Organizing the GCSW Research Conference

Since I joined the PhD program in 2014, the GCSW has hosted an annual research conference at the end of each fall semester. The conference allows Master’s of Social Work (MSW) students, doctoral students, and faculty members to present posters and oral presentations on their research to a large audience. Students also have the opportunity to receive valuable feedback on their research methods and results. I have participated every year as an audience member, volunteer, and/or presenter. In 2017, as a Foundation TA, I had the great opportunity to help organize the conference with Dr. Sarah Narendorf—the Conference Chair and Foundation Coordinator. It was an unforgettable and rewarding experience. I worked hard, enjoyed myself, and learned a lot.

Since many people misperceive the conference as an opportunity for only first-year Foundation students to showcase their research, there is usually low participation among doctoral students who have valuable research to share. As a strategy for recruiting more doctoral participants this year, I suggested forming a conference committee to involve and empower students. With support from the PhD and Foundation programs, we successfully formed a committee that included two professors (Dr. Sarah Narendorf and Dr. Chiara Acquati), three PhD students (Kenya Minott, Theresa Chrisman, and myself), and one senior MSW student (Andrea Elizondo) who met once a month to plan the conference. For example, one professor was in charge of abstract reviews while a PhD student was responsible for arranging logistics, judges, and prizes for the student poster contest. Each PhD committee member promoted the conference within their own cohort since they know their cohort students well and meet with them frequently. We found that communication through word-of-mouth worked much more effectively than sending massive, wordy emails from the program or college. The conference committee worked hard and was very helpful to keep the ball rolling.

We had to begin planning at very beginning of summer to hold the conference in December. Planning was not always smooth, and we were frequently frustrated. From ordering food to promoting publicity, from arranging faculty presentations to completing the CEU application, from getting a keynote speaker to collaborating with other universities/programs, we needed to cooperate with many internal and external departments and staff. We faced significant difficulty when we received little or no response to our communications since the success of each step depended so strongly on the completion of other tasks. It felt like we were always chasing people down to get a response, resorting to phone calls, and emails, and even catching people in the hallway!

On December 1st, 2017, the conference was successfully held with the help of the committee members and student volunteers. With our ongoing efforts, we had 7 PhD posters, 3 posters from senior MSW students, 1 alumni poster, and 2 PhD oral presentations in addition to over 100 posters from Foundation students. We also included BSW students from Texas Southern University and Lamar University, who presented 3 and 5 posters, respectively. This year, we also initiated a collaborative community effort proposed by senior MSW student and committee member Andrea Elizondo. Through this new component of the research conference, community agencies partnered with senior MSW students who presented on evidence-based practices conducted at the agencies. This collaboration showed the students how research is used in the field and how to connect practice with research.

Our higher level of student participation was great progress compared to previous years, but many PhD students still did not attend the conference. While first-year PhD students are not have limited research results after just starting the program, senior PhD students often have many other national or international presentation opportunities. Organizers of future conferences will need to develop strategies for effectively engaging these students.

In my opinion, putting your ideas and work together and introducing them to other people in an understandable way is a very important skill for social work researchers and practitioners. Preparing and presenting a poster is one of the best ways to practice such vital skills, even for those who are not interested in being researchers in the future. I hope more students and faculty will support this important endeavor and recognize the value of exchanging ideas in a critical yet friendly professional environment.

By: Shu Zhou


In the News

As I ponder the opportunity to march down the aisle to join the ranks of over 650,000 social workers across the nation, I can’t help but find myself thinking about the responsibility that comes with that title. I think about the commitment to social justice that our profession has held near and dear in this country since the days of Jane Addams in the late 1800’s. I think about the magnificent impact that all of us upholding this commitment could have in the current political climate.

As social workers, who bear witness to struggle, social injustice, and intolerable pain, we will certainly be called upon to serve as a candle of hope, for our children and the many, many people that we aspire to serve. While the election results represent what a large portion of our country believes is the path to “safety” and “economic stability”, the other half of our great country sought a different road – to an equitable and inclusive society where opportunity, safety and freedom would be shared by all of its people, regardless of our background, beliefs, or status.

