Peace Corps Alumnus Comes to BCSSW to Prepare for a Career in Higher Ed

Jeffrey Sierra

Jeffrey Sierra

Second–year MSW candidate Jeffrey Sierra is spending the 2016-2017 academic year as an esteemed Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Minority Fellow. In this Q&A with Innovate, he discusses what the fellowship entails, past experiences in City Year and the Peace Corps that helped to prepare him for Boston College, and his hopes for the future.  

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today Jeffrey, and congratulations on your fellowship. What does the fellowship itself entail?

Jeffrey Sierra: Thank you, and absolutely. The aim of the fellowship is to provide support to those students who are training to be clinicians, and in particular, for those who will be working with diverse children, youth, and transitional-aged adults in mental health settings. In addition to funding support, throughout the year CSWE offers webinar trainings. In March, there will be an in-person workshop co-sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA).

As an alumnus of both City Year and the Peace Corps, I have experience working with students who were battling substance abuse, so this fellowship is particularly interesting to me. I hope I can build upon existing strategies and my classwork here at Boston College to provide the best care possible to current and future clients.

Tell us more about your experience in the Peace Corps.

JS: I went into the Peace Corps right after City Year, and then spent close to three years in the Philippines. When I first arrived in the country, I was assigned to a mobile education unit program. This was basically outreach, whereby we went out into various rural communities and targeted street children who spent the majority of their time in places like public markets or department store parking lots scavenging for scrap metal and recyclables or panhandling in order to support their family. We worked with about 30 students from the ages of 5 to 15, teaching them life skills.

The project was a partnership between a Filipino NGO and the local government of the town we worked in, which was about an hour outside of Manila. Unfortunately, after an election, priorities in leadership changed, and the project was cancelled due to a loss of funding. I was then, therefore, reassigned to the same non-profit but in the capital of Manila, a city of eight million people. While there, my primary role was to teach math and English classes in a GED program, working with students who were very similar to the first group of kids I worked with. They were also considered street children, and were aged 8 to 21. We partnered with a church, where the students came for their coursework, and then they’d go back to their communities to help their parents to earn money. I also developed several gender equality workshop/camps for youth, including a Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) camp for girls and a Boys Respecting Others (BRO) camp for boys.


Sierra during his Peace Corps work in the Philippines.

How did you make the transition from working abroad in the Philippines to studying social work at Boston College?

JS: I completed my service in December 2014, and upon returning to the U.S. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, and do something similar to what I had done through City Year and the Peace Corps. City Year has a partnership with BCSSW, so I decided to apply through that route, and was very excited to be accepted into the program.

What have you enjoyed most about BCSSW so far?

JS: Boston College has really been a wonderful experience. Even though I’m a clinical student, I’ve really enjoyed the chance to take policy classes. The intro to macro and social policy classes have been among my favorites, and I’m looking forward to taking a course on law and social work in the spring. I’m still trying to figure out exactly where I want to go in my career, but right now, I appreciate that I’ve been exposed to such a variety of perspectives and possibilities. Of course, there are some amazing professors here at BC, and in particular, I’ve learned a lot from Professors McInnis-Dittrich, John Franchitto, and Carolyn Romano. Their unique perspectives on both clinical and macro work have really helped me to see the wealth of opportunities that await me following graduation.

Tell us about your current field education placement.

JS: Field education has also been a key component of my education here. I’m currently placed at the Wentworth Institute of Technology (WIT) in downtown Boston, where I’m working with 12 students throughout the semester, providing both individual and group therapy.

I sit with my individual clients on a weekly basis for about 45 minutes to an hour, and it’s been a really positive experience, as I’m able to integrate some of the theory and approaches I’ve learned in class from Professors Franchitto and Romano in a real world setting. The support at my site has been awesome as well—we get about three hours of supervision per week— which has given me the opportunity to reflect on what’s going well, and what’s not going so well, and to run questions by clinicians who have been practicing for a long time, or even, to just discuss issues I may be having with the students I’m working with.

I also serve as a resident advisor at Boston College and as a graduate assistant working with seniors here on the Chestnut Hill campus, and it’s been interesting having both of these experiences — they’re helping to inform what I may do in the future.

You’ve had a positive experience at WIT and BC working with students. Do you foresee a role in higher education following graduation in May?

JS: That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Right now, I do think I am leaning towards a role in higher education. I’m not sure if it would be strictly behavioral health/ mental health, but I do enjoy working with young adults because people are coming into their own, establishing their own boundaries in their lives, and their morals and what they stand for. In a small way, it means a lot to be able to assist people along during this part of their journey.

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