2022 GCSW Students and Alum Reflect on Focused Learning Opportunity - University of Houston
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GCSW Students and Alum Reflect on Focused Learning Opportunity (FLO)



Pictured Above (Left to Right): Zoe Alterman, Micky Rodriguez (MSW '21), Emerald Green, and Sofia Gonzalez

April 6, 2022

(HOUSTON, TX) - In 2021, the GCSW launched Focused Learning Opportunities to offer students in-depth training, and an experience beyond the classroom in a specific area of social work, with opportunities to form a meaningful mentorship with a GCSW faculty member.

Already existing program offerings included the Trauma Education Program, Global Leaders of Behavioral Health Education (GLOBE), Political Social Work, and Abolitionist Social Work, and this year the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance (NLA) certification program and Mental Health Advanced Practice in Social Work Program (MHAPS), were added to the FLO options.

Lillian Ortiz (MSW '07), GCSW Director of Innovative Academic Programs and Partnerships, described FLOs as "an excellent opportunity for our students to learn about and expose themselves more to an area of social work that may be new but interesting to them or, in many cases, something they already have a passion for and want to further pursue."

We spoke with MSW students Zoe Alterman, Sofia Gonzalez, Emerald Green, and alum Micky Rodriguez (MSW '21) to learn why they chose to pursue a GCSW FLO and how it has augmented their social work education.


Name: Zoe Alterman 
Program and Expected Graduation from the GCSW: 
MSW 2022
Focused Learning Opportunity:
Political Social Work

What made you decide to pursue your education in social work? 

Before taking courses at the GCSW, I was a teacher for six years, primarily teaching 9th grade English. I saw firsthand how many challenges my students were up against daily. There were, and are, so many broken systems that were fighting to hold them down. I was frustrated, and I knew I wanted to change and abolish those systems. Social work provided me the opportunity to learn how to challenge the status quo and do it in a way that centers humanity and social justice. 

We are in our first year back in person. What has been a highlight of your educational experience so far? 

Yes! I am very much an extrovert, and it was challenging to be virtual my first year in the program. Despite being stuck behind a camera screen, it was amazing how many relationships we formed. My dog, Luna, also loved spending more time with me due to the Zoom university life. 

A highlight of the program was our first class in person last semester: Social Work in Organizations with Professor Aabha Brown. It was incredible how much I learned while we were all together in one room. At the end of the semester, we had a class celebration with food and reflections: inspiring quotes, poems, songs, and we painted rocks with something to remind us of the semester. It was a beautiful moment, and I think I greatly needed that sense of connection after the past few years. 

What do you hope to accomplish upon graduation?

I am hoping to work in civic engagement or on a campaign. Voting rights are extremely important to me, and unfortunately, right now, it is a growing trend to restrict access to the democratic process. I love social work because the opportunities are endless, from micro to macro practice. I am not sure where I will end up, but a long-term goal is to run for office for the Texas State Board of Education.

You've chosen to pursue a Focused Learning Opportunity in Political Social Work. What about the Political Social Work FLO appealed to you?

Political social work has been the main focus of my time at the GCSW. I love that pursuing the FLO allows me to get experience across many avenues—field work, student organizations, community organizing, training, research, and coursework. The FLO has allowed me to see how all of my work has culminated in a growing knowledge of the political and policy-making process, and how it relates to social work. Plus, Dr. Suzanne Pritzker is the best. She has taught me so much during my time at the GCSW!

The purpose of the Political Social Work FLO is to "engage in systems-level change in organizational, community, and political arenas in order to advance social, racial, economic, and political justice." Why do you believe it is vital that we have students fluent in political social work? 

All social workers must understand that our role goes beyond our 9-5 job or a unilateral focus. Macro, mezzo, and clinical work are equally important. I believe that as social workers, we should not limit our focus to one or the other. Our clients and populations that we engage with are affected by all levels of social, economic, and political justice. Our job is to be fluent in the policies that affect them and to envision and fight for a world where punishment and incarceration are not the way we put a band-aid on social problems. The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country globally. The cost, literally and figuratively, is unbelievably high. The system is and has always been broken. 

