What brought me to Houston from China?

Shu Zhou     by Shu

As an international student from China, it was hard for me to make the decision to  study abroad and leave my friends and family behind. It became even harder when I needed to choose a PhD program. I mean, wherever I chose is where I would stay for at least 4 or 5 years, and there are so many options! I travelled around the U.S. for campus interviews and visits, and sought advice from many of my PhD friends. After months of exhausted researching, my final decision was made in April 2014. While some other programs appeared attractive as well, Houston and the GCSW have a couple of strengths that are very important for me and my family.

  1. Funding: Most importantly, GCSW has Graduate Tuition Fellowship that can cover my coursework tuition. In addition, I was offered a research assistant position that provided a monthly stipend and President-PhD scholarship. On top of that, I had regarding say which professor I would work for. With the 6.5 currency exchange rate between Chinese Yuan and U.S. Dollars, I would not have been able to come here without the helpful financial package. Actually, I was surprised that international students are eligible for many of GCSW’s funding sources, just like domestic students. The flexible financial support not only brought me an educational opportunity, but also warmed and inspired me emotionally in the spirit of “borderless education.”
  2. Study Abroad: I have experienced huge personal and professional benefits from studying abroad in the U.S. I highly cherish the chance to explore more about the world, especially before I carry more family responsibilities like parenting. I was excited to know that GCSW leads many study abroad trips to a variety of countries and regions. For example, Mainland China, Hong Kong, Mexico, Turkey, Russia, Cuba and U.K. are recent study abroad options, and the list continues to grow. It is convenient that these study abroad courses are scheduled at different times throughout the semester and selectable for both MSW and PhD level students.
  3. Student Organizations: Student organizations are definitely an important part of my school life because loneliness is one of the biggest problems for international students. We face language challenges and culture barriers on a daily basis. As a prospective student back in 2014, I was aware that PhD cohorts tend to be comprised of a very small number of students. That made me value the role of student organizations in my PhD life even more. I was glad to learn that GCSW has many interesting student organizations that represent different academic, professional and cultural interests. For example, the Association of Asian American Social Workers, Hispanic Student Association, MACRO Student Organization and Clinical Leadership Society are a few popular student organizations at the GCSW. They actively promote professional and social activities among social work students. I desperately needed such opportunities to expand my social network and support system.
  4. Diversity-friendly: Another factor I considered when selecting a school was whether the university and the city are diversity-friendly. As a minority immigrant, I want to be safe and comfortable in the community where I stay. As a major port city, Houston is the most diverse city in the nation. It is amazing to me that over 90 languages are spoken here! When I was here briefly for my campus interview, I had the chance to meet and talk with professors and students from different cultural heritages. I felt accepted and welcomed. I knew I wouldn’t need to worry about being a “stranger” in public due to my race and appearance. The diversity of people and cultures also had another unexpected benefit: besides New York and California, Houston probably has the largest and best China Town in the U.S.! I absolutely enjoy their Asian supermarkets and restaurants with delicious authentic Chinese food.
  5. Opportunities: As a married student, I had to keep my spouse’s needs in mind and ease our family relocation as much as I could. When I was applying for a PhD program, my husband, who is also Chinese, was about to get his master of economics. We agreed that I would go to a place that could provide some good opportunities for him as well. Houston was a great choice for us because he didn’t need to decide if he will study or work at that point. Regarding PhD-level educational opportunities, there are many options such as UH, UH-Downtown, Rice, and Houston Baptist University. As for employment, oil industry companies and banks are all over the place. Our Chinese friends who work in Houston told us local companies welcome international employees, which was very important for us.
  6. Future Career: Since I want to return home to China after graduation, I evaluated how GCSW can help my future career in China. I met with some professors who originally came from China and learned that they had conducted numerous research projects about Asian and Asian-American populations. They had also collaborated with other Chinese professors and visiting scholars. Of course, they have maintained good relationships with different universities in China. Our conversations comforted me and assured that I would be able to continuously build up my professional network and research projects with their resources and support, instead of starting over after moving back to China. Meanwhile, I still needed to be prepared to work in the U.S. following graduation just in case. Following the suggestions of my PhD friends and with the help of Google and Facebook, I tracked down the current employment of some past PhD graduates of GCSW. Apparently, they were competitive in the job market, especially in the state of Texas. The search results gave me some hard evidence to prove the GCSW’s reputation and quality of education. My strong confidence in my future career began at that point, even before I actually started the PhD program.

It has been a long way from China to Houston, and my expectations are as high as my investments. As a 2nd year PhD student, I won’t lie and say that my first year here was perfect; growing always comes with pain. What I can say is that the primary needs of me and my family have been satisfied here. We appreciate the many wonderful strengths of Houston and the GCSW!

