The grant comes from the Spencer Foundation, an organization whose stated mission is to “investigate ways in which education, broadly conceived, can be improved around the world”; the vast majority of Spencer winners are academics in the field of education. Calvo’s project takes on a special significance: As she trains a next generation of social workers to better understand our nation’s largest growing minority population through the LLI, she will also gauge the success of this very program to graduate Latino MSW degree holders, and their ability to secure the careers they aspire to following graduation.
“What’s unique about the LLI, is it that educates future Latino social workers to work with Latino communities from an asset-based perspective, while also using this approach to design our curriculum,” explains Calvo. “We teach in Spanish, a key cultural marker, and we’ve infused our curriculum with evidence-based literature written by Latinos on how better serve Latino communities in social work. This approach serves to both equip students with the tools they’ll need to succeed professionally, while forming the kind of community that supports their academic success as they negotiate their presence on campus.”
To find staggering numbers on the lack of Latinos in the highest levels of graduate school, one needs look no further than the field of social work higher education. According to statistics released by the Council on Social Work Education, during the 2012-2013 academic year, only 13 Latinos nationwide graduated with PhDs in social work. Of all those students currently engaged in doctoral study during that year, less than six percent were Latino.
Despite current realities, there is good news to look forward to, and draw upon, says Calvo. Programs such as the LLI are beginning to offer new paradigms for finding success. “I believe we can contribute to increase the number of Latinos in social work education by adding pedagogic approaches, such as the LLI, to better teach diverse students,” she explains.
Calvo has already collected the first wave of data in her project for the Spencer Foundation, which will be rooted in the analysis of data from focus groups and surveys conducted with the recent graduating cohort of the LLI, the program’s inaugural group, and she will continue to connect with them periodically as they forge careers in social work. She will also study subsequent LLI cohorts, to better understand the achievements of the existing program, and make improvements as needed.
Calvo says that she hopes the project will highlight the key elements of the LLI that make it successful, and in particular, the essentials that exist within the program to help foster the success of its Latino members. The end goal would be to share these findings with other programs, to help shape new understandings of education that are mindful of different cultures, and that employ cultural approaches to teaching and curriculum development.
“A critical element of this program is that employs the same approach that we use to teach our students to work with Latino clients, to their own academic success,” she says. “That is, to look inward and use the community’s own cultural strengths to create positive change. In a similar way, I encourage our LLI students to look within and draw strength from their own cultural backgrounds, and to find ways to apply these traits towards building success in higher education, and beyond.”