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Expanded USC Social Work Workforce Development Program Provides Stipends and Specialized Career Training

  • Students

After a decade working in child development, Nidia Sanguino-Gonzalez realized she had gone as far in her career as she could without a master’s degree. The early educator, mental health advocate and mother of four gave herself three years to get into the right school at the right price for her family. Her top choice was the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, and she was thrilled to receive an acceptance letter. But could she afford it? To her great surprise, she learned she was eligible for a $25,000 stipend through the California Social Work Education Center (CalSWEC) program based on her interest in working in public behavioral health. This stipend opportunity, in tandem with available scholarships all applied to her first year of study, put her educational dream within her budget. 

“Without the scholarships and stipend, I wouldn’t be here,” said Sanguino-Gonzalez, an East Los Angeles native. “In my community USC feels like an unattainable thing, and for me it certainly did.” However, she met an USC MSW alum from the same area who encouraged her to apply, saying that USC would be there to help her. “She was right, there is so much help here. You just have to go out and get it.” 

Today, Sanguino-Gonzalez is in her first practicum placement on a Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (LACDMH) integrated behavioral health team working in the community. She and her children, ages two to 12, do their homework together and she’s proud to have them see her pursuing her dream. 

Sanguino-Gonzalez is not alone. Many aspiring USC students cite financial concerns as their highest priority when deciding where to pursue their advanced social work degree. It is the concern that admissions counselors hear the most. To address this, USC Social Work developed an Office of Recruitment and Workforce Development (ORWD) specifically focused on expanding opportunities that make the Master of Social Work (MSW) program affordable through stipends and scholarships, while providing specialized career training at the same time. The new department builds on the school’s decades-long leadership of integrating affordability with providing a pipeline directly into the workforce. 

The ORWD currently oversees workforce development programs funded by multi-year grants from federal, state, or county entities, including eight stipend programs. In 2023-24, the stipend programs awarded almost $2 million to 113 students. Workforce development stipends are often awarded in conjunction with scholarships available at the school. More than $10 million in scholarships are awarded annually to incoming and continuing students. Together, the stipends and scholarships can put a world-class social work education within reach. 

“Workforce development programs that offer financial incentives to attract committed and qualified trainees are not only life and career changing for students but most importantly, they fill service delivery gaps for many of the most underserved populations,” said Omar López, assistant dean of recruitment and workforce development. López leads the expanded department and knows firsthand the difference that a stipend can make to a student’s educational and career trajectory, as the recipient of a CalSWEC stipend himself to focus on public child welfare while pursuing his MSW. 

“As a former undocumented person, one of these programs allowed me to complete graduate school to support those involved in the public child welfare system, which remains one of the highlights of my career as a social worker to date.” 

Workforce development goes beyond money

While funding tuition is the first concern, preparation for the workforce is a close second on the list of priorities for prospective students evaluating MSW programs. For this reason, the ORWD provides an integrated approach, with many stipend programs providing specialized training, internships and priority job placement in social service agencies upon receipt of their MSW degree, allowing fresh graduates to realize their dreams right away. Some include mandatory post-graduation employment within specific agencies or settings, which has the added benefit of providing immediate employment and career experience. 

“The hands-on experience has been invaluable” said Sydney Gran, a first-year MSW student who, like Sanguino-Gonzalez, received the CalSWEC Public Behavioral Health stipend in addition to scholarships, making it possible to attend her top-choice for graduate school. Gran learned about the workforce development stipends when she attended an information session webinar offered by the school, and was thrilled to find that the stipend programs offered more than just tuition assistance. 

“Having classes offered to me solely because of the stipend training program is amazing,” Gran said. "It has really helped me gain the knowledge and the experience to provide support and care in publicly funded settings. I look at the stipend conditions as an opportunity to dedicate my life to this work.” 

Even for those stipends without an employment requirement, recipients have strong post-graduation job placement rates. The Next Generation Partnership Project (NGPPP) stipend launched in 2021 to focus on the underserved population of at-risk children, adolescents and transitional age youth and includes additional training, but no post-graduation employment requirements. Despite this, 86% of the first cohort of NGPPP alumni report being employed 12 months after graduation, with the vast majority working directly with the target population to deliver individual therapy, family therapy, mental health assessments, health education, or working with other professionals such as nurse practitioners and psychiatrists.