Study Abroad: Dreams Come True (for Part-Time Students, Too!)

cassie-photo-  by Cassie

Call me biased, but when I hear the phrase “study abroad,” I imagine unencumbered undergrads, able to relocate for months at a time. Not 30-something-full-time teachers, who are also in graduate school, with a host of other ongoing, local commitments. Fortunately, this March I will be able to challenge that image, for myself and others, as I join the GCSW for the Learning Abroad UK trip.

To study abroad in the UK has remained at the top of my “bucket list” for many years. As an undergraduate, I did not pursue a similar opportunity because I allowed my anxieties about leaving home and my fear of failure to override my better judgment, a decision I have regretted ever since.

Fast-forward a decade. Studying at the GCSW has helped me to identify the root of my primary professional goal: to facilitate challenging and meaningful conversations. As a LMSW, one setting in which I can see myself pursuing this goal is a hospice – facilitating more authentic and reflective conversations among family members and terminally ill clients as they prepare for their death.

So, this learning abroad trip to the UK will allow me not only to challenge my personal limitations but also to support my professional goal through visiting the birthplace of two large cultural shifts around death and dying; the first hospice and the first Death Café began there.

I’m grateful to the GCSW for helping one of my long held dreams to come true. The college is continually growing and revising itself to meet the needs of its students. To me, one reflection of this is offering brief study abroad options that allow even busy Weekend College students to participate. So, stay tuned. I look forward to posting an update on what I learned and experienced when I return!

Finding the Space to Take a Breathe

Emme Bozone Photo       By Emme

Have you ever had one of those crazy semesters (or years) that seem like you can never find the down time you need. Your schedule is one thing after another and you don’t stop until you sleep at night. When you do have some type of break you have an errand to run, homework to catch up on, or a place to be. At first you can keep up with it, but as the days turn into weeks and weeks into months you can feel your body slowing down a little more, your attitude waning, and patience a little less then normal.

A major emphasis during my foundation semester was the importance for self-care. It felt like every class spoke on it, every lecture contained some tidbit as to why it was important, and every professor had a horror story of life without self-care. I’ll admit, we may have poked fun at how much self-care was talked about that semester; but each semester I’ve grown in my understanding of how to do self-care in this season of life and how to not.

  1. Coffee shops: I love a lot of things in life, and coffee shops certainly come in somewhere near the top! The aroma of coffee, music, and opportunity to people watch are what makes the experience. Many afternoons are spent with a friend or two sitting with a good cup of coffee, working on some homework, and chatting about life. Some of my favorites include Blacksmith, Boomtown, PJ’s Coffee House, and Agora.
  1. Sprint Triathlon: One of the summer classes I took was Shame, Empathy and Resiliency with Brene Brown (a must take class!). Sports or any physical fitness related activity is often a source of shame for me, yet completing a triathlon was on my bucket list. A few friends rallied around and we all signed up for the Lonestar Sprint Triathlon in Galveston. Training gave me a goal to work towards and a new outlet for taking care of myself.
  1. Dog Park: Growing up I was never an animal person, but somehow Texas has turned me into one. Recently I adopted a dog, Penny, from a local rescue. We generally make it to the dog park three times a week. Penny is a very social pup with humans and helps me make many new friends! It’s a good time to be outside, away from normal responsibilities, and meet new people. My favorite is the Johnny Steele Dog Park as we get to take a walk along the bayou before going in to play.

I’ve enjoyed finding new ways to take care of my self during graduate school. I’ve been able to try new hobbies, make new friends, and learn about who I am as an individual, a friend, and a professional. How you care for yourself helps shape your journey in graduate school and the experience you have. Don’t be afraid to step out and try new things or rekindle an old hobby!

Networking and The Power

Jarvis Photo  By Jarvis

How often have you heard the phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know?” My guess is that you probably hear it every so often, especially when it comes to making progress and moving around in the professional and academic worlds.  I never realized just how important and true this phrase was until a few months ago.  I would always hear it, but I would never take the time out to really analyze the saying and try to apply it to my everyday life.