Who is someone that inspires you? 

I find inspiration in so many people. The students at the GCSW are indeed one-of-a-kind, unique, and passionate. One student who has inspired me in the program is Selena Garcia. She graduated last May, and I have never seen someone work so tirelessly for the causes she believes in. She is truly a trailblazer for immigrant rights and an all-around advocacy superstar. She inspired me to join the student organization Policy Insiders Advocacy Committee (PIAC) and become more involved with the political landscape in Houston overall. A politician I am inspired by right now is Beto O'Rourke. I love how he centers on the people first (is this not how politics should be?!) and his "never give up" attitude. I would be proud for Texas to have him in office. 

Anything else you would like to share?

Register to VOTE! The November general election is one of the most important of our lifetimes, and we need everyone's voice. In Texas, the registration deadline is 30 days before Election Day, but the earlier, the better. If you need to register to vote, find me or another Volunteer Deputy Voter Registrar (VDVR) on campus!


Name: Micaela (Micki) Rodriguez
Graduation from the GCSW:
 MSW '21

Focused Learning Opportunity: Abolitionist Social Work

What made you decide to pursue your education in social work?

I believe I was drawn to social work out of necessity for survival and transformation. I grew up wanting to be a teacher. As a Chicanx, first-generation college student, and being the first and only one in my family to graduate high school, I experienced feelings of shame and marginalization that resulted in years of dropping out multiple times before I finally earned an Associate's degree after ten years. When I transferred to a university, I started my undergrad in a Teaching and Learning program. Still, I faced many barriers to meeting the degree requirements and switched to Human Development and Family Studies. One of my required classes in that program was Culture and Diversity, where I was introduced to social justice and activism. My professor, Dr. Nikki Coleman, a brilliant Black womxn, had a way of teaching and creating a safe classroom space where I felt seen, valued, and challenged to think critically about myself and the world in ways I had never considered. It was then that I began to understand the shame I carried due to how my lived experiences of systemic racism, white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, misogyny/misogynoir, and other forms of oppression. I felt compelled to continue educating myself to be an agent of change. 

My journey into the social work profession was one of healing because I wanted to gain the knowledge and skills to articulate the trauma and oppression my body had experienced and continues to experience so that I can effectively change the systems that allow this harm to happen.  

What was a significant highlight of your educational experience while at the GCSW? 

There has been nothing better about my educational experience at the GCSW than the awe-inspiring, intelligent, caring social workers I have been introduced to and grown to trust and love. My friendships with my peers in the program and the community we created together mean the world to me. I will forever be grateful for the opportunities to learn, grow, organize, and "burn things down" alongside some of the most respectable human beings I have known. Organizing petitions and forums on and off campus to advocate for radical, revolutionary, systemic change and healing transformation in the summer and fall of 2020 and during my final semester in fall 2021 were highlights for me.

What have you been up to career-wise since graduation? 

I currently work as a contract Wraparound Case Manager in the VOICES Program at Change Happens!. My clients are mostly Black and Brown youth between ages 14-17 who identify as girls, who have been labeled "at-risk" and referred by their school counselor/social worker, or who have been detained and/or placed on juvenile probation and referred by Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. 

As an abolitionist feminist social worker, I have found it incredibly challenging to navigate collaborating with the juvenile [punishment] system. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn more now through supervision and experience about the system's inner workings. This knowledge and expertise will be beneficial later in my career to be a more informed advocate for creating the kind of systemic changes that are more in line with my abolitionist [feminist] social work values. My favorite part of my job is facilitating therapeutic-style groups following the 18-session VOICES curriculum, which is based on the principles of empowerment, self-discovery, and transformation.

