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GCSW Doctoral Student Helps Improve Healthcare Access for Latinos


April 1, 2021

(HOUSTON, TX) - Current doctoral student Natalia Giraldo-Santiago spent last 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 and another year of her doctoral education, Natalia shared her experience and gave insight into how the GCSW's foundation of social work research and receiving a scholarship award helped prepare her for the inter-departmental program and beyond. 


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

Deciding to continue an educational career is a big step for anyone. How has being a recipient of a scholarship from the GCSW impacted your social work journey? And why do you think it is crucial for a social work college to assist students financially?

Deciding to continue my educational career meant relocating to Houston and leaving a full-time licensed clinician position. Becoming a full-time Ph.D. student also involves prioritizing school for the next four or five years of your life. Coming to the GCSW in Houston has been a gratifying decision thanks to the ongoing support I have received from both the faculty and administrative personnel. Still, my educational career and accomplishments would not have been possible without the travel and dissertation scholarships I received at the school. Being the recipient of a GCSW dissertation scholarship has granted me the opportunity to work wholeheartedly on a research agenda without worrying about financial feasibility. I hope that many more organizations support the GCSW by funding dissertations and travel and additional doctoral training expenses. Ensuring Ph.D. students' financial support, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, in their dissertation phase is critical to ensure their success and promote more attention to communities that are often overlooked in research.

Since your fellowship last year, you've participated in and presented your research at major social work conferences. Congratulations! Why is conference involvement important for students? 

A benefit of the GCSW scholarship is the chance to attend and present my research at national and international social work and public health conferences, which have been instrumental to my personal and professional development. At these conferences, I have developed collaborations with other Ph.D. students and faculty interested in conducting research with Latinos and—most importantly—with fellow Puerto Ricans, both on the United States mainland and the island. Students' participation in conferences is vital to promoting interdisciplinary research and meaningful national and international research partnerships. Scholarships provide an opportunity for graduate students to maximize their learning experiences. The Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW) dissertation scholarship has allowed me to focus entirely on my research program and meet specific training needs. 

Your work focuses strongly on Latino populations and public health. These issues are at the forefront for many researchers trying to understand how to treat the COVID-19 pandemic equitably. What are some of the main challenges when attempting to reach and better understand these often-overlooked populations? 

Latinos' vulnerability to comorbid conditions combined with their low healthcare utilization rates makes them susceptible to complications from COVID-19. There is an urgent need for evidence-based and culturally sensitive health promotion interventions, as misinformation about the vaccine is prevalent and contributing to widening the existing health disparities. Another challenge to reaching the rapidly growing and diverse Latino community relates to the vaccine's accessibility and availability. Reaching older, Spanish-speaking Latino individuals, undocumented, and those residing in urban communities may be difficult and require special consideration. Community outreach programs with health promotion as the primary goal are vital to addressing medical mistrust, insecurity, and limited understanding regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine. However, instead of top-down information, we must consider the role of community healthcare workers and key leaders as vehicles to ensure best health practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

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 applying at the RAND Corporation