Last semester, I enrolled in an elective class, Managing Human Service Organizations with Professor Jennifer Battle (whom is freaking amazing and knows EVERYone in the Houston Social Work World), and I learned a wealth of helpful knowledge.  One of the many highlights of the course was Networking and the power of it.  We would spend at least 15 minutes each class discussing networking and “the who you know phrase” would always come up somehow.  A part of our 3-hour session each week with Professor Battle included a guest speaker lecture on a different topic that we covered in class.  Professor Battle would bring in a different colleague each week from various agencies and companies in the Houston area to speak with our class and give us their best advice.  The thing that amazed me most every time a guest speaker presented was not actually the information presented, but instead was the relationship that Professor Battle would have with each of her colleagues.  They all spoke so highly of her and you could clearly tell that our professor had built great relationships and rapport with her colleagues and that she was very well respected in the social work world. It was very clear that they would probably help her in any way they could if she ever needed it.  It wasn’t until a random Tuesday night class when it finally clicked in me.  “IT’S DEFINITELY NOT WHAT YOU KNOW, BUT WHO YOU KNOW!”

It seemed so obvious, but for so long I never really understood the saying.  I learned that if one wants to grow, one must network.  In the social work profession, it is nearly impossible to make change alone and without the help and cooperation of our entire community, we won’t be that successful.  It is up to us as social workers to build our networks and help each other so that we can help our clients whom are the people that depend on us the most.  Networking and connecting with other social workers is essential and I’m so glad that I finally realized the power of networking and connecting with other social workers!

Life Balance

Gardenia Photo   By Gardenia

I remember rocking my daughter back and forth, back and forth, as I fed her and nurtured her body while attempting to nurture my brain. Once she was lulled back into her sweet sleep I continued pouring over books and wondering how to fashion my written words in such a way that they would be a true expression of everything I felt inside, each and every thought I wished to convey. The process of balancing my life had become considerably trickier since the birth of my daughter three months prior and I was tired so much of the time. I went to complete my BSW when she was just 3 months old and I started with an 18 hour semester. My husband was patient and supportive, but we were 20 and 21 with a newborn and a whole slew of responsibilities that we did not know yet how to navigate. I had to learn through trial and error how to allocate my time, how to make the most of every minute, and to just allow myself the grace to make mistakes. Balancing family, work, and graduate school requires knowing that there will be times when it feels as if there is an overwhelming amount expected from you that cannot possibly be extracted from your tired mind and body. However, there is a curious thing that occurs when it feels like there is not possibly a way in which you can press forward and excel. From within the recesses deep within self and the support of those around you there arises the drive to push forward. Having confidence in your abilities while simultaneously being vulnerable in reaching out and allowing a support network to help soothe the worry that sometimes arises and provide encouragement that is of often needed, can be key components in helping you progress in your social work journey.

Your journey is your own and the aspects of your life that you so carefully balance help create the intricate fabric of who you are and comprise the unique imprint you can make on the social work profession. How exciting to know that our lives and all we balance can be an asset in creating who we are; molding our perspective and impacting our desire to make lasting change.

Child Welfare Education Project (CWEP) Symposium

Shu Zhou      By Shu

My first CWEP symposium

As a Doctoral Research Assistant for Child Welfare Education Project (CWEP), I am very fortunate to get free access to CWEP events and activities for free. On October 30th, 2015, I participated in my first CWEP symposium with a topic of traumatic events and de-escalation.

First of all, I was impressed with the high qualifications and excellent performances of the two presenters: detective Cecil Arnold and detective Chad Rogers. As detectives at the Pearland police department, they have not only intensive professional experiences dealing with traumatic events but also relevant educational backgrounds like Master’s Degrees in Criminal Justice. As a result, they were able to apply the factual and abstract knowledge and information into a variety of real cases and link the examples back to the topic. They possess excellent communication skills. In addition, they refreshed my mind when explaining familiar social work skills (i.e.: active listening) from another point of view as police officers. It gave me some new thoughts about how to utilize “minimal encouragers” and “effective pauses” in a different way.

Moreover, the interactive manner of the symposium helped me to focus and memorize better. The questions asked by the presenters, such as “what will you do” and “how does this person feel”, stimulated my thinking. Although such heavy topic is easily led the presentation to sadness, our room was full of laughter. I appreciate the presenter’s appropriate use of humor, which emphasized the discussion and relaxed our tension. We had the chance to share our own experiences and feelings and were given the opportunity to ask questions throughout the symposium. It was a great opportunity for me to learn from other social work students and practitioners other than the presenters.

Finally, the highlight of the symposium was definitely those real criminal cases that the presenters have worked on before. The last given example was the Pearland hostage situation on the New Year’s Eve of 2010. They also showed us a lot of inside sources such as the case pictures, audios and even videos! All of the vivid visual-aids brought us back to that scene and facilitated our learning experience. The symposium was ended with some TV interviews of the involved parties such as the hostages and their families and friends. Everyone’s sharing made me to think and understand better how one traumatic event affecting each person differently.