I have always enjoyed working with youth and have about five years of experience working in positions where youth engagement is central to my role. The VOICES program allows me to engage my clients in considering how society views them, discovering the impact of harmful social norms and stereotypes about girls on their self-image, deconstructing oppressive narratives, and supporting them in their empowerment journey. Their voices are their superpower in creating the change they want to see in their respective lives.

I recently started a new part-time position (in addition to my part-time contract with VOICES with Texas Advocates for Justice - Houston (Grassroots Leadership) in the Participatory Defense Program

You chose to pursue a Focused Learning Opportunity in Abolitionist Social Work. What about the Abolitionist Social Work FLO appealed to you? 

I started the MSW program less than six months after [unsuccessfully] attempting to leave an abusive marriage and living with my two children for 30 days in a shelter for unhoused women and children survivors of domestic violence. From day 1 of starting this program, I felt like I was living a double life -- surviving daily emotional and psychological abuse at home while attending a professional graduate program where I was training for a career in "helping" people like me. The pervasive dichotomy in social work education, which draws a clear distinction between the social worker and the client, took a toll on my mental health. I navigated this program wondering which side I belonged to, never feeling safe enough to share and reflect openly on these thoughts and feelings. I don't think I realized at the time what I was doing. I recognize now that I was desperately searching for the right kind of information, resources, knowledge, something/anything that could help me figure out how to get out of this abusive relationship. Unfortunately, everything I was learning in the program only made me feel more disheartened and hopeless that the kind of support I knew I needed didn't exist. Thankfully after my first year in the program, I had established trusted friendships with a few of my cohort colleagues, who provided a safe and supportive space to open up about what I was going through. 

Halfway through the program, during the June 2020 uprisings and three months into this ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I was able to walk away for good from a 17-year abusive marriage with the support and care of my dear new friends. This experience -- as dangerous, painful, devastating, and confusing as it was -- led me to fully embrace abolition as the only real solution to my problems and the best approach to addressing intimate partner violence on a macro scale without perpetuating further harm. 

The Abolitionist Social Work FLO became available to me during my final semester. After two years of feeling like I was also in an abusive relationship with the social work profession, studying abolition feminism was an affirming and validating experience. I am obsessed with Angela Davis' new book Abolition. Feminism. Now. 

I am convinced that my work as an abolitionist feminist social worker is to continue challenging and deconstructing the idea that carceral feminism is the best solution to violence against womxn. This can be done by pointing out the parallels between intimate partner abuse and state-sanctioned violence and using art and storytelling to organize political education and advocacy alongside those wanting to create safety and accountability for survivors outside of carceral systems. 

The Abolitionist Social Work FLO aims to explore "social work's role in building a society that addresses social problems without the need for punishment and incarceration." Why do you believe it is essential for social workers to better understand abolition's role in our current society? 

I think anyone who wants to call themselves a social worker should understand how the profession of social work is a carceral system that marginalizes and erases generations of advocacy work and social change that has been led by and for survivors of violence to create safety and accountability outside of carceral systems. As a survivor myself, it took me a long time to understand. I still struggle with articulating how harmful, condescending, and intrusive it feels when any professional thinks they know better than I do what kind of support and resources I need. 

I cannot express enough how demoralizing it feels for social service systems to prioritize punishment and incarceration over accountability and healing transformation--requiring survivors to report their trauma to police before they can qualify for assistance is absolutely coercion and no social worker should ever be proud of being an agent of policing and surveillance. 

I think social workers must understand and learn how to challenge political strategies that criminalize and minoritize groups of people based on their identity and modes of survival. Instead, social workers in any role should be prioritizing care, acceptance, healing, and transformative healing over retributive and punitive solutions that disempower and dehumanize our clients.   

What knowledge from the Abolitionist SW FLO did you gain, and how do you believe this knowledge benefitted you in your life, career, and perspective? 

