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GCSW Doctoral Student Helps To Improve Healthcare Access for Latinos


September 10, 2020

(HOUSTON, TX) - Current doctoral student Natalia Giraldo-Santiago recently spent her summer as a RAND Corporation Summer Associate, where she honed her skills and research in improving healthcare service access for Latinos.

Created to provide "outstanding graduate students an institution that researches a wide range of national security problems and domestic and international social policy issues," RAND is a nonprofit institution that "helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis."

Recipients selected must be "full-time students who have completed at least two years of graduate work leading to a doctorate or professional degree" in one of the many areas of research: policy, economics, sociology, statistics, political science, history, engineering, and computer science.

After completing the 12-week program, Natalia shared her experience and how the GCSW's foundation of social work research helped prepare her for the inter-departmental program.


Name: Natalia Giraldo-Santiago
Preferred Pronouns: She/Her/Hers
Program at the GCSW: PhD Program

Why was the RAND Summer Associate Program program essential for the research you are currently doing?  

The RAND Summer Associate Program was a cohort of 30 Ph.D. students from various disciplines interested in a wide range of national and international social policy issues. Through this program, I joined an interdisciplinary research project seeking to implement and evaluate the effectiveness of Collaborative Care, an intervention aimed at integrating behavioral health and general medical services aimed at improving outcomes for individuals struggling with opioid use disorders co-occurring with depression and trauma. This hands-on research experience was valuable to my research, which seeks to inform systems of care and programs on effectively improving access and utilization of services among racial and ethnic minorities.  

What was the highlight of the program for you?  

At RAND, my perspectives as a licensed social worker and researcher were both welcomed and valuable. One highlight of the summer internship was working on an interdisciplinary and collaborative research team composed of physicians, psychologists, economists, and other disciplines, all interested in improving community health. Another highlight of the summer internship at RAND was meeting three researchers with a social work background. Though underrepresented in the policy research arena, these social workers make significant contributions to bridge the gap between research and policy.  

What do you believe you accomplished or gained by the end of the 12 weeks?   

Social workers can significantly influence healthcare decision-makers. One of the many ways to shape health policy is through rigorous and objective qualitative and quantitative research. During the 12-week program, I developed a great interest in evidence-based interventions to address Latinos' physical and mental health while also improving healthcare service access. 

What initially drew you to continue your work and education in social work research?  

As a bilingual, formerly licensed social worker, I was keenly aware of the barriers to care, including limited funding, restrictive healthcare policies, and a lack of programs for Latinos in need of medical and mental health treatment. My experiences in the field and growing up in Puerto Rico motivated me to pursue a research career and methodological training to ensure Latinos' well-being and access to services.  

How has the GCSW prepared you for the current research and work you are doing?  

The GCSW Ph.D. program promotes a culture of collaboration and active community engagement through its five research centers and over thirty active research projects. Over the past two years, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with several professors. In the process, I have gained vast experience with research on Latino immigrant health, service access and engagement, and community-based participatory research, all of which interconnect with and are essential to my research focused on addressing social determinants of health.  

Anything else you would like us to know?  

I encourage GCSW Ph.D. students to explore research internship opportunities that actively seek to influence policy and decision-making. If you are interested in an internship experience like mine, I strongly recommend RAND Corporation. Applications for summer 2021 will be accepted starting mid-October 2020.