In America, democracy is a government of, by, and for all its people. I look forward to each of us as aspiring social workers to remember that it our duty to our fellow man/woman to pledge to combat racism, homophobia, xenophobia and sexism no matter where it shows up, including in the form of a new administration that governs our nation.

As I end this post, I would like to leave you with a quote from a great champion of justice, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1965, in a speech at Dinkier Plaza Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. King said, “History will have to record the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and other violent actions of the bad people but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only the words and acts of the children of darkness but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.”

Additionally, Dr. King has been attributed to saying, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

By: Terran Fontenot


Saying Goodbye

170120-obama-leaving-white-house-featureIn 2008, our country elected Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American President in American history. At the time, he offered something no other public figure could: hope and change. To a future social worker like me, hope and change meant that wonderful possibilities could exist! He was the symbol for a variety of political and social issues with hopes that those issues could be overcome. Many of us had deep admiration for the man who was funny, sensible, graceful, compassionate, an intellectual, a great orator, a loving father, a devoted husband, and an overall good human being. To me, his candidacy promised “one America” and my whimsical thinking of a post-racial United States.

However, in contrast, the past eight years we saw our country deeply divided against itself. When many were ready for and seeking change, others saw their reality turned upside down. When some saw promise, others saw threat. Social progress looked like an unintended hazard. To the disappointment of many and the delight of others, there is the pledge to undo the Obama policies, to erase them as if they had been scribbled down with a pencil on a drawing pad. I believe part of this disagreement comes from the deep divide in our political parties, another part of it comes from president Obama’s leadership style (as his team always maintained that they don’t do theater) and the last part comes from implicit bias. Yet, through it all (The never-ending wars and drone strikes, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, fights to address climate change and national security, efforts at education and gun control, an open Guantanamo and republican obstructionism) this is what held fast: dignity, grace, integrity, and a pleasure to be of service.

In addition, every presidency had debates about race and culture but none quite like the Obama years. For example, we witnessed the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and an upsurge in white identity politics. We have seen a rebirth in the fight for civil rights, with protests against police brutality and unjustified murders, as well as increasing acceptance of LGBTQIA rights. At the same time, millions of families were torn apart as Obama’s administration deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president in our young country’s history. Black and Brown children are still being funneled through the school-to-prison pipeline. While all this was happening, we watched president Obama try to walk the narrow road on police brutality, knowing that if he were to voice too much support, he would be attacked with claims that he is anti-police and un-American. And through all of this, I am still not ready to say goodbye because this is much more than people of color and LGBTQIA ever had – the chance to vote for principles instead of against those who offer the most harm, a president who saw US as human beings and not a block of voters, the knowledge that people looked at someone with skin like mine and decided yes, he is qualified to lead this country.

Just as President Obama, much of what social workers try to do is based on actions taken in the political arena. Politics are important to our field and we should be fully involved because legislation, good or bad, will have a huge impact on us and the communities we serve. So, what then can social workers take away from the Obama years? Well, he taught us that it is important to hold onto our principles and ideals that brought us into this occupation, and to embrace the possibilities for change. By modeling this process during his presidency he gave us a renewed economy, marriage equality, the Affordable Care Act, the Fair Sentencing Act, Federal divestment from for-profit prisons and the appointment of our first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. This is what the social work profession has always been about: social change and social justice. A field devoted to the advancement of humanity and assisting in making positive differences in people’s lives despite enormous challenges. One of the reasons that attract individuals to social work is the wish to uplift people, families, and communities to improve the quality of lives. I am certain that what has been ignited in most of us is our own possibility to become greater than who we are. Something that President Obama spoke of in many of his eloquent speeches.

We live in an era of technological advancements and globalization and for many, this has meant anger, fear and hate. While negative partisanship has always existed, it’s nourished in our online era by people’s ability to locate information from news sources and social-media that feeds and intensify their biases. I believe that one of the greatest disappointments of the Obama Presidency was that the Republicans were unable to separate their political differences from the fact that the president himself is an admirable man. I guess this was a problem for me because I see the genuine goodness in our president and the love he has for our nation. There are many personal heroes in my life: my best friends, professors, a protective brother, and my parents. But I also benefited from the example of a man whose public life showed that we are not defined or defeated by the adversities in our life. During these eight years, things were not easy but his distinctive and unique style has produced a kind of wistfulness in me and I will truly miss the 44th president of the United States of America! On Jan. 20, the political side of me will accept president-elect Trump, but the social worker in me will be saddened by the final signs of President Barack Obama’s farewell. For at an essential time in my life, he illustrated, modeled, and provided me his remarkable ideas of what hope and change could be and for that, I’ll miss him and the example he set for us.