The most significant takeaway from the Abolitionist Social Work FLO was finally putting a name to the kind of social work I genuinely value and have been practicing since stepping foot into the GCSW. Reading about abolition feminism felt like coming home to peace and love after a lifetime of war and survival. I am a proud abolitionist social worker. This identity allows me to embody my values by centering my personal growth and professional development on my heARTivism of imagining and working towards a world without prisons and punishment. 

Who is someone that inspires you? 

So many people inspire me! I was first introduced to and inspired by the concepts of abolition and artivism by Patrisse Cullors when I attended the "A Day of Perspective" event hosted by the GCSW in September 2019. I was inspired to connect with social work and advocacy through art by the artivists on the discussion panel at that event and by A.V.M. Hawkins, the artist who created the piece "Energy of Humanity" and whom I met at the open house during my foundations class. I am inspired by community leaders and activists like Dianna Williams, Maggie Luna, Mo Cortez, Nikki Luellen, and Carl Nix, whom I have gotten to know and had the honor of working alongside as a member of Texas Advocates for Justice and Grassroots Leadership. I am inspired by Sol Thomas and Sema Hernandez, my social justice chingonas hermanas. They have also overcome their traumas of violence to become agents of change dedicated to uplifting our Latinx and Indigenous communities. I am inspired by my clients in the VOICES Program when they trust me enough to support them in reclaiming their power by using their voices to tell their own stories. I am significantly inspired and forever grateful for Dr. Angela Y. Davis (and I highly recommend her new book, Abolition. Feminism. Now., co-authored by Gina Dent, Erica Meiners, and Beth Richie). Most of all, I am inspired by my mom, sisters, two daughters, family and chosen family, and all my ancestors who came before me for whom I live and thrive by doing the work I do as an abolitionist feminist political social worker. 

Anything else you would like to share?

A link to view the "Abolitionist Political Social Work" zine I created for my Abolition Independent Study (Dec. 2021): tinyurl.com/apswzine


Name: Emerald Green 
Program and Expected Graduation from the GCSW: 
MSW 2022

Focused Learning Opportunity: Global Leaders of Behavioral Health Education (GLOBE)

What made you decide to pursue your education in social work? 

I came about pursuing a career in Social Work by a referral from one of my sorority sisters in passing. During that time, I was interested in pursuing a Master's degree in Psychology because my main goal was to learn more about mental health and the effects of mental health disparities in my community. My sorority sister inquired with me about any post-bachelorette plans I had and recommended that I look at the University of Houston's Graduate Social Work Program. She then informed me that I could potentially complete my field placement at the Veterans Association in Houston for a field placement. Fast forward two years later, I am soon to graduate from the program. Fun fact; I applied a week before the deadline and got accepted. That's how I arrived here at the GCSW. It's also pretty interesting to know that I am currently at the Veterans Association, and it has been nothing short of an experience. Everything has come full circle for me, and I'm glad I listened and went ahead and applied. 

We are in our first year back in person. What has been a highlight of your educational experience so far? 

The content and care from my previous and current professors have been the highlight of my educational experience so far. COVID has been a traumatizing, historical event for many of my peers, including myself, and my professors knew that. Faculty took the initiative to be very flexible with their students. Alongside this, the educational material that I have learned, I think, has prepared me to be able to work on multidisciplinary teams, whether clinical or macro, and work in high-volume behavioral health settings. 

What do you hope to accomplish upon graduation?

Upon graduation, the immediate goals that I hope to accomplish are to pass my licensure exam, obtain a job opportunity with the population I want to work with and continue to pursue a professional degree. 

You've chosen to pursue a Focused Learning Opportunity with GLOBE. The purpose of GLOBE is "to increase the number of culturally competent social workers who deliver behavioral health services to underserved populations." What about GLOBE appealed to you? 

The focus is on underserved populations. What do you think of when you hear the term "underserved"? Who are we, as a society, depicting as underserved, and what are we basing this off? I am so glad I came across GLOBE. The training focused on preparing social work students to become behavioral health providers. While doing so, the program sought to prepare social work students to appropriately deliver behavioral health services to all populations, not just those deemed underserved. The program did not limit itself to focusing on mental health but also taking a look at how an individual's physical health plays a vital part in their overall health and wellbeing. 