“You need certain qualities and background in order to be awarded a stipend,” said Luis Escalante, MSW ‘01, part of the team at LACDMH that oversees social work interns and who received a workforce development stipend when he was a student at USC Social Work. “The likelihood definitely goes up that we're going to get a higher quality person and our programs are aware of that.”

Addressing critical need in social work 

Social workers are in high demand and the current workforce is projected to increase 7% by 2032. Many suggest this may even be an underestimation, given the number of professional social workers who are retiring as demand for mental health and other social services continues to increase. Several of the workforce development stipends and scholarships available through USC Social Work are directly tied to areas of social work practice where the need — and opportunity — is greatest, and are designed to help alleviate shortages in care for underserved populations. These include child protection, public mental and behavioral health, gerontology and substance use counseling. 

“Our funding sources are focused on creating academic programming that meets identified community needs, and attracts the best future social workers to meet those needs,” López said. 

For example, the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) recently announced an expansion of their stipend program to two years of funding, raising the annual award beginning in Fall 2024. This means that incoming students have an opportunity to receive as much as $52,000 toward their graduate school tuition, with an added bonus of post-graduate job placement priority and two-year employment commitment with DCFS. 

Richard Chavez, MSW ’15, was raised by his grandparents, immigrants from Mexico who served as foster parents to numerous children in need while he was growing up. Chavez always knew he wanted to work with children and follow the example of service his grandparents set for him. He received a DCFS stipend that included tuition assistance and an internship at LADCFS, with a two-year commitment to work there upon graduation. Now in his eighth year with LADCFS, Chavez is a supervisor mentoring other social work students and giving back to the community in which he was raised. 

“The education and networking connections I got from USC are invaluable, and the end result was a great job,” Chavez said. “I was amazed that there was a stipend to help me pay for school so I could focus on my education. And the icing on the cake is that they would fast track me into a position at LA DCFS.”

Supporting students from underserved communities 

Students from underserved communities often face financial barriers to gaining the education and experience required to help improve their own communities. Stipends and scholarships help to address this issue as well. 

The Primary Care Project (PCP) is specifically designed to help MSW students from disadvantaged backgrounds fulfill their training in integrated behavioral health services within a primary care setting as part of their final MSW internship. Students selected for the program receive up to a $30,000 scholarship, funded by the Health and Resource Services Agency (HRSA), a federal entity. The five-year program aims to train 110 MSW students from 2020 to 2025 committed to providing care in medically underserved communities. 

Growing a professional workforce that looks like and comes from the communities it serves has long been a priority of the USC Social Work workforce development program. Today, 63% of the school’s student body population is Latinx, African American, Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American. 

Mirian Juarez, MSW ’18, pursued social work in order to return and make a difference in the East Los Angeles community in which she was raised. While many of her friends waited months or even years trying to get hired by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (LACDMH) after graduation, her LACDMH stipend program that awarded $18,500 and practicum experience provided her with priority hiring a few months after receiving her MSW, for an LACDMH clinic in the heart of her neighborhood. 

“Social work allows me to really focus on the communities that I want to work with, the people who actually look like me,” Juarez said. “The stipend program and USC Social Work made that possible.” 

López explains that while there have been tremendous strides made over the last decade to increase diversity among social workers and reflect the populations they are likely to serve, there is still a long way to go. 

“As human beings, we relate to other people that look like us, or have experienced what we are experiencing,” Lopez said. “The fact that you understand my culture, or are open to learning about me, is really important to building trust.” 

USC Social Work has a decades-long history in workforce development, beginning with a seminal collaboration between the school and DCFS to establish in-service training with stipends in the early 1990s. The first foray into workforce development through internships by the school was the innovative concept of Rino Patti, dean from 1988 to 1997, and his counterparts throughout the state of California This initial workforce development collaboration served as a basis for the establishment of CalSWEC, which Patti helped found and today manages stipend programs in child welfare, integrated behavioral healt, and adult protection services. 

“The work that those early leaders did in forming CalSWEC to provide educational funding significantly expanded the workforce development of social work as a profession in California,” López said. “We are proud to be continuing that work to put a top-tier social work education in reach so we can help address the unmet need across so many populations today.” 

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