By: Constance Dixon

Clowning Around

I recently participated in a medical clown training offered by GCSW with Jeff Gordon, a medical clown practicing in Israel. I am a macro student and have not had many opportunities to participate in clinical trainings and workshops throughout my time at GCSW so this training was definitely different than anything I have taken part in previously. Prior to this training I really had no knowledge of ‘clowning’ as a form of therapy and therefore was a little apprehensive to participate. However, after completing the workshop I not only feel that it could be an effective channel in which to reach children and adults that are in pain or experiencing trauma but a therapeutic outlet for the clinician as well.

I believe that the most important lesson I learned from this training is that we are not going to have all of the answers and we are not going to be perfect clinicians but if we are able to meet our clients with authenticity and love we will be effective. By stepping into the clown role, the clinician is able to step into a mental state that is not concerned with our own pain, desire, joy or happiness but open to other’s pain, desire, joy and happiness.

By nurturing the ‘inner clown’, we are able to understand the roles we play in everyday life. As Jeff said in the workshop description, “through being in Clown role, we can start to take a more playful, spontaneous fun and humorous approach to both our personal and professional lives.” I think approaching life this way allows for more authenticity to break through the different roles we play in our lives, bringing us closer to our authentic selves.

Clown therapy is aligned with social work professional values such as person-in-environment and strengths-based perspective. When working with a client the clown is supposed to focus on the strengths of the client rather than seeing them as the sickness or traumatic experience. As the therapist, the clown must use the client’s strengths to help them see past the pain, medical condition or traumatic experience and guide them through the healing process. By focusing on the client’s strengths, the clinician will help the client begin to see themselves as a whole person not just the disease, sickness our traumatic experience. The clown is also capable of meeting the client exactly where they are in the moment. Without the rigid structure required of some therapeutic techniques the medical clown is able to walk into a room and just be present and available to the client in order to work from the client’s needs not the requirements dictated by a curriculum. This freedom allows the clinician to move with the client at their own pace while constantly working within the client’s environment.

These values were reflected through an example Jeff shared during the workshop about a young teenage girl that tried to commit suicide. Jeff was called in soon after she was admitted to the hospital to begin working with her. He explained that he very slowly peeked into her room and then, through facial and body movements alone, acted as if she was the most beautiful and precious thing he had ever seen on the planet. Jeff explained that clowns have the freedom to ‘discover’ each element as if for the very first time. She needed to feel loved and Jeff was able to do this as a clown in a very pure, meaningful and authentic way that he would not have been able to convey otherwise.

For more information on medical clowning in Israel see this website:

By: Dixie Hairston

Everything Happens for a Reason

I feel very strongly that I’m in the right place in my life.  And it feels good.  It’s nice to not have pangs of uncertainty.  You know, those pesky thoughts that pop into your head and those quivering feelings that take shelter in your gut without any summoning required just to ruffle your confidence.  Believe me, I’ve had those.  The constant questioning about what career to choose and what job to take.  No, thanks.  The last two years have felt really positive.  A major part of that is I am doing something I really enjoy.  Another part of that is life seems to keep reinforcing that I am on the right path.

I always knew I would be researching something.  That was settled when I got a summer job at neuropsychology clinic that turned into a 6-year stint learning all about TBI research.  And I knew I would be working with kids when I was constantly amazed and intrigued by them, but also startled by maltreatment issues.  And I eventually found social work when I was in college and helped start a non-profit organization.  And at some time during these years I became very aware of the complexities of child abuse.  That took a cluster of events.  There were the friends who shared their abusive histories.  There were the kids at the organization where I volunteered who had experiences neglect and were doing amazingly well in their efforts to persevere.  There were the family members whose childhood sexual experiences had created difficulties in their interpersonal relationships and whose pain was exceptional. All of these things formed an indelible mark on my desire to help children.

