community. Her program preaches cultural competence, and, with field practicum (internships), the students put it into practice. They are placed with local county and nonprofit agencies, where they practice effective tactics to communicate with different cultures.

“It makes them more versatile,” True said. “They need to have specialized clinical skills as well as people skills—and with a growing underserved and diverse population, the students must know how to address issues in a culturally sensitive way.”

True says there was a need for an MSW program in the Central Coast, and the newly-implemented program at CSUMB is a win-win situation for local students. With an MSW, students are eligible to get state licensure, and they’re also able to serve their home communities. Ultimately, they are better able to serve communities that are familiar to them.

“Our students come from an array of diverse backgrounds: Asian, Latino, African American—many of them first-generation college students,” True said. “They are proud of what they’ve accomplished and feel the need to give back to their own communities, to become role models for others.”

True adds that 41 percent of the MSW students are Latino, which is outstanding, even among CSUMB's already-diverse student demographics and status as a Hispanic-serving institution.

Hernandez will soon serve as a role model for misguided youth. He says what he’s learned so far in the MSW program will definitely help him guide them on the right path – and he knows that cultural competence lays a foundation for the required communication.

“When we are able to relate to another culture, it makes our jobs easier,” Hernandez said. “And it’s also easier to make a connection that can change someone’s life.”