Overall, I enjoyed my first CWEP symposium a lot and hope to attend more in the future. What a fun educational experience! I am thankful for such great off-campus learning opportunity.

News about “Pearland hostage situation”:

Police: Houston area bank standoff ends, all hostages safe (CNN)

http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/12/31/texas.hostages.bank/

New Year’s Eve Bank Standoff Comes to End in Texas (abc NEWS)

http://abcnews.go.com/US/armed-robbers-hostages-wound-bank-manager-chase-bank/story?id=12516094

Confessions

Emme Bozone Photo    By Emme

Confession: I love reading almost as much as I love coffee. There is something about getting lost in a story, being challenged to think a new way, and learning about an issue I once was clueless to. Reading keeps me sane; reminding me there is a world beyond the walls of the classroom, the list of homework assignments, and clients to see.

With the cool air comes a longing to curl up with a hot cup of tea, and a good book. To help you get started, here are some of the books I’ve enjoyed, in no particular order.

Just Mercy- A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson was a law student when he took an internship with a non-profit law firm that represented inmates on death row. This internship became his passion in life. After graduating, he returned to the firm before relocating to Alabama to found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Representing the innocent, inadequately represented, survivors, children, and mentally ill on death row, Stevenson has made it is life calling to find justice for all. The book chronicles the history of death row, stories of inmates, and laws. It reads like a novel, rather then a textbook and exposes our nations deep roots of racial injustice that are still alive today.

Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen
Research has shown the adverse affects poverty has an individual at any age, but have you ever considered how schools react to it is also a major player in how students will adapt? Students spend a majority of their day at school, surrounded by peers and teachers, in a setting that should theoretically be enriching their life. Jensen takes a look at how schools currently respond to poverty, what research shows, and how schools can help bridge the gap. A must read for any social worker as he intertwines micro and macro issues and change to demonstrate the importance of a well-connected team.

When Helping Hurts by Steven Corbett
To be honest, I read this book for the first time three years ago as I was preparing to spend a summer in Malawi and Zambia as a youth ministry intern. This semester I pulled it out and re-read it as I started my field placement. I credit this book to be a major part of how I came to understand social injustice, the effects of philanthropy, and empowerment. Written from the perspective of the Christian theology, it gives insight into the world of non-profits and social service agencies and the impact of different types of service.

Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me? (And other concerns) by Mindy Kaling
This is possibly my favorite book I’ve read this semester! Every time I picked up the book I was either laughing, identifying with her story on some level, or both. As a collection of short stories about her adult life, Kaling recaps some of her most trying times in life, integrating humor, life lessons and bits of wisdom. I finished this book in three days and am ready to read it again!

So what’s next on my list?
– Gray Mountain by John Grisham
– Rising Strong by Brene Brown
– All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

A Reflection on Professors

Crawford_Headshot         By Claire

I have attended some truly excellent, scholarly, and renowned academic institutions in my past, but I have never felt quite the depth of connection to professors that I do here at the GCSW. I think many of my classmates would agree that, regardless of subject matter, we have some professors here who have the ability to not only enhance our professional futures but also our personal lives. I have a professor who speaks with such eloquence, poise, humor, and general realness, that I want to record everything she says and write it down for my personal daily review. I have had a professor who can explain complex, abstract, and/or pragmatic topics with ease in such a way that students leave her classes with a skillset that will last a lifetime. I have had a professor who makes policy interesting and even exciting, which I never thought possible. I have had professors with the most incredible wealth of knowledge from years and years practicing social work who impart their lessons learned in the field. My classmates and I are somewhat like groupies…we wait for our professors after class, we go to office hours, we chat in the hallway, and I’ve seen students give tearful thanks to professors at the end of the semester. When I have mentioned certain populations or projects I might be interested in to my professors, they have typically engaged me and offered ways to help. I feel comfortable going to many of my professors for professional advice, and they consistently provide invaluable new perspectives.

Taking social work classes isn’t just about absorbing theoretic knowledge but is also a process involving the internalization of life skills and constant self-discovery. I have been continuously impressed with my professors’ ability to facilitate a safe but demanding environment in which students can learn from the professor, classmates, and themselves. It’s hard to believe I only have one more semester of classes from some of the professionals I look up to most. The professors are here for YOU, and they are some of the most incredible resources you will have in your professional career. Take advantage of their time and expertise while you’re here.