Over the last week, I have been asked three times about what led to my interest in child abuse prevention and intervention.  And I took time to think about it, REALLY think about it.  I never experienced any form of child abuse or neglect.  But I did see the devastation it caused for those people I cared about deeply.  The interesting thing is that it didn’t stop there.  When I was practicing as an LMSW I heard over and over again from clients about the struggles they faced with sexual abuse.  While providing counseling to youth as an LCSW I have often uncovered sexual trauma histories.  There have also been close friends and family members who have recently shared their sexual abuse histories and struggles along their journeys toward healing.  It is a cycle that continues in motion – I am more educated and have more skills to deal with these issues and I meet individuals who share their stories; this motivates me to learn more and do more.  These exchanges have greatly reinforced my trajectory toward both a clinical focus and research efforts targeting child abuse prevention and intervention.

I invite you to think about those issues that are important to you.  What motivates you? Sure there may be uncertainty.  I definitely don’t know where I will be working when I graduate.  But I do know that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.  And that feels refreshing.

By: Jackie Duron

Vicente Fox’s Lecture: From a Social Work Perspective

At 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 3, 2011, University of Houston students, faculty and staff showed up en masse to hear former president of Mexico Vicente Fox give a lecture, “Leadership and Spirituality,” sponsored by the GCSW, the GCSW Alumni Association and the Gulen Institute. The UH community and news crews filled the auditorium, and the line wound around the Agnes Arnold buildings for those hoping to get in without an RSVP. In his lecture, Fox provided his perspective on the origins of leadership and the individual experiences from which leadership can be derived.

“Leadership comes from […] a determination and will to do something great in our lives,” Fox said.

Peppered with the occasional quip en español, Fox’s lecture spoke to the anticipated challenges and solutions between countries regarding future relations among leaders.

Instead of building walls, we should be building bridges—bridges of understanding, […] bridges of respect to our own people,” said Fox. “If we want to build a future to compete with the East and to make sure that we protect our jobs, our productivity, our quality of life in front of that challenge, we must work together. We must work as partners.” He encouraged us to think as a society, Where do we want to be in 2040?

Halfway into the lecture, he began to discuss other issues, such as education

Mr. Fox responds to questions from the audience

and the rise in the minority population and its future role. He addressed the “elephant in the room”— the drug cartel in Mexico. Fox spoke out in support of legalizing particular drugs, which incited one student to verbalize his approval, receiving applause and a few snickers from the student body. He encouraged a preventative approach to the drug issue using Portugal and the supply and demand model as examples, and he proposed that the issue might inherently be resolved if the demand for drugs were to decrease.

“How do I inform, prevent, educate my children not to consume drugs?” Fox said, “Work on the demand side of the problem and that would be the solution.”

The former president opened and concluded the lecture with the topic of spirituality and self-introspection. He encouraged the UH community to think about questions such as, “Am I happy with what I am doing? Am I doing enough? Am I doing things for others so that I can reach that happiness status?” As he asked the students to look upon their appreciation of education, he nudged the audience towards empathy and the common denominator for what makes us successful: opportunity.

“Maybe [those involved in the drug cartel] wanted an opportunity like the one you have here, to come to this state-of-the-art university,” he said, “maybe they tried to get a job and they couldn’t find it. Somewhere, they lost track in their life. What we’re talking about is opportunity.”

Students attended the lecture for a variety of reasons: some came out of loyalty and solidarity to Fox and Mexico while others came to the lecture out of curiosity. For some students, they attended out of interest over skepticism of his effectiveness during his time as president.  Regardless of the reasons, his lecture touched upon topics that social workers frequently face: empowering others, increasing awareness, education and affecting policies to work towards the future. A timely affair, Fox said he appreciates the name we give our graduation in the United States: commencement—“a start to something new, preparing yourself, exercising leadership to bring your compassion and your love for others.”

A brief question and answer session followed with questions regarding religion, immigration, drug issues and advice for our own president. After amiably answering each, he shook the outstretched hand of an enthusiastic student, gave her a hug and jokingly said something to the effect of “Don’t put this on Facebook.” The auditorium bid him farewell with applause, and the impact of his visit and lecture continues to buzz throughout the campus.