Why do you believe social workers are needed to administer health services to historically underserved populations? 

Social workers think and treat patients differently. To be a social worker is to think beyond black and white. We understand there are gray areas in the healthcare field that are not explicitly defined and categorized. So, why are social workers needed? Social workers are more than just child welfare work and case management. Having social workers administer health care services can help bridge the gap between healthcare disparities and services when serving underserved populations. Whether we are lobbying for policy change or discharge planning, macro, mezzo, and clinical social workers are needed.

Who is someone that inspires you? 

I can't pinpoint one person that inspires me. While I do not have a large family, I have what we call in my community a village. A village is a group of individuals in your community that has helped raise you into an adult. I consider myself to have a village. The individuals in the community ranged from doctors, pastors, and professors, all of who continue to inspire me. 

Anything else you would like to share?

I want to thank everyone at the GCSW for the opportunity to share my story, and I hope to continue being a catalyst in my community. 


Name: Sofia Gonzalez 
Program and Expected Graduation from the GCSW:
 MSW 2023
Focused Learning Opportunity: Nonprofit Leadership Alliance (NLA)

What made you decide to pursue your education in social work?

I decided to pursue a Master's in Social Work because I wanted to learn how I could help children and adults struggling with mental health issues. I feel that many communities don't have access to quality mental health care. I want to help close gaps in mental health care and help support those in need in a way that I believe would have benefitted me when I was younger.

We're back in person for the first time. What has been a highlight of your educational experience so far? 

I have learned a lot from other students in the program and feel very supported by staff and faculty members at the GCSW. Even within the clinical social work profession, I have learned that everyone has their own experiences and expertise and different approaches to helping people. 

I think my educational highlight is learning that I can gradually develop my approaches and use my strengths and new knowledge to determine how to grow in my field. 

What do you hope to accomplish upon graduation?

I hope to gain experiences that will help me become more confident in taking on challenges in my work. I hope to strengthen my abilities by learning various skills and gaining insight into different areas in the field that will help me become a more well-rounded social worker. 

You've chosen to pursue a Focused Learning Opportunity with NLA. What about NLA appealed to you? 

I felt that NLA would expose me to a side of social work I had no previous knowledge of in terms of existence or function. Understanding how nonprofits receive funding and implement different strategies to initiate and maintain relationships with donors, I believe, would help me gain a critical skill set that is valuable for anyone interested in working for a nonprofit. However, I mainly decided to join NLA because after taking Social Work Policy with Professor Lilian Ortiz, the NLA faculty mentor, I wanted to explore different areas where I could utilize my analytical skills. NLA is a FLO that allows students to exercise their strengths productively and thoughtfully. 

The purpose of NLA "is to strengthen the social network with a talented, prepared workforce." Why do you believe it is essential that we have a prepared and well-versed workforce for nonprofits? 

NLA is hugely informative and provides workshops that present the material in a way that's accessible to everyone. I learned about different research-based strategies and theories that made nonprofit management and fundraising far less intimidating than I initially expected. I believe that change takes a village. By participating in this FLO, I truly understood how social workers could create a significant impact through relationships with others who have shared values and a common goal. Most importantly, participating in this FLO gave me a sense of hope and allowed me to hear from knowledgeable professionals and fundraisers who have a positive outlook on the impact we can have on communities by working together. 

Who is someone that inspires you?

As previously noted, I felt inspired by Professor Lillian Ortiz after taking her Social Work Policy course. I learned about Professor Ortiz's professional experiences working in policy and with families impacted by domestic and child abuse during the course. While working in policy and child abuse can be challenging to navigate, she explained that these experiences taught her to focus on what she could control and approach her work to make something better. I hope to approach all of my work as a social worker with the same objective.