By Jana Eisenberg
As Michelle Fortunado-Kewin searched for a DSW program, she kept in mind her mission, one born of her own experience growing up in an extended Filipino family in California. She wants to find—and more importantly implement—interventions to reduce suicide and suicidal ideation in the youth—particularly the Filipino youth—she works with.
Observing mental health issues and challenges in herself and in her own family inspired her to want to help others, said Fortunado-Kewin, 36, who identifies as Filipino. “There was a lot of underlying depression and anxiety—one of my cousins got pregnant as a teen, there was substance use/abuse, and some of my cousins lived single-family homes. I have also had family members who died by suicide,” she said. “That is all part of what made me want to go into a field where I could help people.”
She didn’t really learn what social work was until she reached college, though, and, as an undergraduate student, shifted from a psychology major (inspired by a high school counselor) to social work—which she came across while flipping through the course catalog. She now laughs that she will soon hold “all the possible degrees” she can as a trained social worker.
In addition to her bachelor’s (2006, San Francisco State) and master’s (2008, USC), Fortunado-Kewin is a licensed clinical social worker who also holds a credential in pupil personnel services (PPSC). Her job titles include program coordinator and clinical supervisor for the San Francisco Unified School District’s Student Intervention Team, and field faculty advisor/adjunct assistant professor at Smith College School for Social Work (Northampton, MA). She is also in private practice.
As part of her work with the San Francisco school district, she runs crisis trainings. Through those activities, she noticed that there were higher suicide ideation rates in Filipino students. “Along with some other Filipino social workers, I started looking for interventions to support Filipino youth and decrease suicide,” she said. “We found information about why this population experiences those thoughts, and what interventions work in other populations, but not a lot about what we can do with regard to Filipino mental health specifically.”
That’s when she knew that it was the right time to pursue her dream of another degree. “After doing frontline work for so many years, I’d thought about going back for a doctorate,” she said. “I craved learning again; learning more. Seeing the lack of interventions for Filipino youth made me realize that I needed to explore these issues more deeply. The topic was perfect for a doctorate.”
Because of her interest in having more immediate impact, she quickly understood that a DSW degree, versus a PhD, was appropriate for her. “With a PhD, the focus is more on academic research. There is a gap between research and implementation—that gap can be seven years or more. I want to impact the clients and systems I’m working with in the community sooner,” she noted. “The DSW is practice-focused.
“In my cohort, a lot of us are frontline workers who have experience direct service,” she added. “In a big urban school district like San Francisco, things are constantly changing. Instead of waiting seven years or more, through the DSW, I’m able to understand that system from the inside, and pair that with what I’m learning to look at who or what needs to change.”
The official term, and emerging field of study, for putting interventions more quickly into practice is “implementation science”—in Fortunado-Kewin’s words “addressing the gap between the length of time it take to translate research or evidence-based practice into direct service,” adding that through the program, she is thinking more critically about the way services are delivering in the real world.
While she was familiar with UBSSW through her position arranging for interns in the field, she happily reports that she found out about the School’s DSW program through a Facebook ad. From there, she was attracted to the comparably affordable tuition, and especially to the School’s human-rights and trauma-informed perspective, one that encompasses social justice.
With the understanding that she would continue to work her full-time job, and that the DSW would be conducted mostly online, Fortunado-Kewin applied for the program, while seriously considering what it would mean for her home life and her other personal and professional commitments.
“As part of application, I thought through both the challenges and the supports I have,” she said. “My husband and I talked about the reality, the time, and also my work. I like being busy; this program forced me (in a good way) not to ‘overwork at work.’ I have to set boundaries—work 35 hours a week at work. My husband also offers space and support. While I’m in [my online] classes, he takes care of our lovely, but needy, dog.”
As a member of UBSSW DSW’s first cohort, says Fortunado-Kewin, she appreciates that the faculty and staff are open to feedback. Its use of various technologies is a necessary and creative element that fosters engagement for the advanced learners.
In addition to meeting via Zoom with their professors for many classes, she and her classmates, all of whom also work full-time, started scheduling their own Zoom check-ins, to debrief and to stay connected. (Among the cohort, geographically, Fortunado-Kewin is the furthest away from Buffalo.)
“In a class in our first semester, we used virtual reality technology. When the pandemic started, during our second semester, we didn’t do it as much,” she said. “In one class, we talked about social media in the context of social work, building and engaging through networks.
“I’m starting to explore the virtual reality (VR) piece,” she continued. “Both as a way to engage with clients, and also how it could be used for training, a way for interns to experience ‘practice’ before going into the field. VR technology has helped different populations, like older and aging adults to connect. I’m thinking about how to be creative with applying technologies, like how video games, for kids K-12, could work.”
She acknowledges that access to and the expense of technology can be an issue, and that is part of larger societal issues that she sees. “As a person of color and a woman, I’m hoping that this degree will allow me to have more impactful leadership and planning roles for other people of color.
“From my initial desire to look at interventions for Filipino youth who are feeling suicidal, and now through the pandemic and social justice issues, I’m thinking more about Black and Indigenous people—how to elevate and put their voices at the center, and the systems changes that are needed. Those must be done in responsive and trauma-informed ways, and could be done through social work,” she said.
With the urgency she’s feeling, she has little doubt that she’s on the right track. “We need culturally responsive interventions that work now,” she said. “The process needs to move faster to be effective. Where are our priorities? What needs to change? Where does funding need to go, and what will it cost in terms of time, money, and people?”
UB’s faculty, staff and her cohort are helping her to realize her goals. From meeting for a few days in person at the start of the program, to the accepting attitude, even across technologies and thousands of miles, Fortunado-Kewin has found a new support system, and the fortitude to continue her pursuit.
“What’s especially helped is the professors’ flexibility and knowledge,” she said. “With the pandemic, and all of us [DSW students] working full-time with multiple jobs, the School has been very welcoming and understanding.”