By: Melanie Pang

PeaceJam 2010 . . . Success!

Slam-Poetry. Belly Dancing. Multi-Cultural Drumming. Yoga Mats and more. Somehow, some way all of these elements came together to create an incredible PeaceJam event at the University of Houston this past weekend.
PeaceJam is a two-day gathering of 130+ high school youth who are involved in social activism and peaceful civic engagement. During these two days, youth groups from various cities participated in activities and discussions surrounding the work of Nobel Peace Laureates. From these experiences, they learn how to address human rights issues in their own communities and eventually the world. Each conference is themed after a Nobel Peace Laureate who is a part of the PeaceJam program. This past weekend, PeaceJam and the Graduate College of Social Work had the honor of hosting Dr. Shirin Ebadi from Iran. Dr. Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her struggle in securing women and children’s rights in Iran.

The students may have descended onto the University of Houston campus with sleep still in their bones but after a high energy greeting from our PeaceJam Mentors and breakfast from Café Flores, they were pumped and ready to receive Dr. Ebadi with a huge Texas welcome. On Saturday, Dr. Ebadi inspired the youth with a stirring speech about their responsibilities toward creating a better world. Afterwards, students asked Dr. Ebadi more details about her work in Iran and how they could make a difference. I was amazed at the critical thinking and intellectual depth these students possessed. I surely don’t remember being that deep in high school! After lunch, the students participated in community service projects with various community agencies. One group of students received training from STANDUP FOR KIDS for their “Don’t Run Away” campaign. Here students learned how to talk to younger kids about the dangers of running away from home and how to provide them with safer alternatives. The students then created skits, which will be used as a part of StandUp for Kids training materials. Other students traveled to Catholic Charities and learned about the immigrant and refugee populations in Houston. Another group traveled to SEARCH Homeless Services to learn about how homelessness impacts women and children in our community. Many of the students returned to the campus pumped and passionate about what they could do to make a difference in the lives of others. A final group traveled to the MLK Community Center and learned to build an Aquaponics system for sustainable food production in low-income communities. Dr. Ebadi also visited the MLK center with the students and toured the on-site t-shirt printing business, which helps low-income women achieve economic independence.

By Saturday night, everyone was tired and seemed to be fading with the setting sun. However, thanks to a high-energy belly-dancing trio from Sirrom Studio we were all up and out of our seats in no time. Words can’t describe the experience so I’ll just say that I found new parts of the body that I did not know could shake! The students also jammed on African drums with Bro. Kenyah Shabazz and the Multi-Cultural Drum Society.

On Sunday morning, it was time for the water works. And I don’t mean the kind that involves bathing suits and giant slides. I mean tears. Real, flowing tears that come from seeing kids open their heart and souls to share their innermost personal feelings about how they are inspired to forgive those who have wronged them so they may go forward to live peaceful lives. I had heard others talk about the power of the Ceremony of Inspiration but it was not until my own face was tear-soaked and I was choked with emotion that I really got it.

Finally, it was time for Sunday afternoon workshops. We were very fortunate to have so many community partners that agreed to host sessions. Students attended a variety of workshops covering Yoga, the Islamic faith and the role of women, Refugee Experiences, Human Trafficking, Modern Manhood, Slam Poetry, and the list goes on. Here the students worked in small, intimate groups, learning about issues that they were passionate about from community members with first-hand knowledge.

Sadly, every good thing must come to an end (actually, by this point I was operating on a total of 4 hours of sleep for the past two days so I was pretty much ready for the end). The students began texting their contact info to one another in preparation for the closing ceremony with Dr. Ebadi. I feel so privileged to have witnessed such a profound amount of personal growth in students as comfort-zones were challenged, new friendships formed, and commitments to peaceful living were strengthen.

Thank you to my rock star teammates and AmeriCorps VISTAS Theresa Kelleher and NuSaiba Abbas who I had the pleasure working with in organizing this event. Major thanks to all of the mentors, volunteers, advisors, and community members whose absence would have made this conference impossible. I am truly grateful for my inaugural PeaceJam experience and to have worked at the best MSW field placement on Earth (okay that’s a little extreme but what can I say, I’m biased)!

By: Felicia Latson