By Robert G. Hasson III, LICSW
Every January, the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) gathers for their annual program meeting. This year, I was fortunate to travel to New Orleans, Louisiana with several fellow doctoral students to present some of my research. The SSWR conference is an occasion filled with anticipation, curiosity, and moments of reflection as leaders in the social work profession gather to present the latest advancements and reflect upon the next frontier of social work research. While stepping off the plane in New Orleans, I felt a wave of gratitude at being one of 19 doctoral students attending the conference to share their work and be part of a community of scholars dedicated to thinking of innovative ways to alleviate suffering, challenge existing paradigms, and promote social justice for individuals living on the margins of society.
The theme of this year’s SSWR conference focused on one of the Grand Challenges outlined by SSWR in 2016 – Ensure Healthy Development of All Youth. As a researcher and practitioner focused on issues related to child welfare and immigration, I was particularly thrilled to participate in discussions related to how social work can contribute to this endeavor. The first night of the conference included an open plenary session that set the tone for the remainder of the conference. The session was titled “Nothing About Us, Without Us: Youth Speak Out About What Researchers Should Know About Youth”, and was led by Dr. Gary Mallon of Hunter College. The importance of engaging youth in the research process was emphasized when a young adult explained, “Research on adolescents is not authentic if it doesn’t include adolescent voices.” This statement struck me and stayed with me throughout the conference. It highlights the importance of cultivating the direct input of youth in the research process, and how this collaboration creates an additional dimension of understanding when exploring complex social issues.
The SSWR conference was only a week before the start of a new presidential administration, and questions regarding what this means for social work seemed to permeate sessions throughout the conference. Most of the sessions I attended focused on issues related to immigration or migration and included some discussion on how policies in the new administration may change regarding the wellbeing of immigrant children and families. With this in mind, it was inspiring to hear robust discussions in each session about how the findings of different research studies can be applied to developing policies and interventions that preserve the wellbeing of children and families and promote social justice throughout communities. It was particularly rewarding to be a part of this conversation when I presented my work.
I co-presented with fellow doctoral student Kerri Evans on our work focused on education outcomes for unaccompanied children from Central America. Guided by Professor Thomas Crea, this presentation was part of a symposium titled “Unaccompanied Immigrant Youth and Intermediary Institutions: Processes of Migration and Integration.” The symposium included four other presentations – including one from Professor Thomas Crea and BCSSW doctoral student Anayeli Lopez – that all focused on issues related to unaccompanied immigrant youth. My particular presentation with Kerri Evans included findings that help inform implications for policies and interventions for unaccompanied children from Central America and their education outcomes. For example, the longer an unaccompanied child spends in foster care in the US, the more likely they are to achieve higher educational levels when they exit care. However, significant differences exist by country of origin, with kids from Guatemala being less likely to discharge from foster care at a higher level of education.
While it was gratifying to co-present this work, the most satisfying part of the symposium for me was the conversation I participated in with the other presenters at the end of the session. This conversation focused on how the group can continue collaborating on projects related to this topic, how to partner with community agencies, and how to further disseminate our research so it can more directly inform policies and practice. This moment, for me, encapsulated so much of what I love about social work, as it was filled with innovative ideas and brimming with people’s passion and generosity to support each other’s work with a common goal in mind. Rather than an opportunity to fill space on a CV, the symposium provided a chance to be part of a group focused on using research to promote wellbeing and advance human rights.
Being a doctoral student can be a solitary experience, with countless hours spent in the library developing expertise on a substantive area of social work and advancing methodological training. However, being at SSWR, specifically at the symposium where I co-presented my work with Kerri, reminded me of the importance of relationships and how research can be a proactive tool to enhance the support of individuals living on the margins of our society while also generating knowledge for the next generation of social workers.