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Sarah Richards-Desai, PhD ’24, MSW ’16

Portrait of Sarah Richards-Desai.

Published June 11, 2021

By Catherine Donnelly

“Social workers must be critical thinkers and advocates for human rights. ”

Flexibility and a willingness to say yes to new opportunities have been the hallmarks of Sarah Richards-Desai’s graduate experiences at the University at Buffalo.  Several years after completing her undergraduate degree in Spanish, writing and fine arts, Richards-Desai took community college courses in psychology and then applied to UB for an MSW degree.

“I had become familiar with Buffalo through volunteering with a refugee resettlement agency during my undergraduate program, and I knew that there were a number of refugee communities in and around the city. I was drawn to the number of faculty at UB interested in these experiences, and I hoped to engage with refugee communities as a social worker,” said Richards-Desai. “However, life sometimes points us in different directions, as I found out when my MSW program acceptance letter arrived the same week I discovered that I would be having my first child.”

While deferring her full-time acceptance for one year, Richards-Desai moved to Buffalo and immediately took a course on global social work to start to build a connection to UB. As a result of that class Dr. Filomena Critelli suggested she consider a PhD after seeing her interest in policy and research.

“I reached out to the PhD program director at the time, Dr. Laina Bay-Cheng, who was insightful and proved to be a generous mentor throughout my time in the program. Our current doctoral programs director, Dr. Annette Semanchin-Jones, is also incredibly approachable and sets a culture of inclusion and excellence for students.”

After graduating with her MSW in 2016, she moved to full-time PhD status where she juggles several jobs while conducting her research and engaging in a myriad of experiential learning opportunities. She worked with Dr. Laura Lewis to develop a cultural competence module that has grown into a cultural humility module and video used by local and global agencies and schools.

UB promotes community organizing and volunteering for all students both domestically and abroad. Richards-Desai’s first placement was a remote one with the National Domestic Workers’ Movement in India. In addition, she has participated in advocacy trips to the United Nations in Manhattan and to state lawmakers in Albany. With the support of Dr. Hilary Weaver, Richards-Desai presented her community engagement work with the refugee community, both locally as part of International Education Week and at the Joint World Social Work, Education and Social Development Conference in Dublin in 2018. She also is committed to welcoming and supporting students of color and those with refugee backgrounds, saying that we need stronger representation of these groups among social workers and MSW students.

“UB actively supports independence and engagement, really following a networked approach to building relationships within and outside of the school. It is so clear to me as I am attending meetings or informally running into faculty and staff in the community that the people here are actively embodying the core values of service and social justice while maintaining high standards for both their research and direct work,” continued Richards-Desai. “Many faculty engage in community-based participatory research, and I hear in the community that these faculty are genuinely trusted, respected, and considered to be acting in the interests of the communities.”

Richards-Desai had the opportunity to write publications with Drs. Isok and Wooksoo Kim, then continued being mentored by her current Chair, Dr. Yunju Nam. Dr. Nam had secured a grant through the NYS Office of New Americans to learn more about refugee employment in Buffalo.

“Working with Dr. Nam has shown me how researchers connect with local agencies and government to fund impactful research. Some of our early findings have already impacted policy and local programs for refugees.”

In addition to research, Richards-Desai advocates locally in support of BIPOC communities and the LGBTQ+ community. “Social workers must be critical thinkers and advocates for human rights. Whether that is acknowledging whose land we are on (UB is on Seneca territory) or confronting biased policies, social workers must be reflective and proactive.”

Along with other students, Richards-Desai co-authored letters to CSWE and the UB School of Social Work calling for explicit commitments to antiracism in the school and social work profession. “I am thankful that our Dean and faculty responded favorably and have included students throughout the process of adopting a networked approach to racial justice and equity in the school.”

As a PhD candidate, Richards-Desai has begun to teach while continuing to support her family through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have been simultaneously building my family, career and research agenda and doing much of it in a remote way, but in some ways, I think that having children in grad school is actually perfect timing. Neither grad students nor caregivers report getting a lot of sleep, so I might as well make the most of this time! But, kidding aside, my partner and children actually keep things a little more balanced by helping me to not work all of the time. My family is transnational, multilingual and multicultural, which relates in some ways to my service work and research. We are active with refugee and newcomer communities here in Buffalo, and before COVID my children were present with me at all planning meetings, events, and family gatherings. As I am balancing the many parts of my life right now, I am very aware that they are learning from my actions more than my words. That’s social learning theory in real life right there.”

Richards-Desai’s research is focused on people who identify as women and are refugees who have resettled in Buffalo. She hopes to challenge some of the assumptions often made about the agency, skills, desires, and capabilities of refugee women.  

“Centering the voices and experiences of women who are refugees, and often also people of color, is paramount in my work,” she says. “I cannot speak to or make assumptions for them, but I see myself in a role of changemaking and stepping out of the way when needed. I really care about facilitating and connecting people with information and opportunities, rather than imposing my opinions or cultural lens. The people in my life and especially women who have been constructed as 'traumatized' or 'oppressed' with little or no understanding or listening have been incredible teachers.”

Richards-Desai encourages future students to leverage all of the opportunities at UB and be open to opportunities that the staff and faculty will offer.