Frustrated? Advocate (for yourself)!

cassie-photo-    By Cassie

I was happy to have been able to help with the summer orientation a couple of weeks ago. Among other things, it prompted me to reflect on my first year and what I wanted to pass along to new students at the GCSW. There were many things that came to mind, like the importance of self-compassion or the many opportunities for social justice. Ultimately, I decided that one of the biggest messages I wanted to pass on was advocate for yourself. Part of our mission as social workers is advocating for change with and on behalf of others in need, and in focusing on that critical aspect of our work, I think we can sometimes forget that we must also advocate for ourselves. In fact, I think that we can most effectively advocate for others by becoming skilled at doing this for ourselves. Fortunately, the GCSW offers a supportive training ground to learn and practice these skills.

I would describe my Foundation Semester as primarily a process of recalibrating expectations, of the program and of myself. During that process, I met and corresponded with several members of the staff and faculty to express concerns, seek guidance, and provide feedback. Members of the department were notably receptive and available throughout. Sharing a concern or an area of frustration can often be met with defensiveness or justifications. However, this was not the case with the individuals I met with at the GCSW. On the whole, they were remarkably curious about my perspective and open to my thoughts, and they utilized their social worker super powers to validate my concerns. I was also grateful that they made themselves so available. Because I work full-time, I sometimes couldn’t meet during their regular office hours, so they would stay late or meet on the weekends in order to accommodate my schedule. In addition to being receptive to feedback that is offered by students, the college is consistently seeking feedback from its students and implementing its findings. This ongoing process of continual improvement and growth is one of the primary things I appreciate about the GCSW.

The self-advocacy skills I have today were hard earned through years of experience and mentorship, but no matter the current state of your skills, you can put them to good use at the GCSW. If you are an experienced self-advocate, use your skills in order to help the program continue to improve and better meet your needs. If you are strengthening your abilities, know that the GCSW is a great place to practice and that self-advocacy can happen in both large and small ways. In fact, something as simple as replying to an email from the college can produce change. I mention this example specifically because it is a “self-advocacy success” I experienced this past year. As a result of mine and others’ emails and the college’s receptivity, Career Services began holding workshops at times that accommodated the Weekend College’s schedule, giving us greater access to information and resources. This is a small victory, but it is the accumulation of these small victories that shape the GCSW in ways that make it better meet the needs of all its students and in turn result in better prepared future social workers. As with all change, it starts with you. I encourage you to use all your experiences at the GCSW as opportunities to grow and hone your self-advocacy skills. You and your future clients will be better for this work.

Social Justice Everywhere

cassie-photo-      By Cassie

I have a confession: when I applied to the GCSW, I wasn’t really sure what social justice meant. I admit to asking my friends how they would define it and even googling it in order to wrap my head around it enough to write my application essay. It was such a broad and abstract term that I didn’t feel like I fully grasped its meaning.

Nearing the end of my first year in the program, I’m happy to report that I have a much better understanding of what social justice means and that I feel affirmed that I am in the right program because, among other reasons, I now realize that all those issues I’ve been passionate about for so long are in fact social justice issues. I still, however, find it a hard concept to sum up. If pressed, I would say it is “equality for all,” but that doesn’t really feel like it quite captures it. Fortunately, I have been introduced to the work of author and scholar John A. Powell this summer, and he defines social justice in a way that really resonates with me. He says, “It’s an expression of caring, just caring about people and saying that you are connected to people…and then giving it voice.” I like his definition because it seems to break the idea down into two concrete and equally important parts: empathy and action.

My experiences in my first year at the GCSW have also led to a heightened awareness of all the many areas in which one can work for social justice. I’m a full-time Montessori teacher, and I originally didn’t see a great deal of connection between what I do in the classroom and social work, much less social justice. However, my studies at the GCSW have reinvigorated my passion for education because I now see the classroom as one of the frontlines of the fight for social justice. I work for social justice through educating adolescents and also through equipping them to go out and continue the fight themselves. Additionally, I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work at Bo’s Place this summer. Even with my new understanding of this concept, grief support groups were the last place that I expected to see opportunities for social justice. Luckily, GCSW alum and former Ambassador, Flor Guevara, introduced me to the work of Alesia K. Alexander Layne. In her book Tapestries, Alexander Layne reminded me that there are differences in which communities’ losses are acknowledged and also in which kinds of losses are honored, and through giving voice to these injustices, we can move toward greater equality.

There are definite and obvious areas where social justice is painfully needed, and this is never clearer than in current times. I would offer, however, that the need for empathy and action is everywhere, and maybe even where you least expect it. I’m so glad that the GCSW has helped to give me the opportunities I needed in order to be able to see this.

(P.S. I can’t encourage you enough to follow the link above and get acquainted with the work of John A. Powell. He has some amazingly insightful ideas about what is needed for greater racial social justice, and I think all people, but especially budding social workers, would benefit from considering them.)

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