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Ramona Merchan, MSW '08, Receives Widney Alumni House Volunteer Award

  • Alumni

Ramona Merchan, alumna of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, was recently honored for her enduring service to both the USC community and children in need throughout the Los Angeles area.

Each year, the USC Alumni Association hosts a Volunteer Recognition Dinner to celebrate alumni who exemplify outstanding service and a dedication to improving their communities. This year’s event, which was held on Aug. 30, saw more than 20 alumni (of the more than 375,000 living alumni in the Trojan Family) honored for their involvement in volunteer initiatives at USC and beyond.

One of the prizes awarded at the event is the Widney Alumni House Volunteer Award, which recognizes USC volunteers for their loyalty, support and dedication to the university and the greater Los Angeles community. This year’s recipients included Ramona Merchan, MSW ’08, who was honored for her ongoing commitment to serving the USC community and the needs of families and children in Los Angeles.

USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work: How did you transition from your military service to a career in social work?

Ramona Merchan: I began my career inmilitary intelligence in the Air Force, but I had always been interested in psychology and working with children. When I left the military, I joined the Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services (DPSS), where I eventually worked as both an eligibility supervisor and an administrator in the welfare department.

While I enjoyed helping to connect families to the social services they needed, I wanted to work more directly with families and children. So I became a liaison for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and got involved with a number of specialized projects ranging from working with victims of domestic violence to working with teen parents.

At the same time, I enrolled in Cal State LA, where I eventually completed my bachelor’s degree in social work with a minor in social gerontology, and received certificates in child maltreatment and family violence and applied gerontology. I went on to complete my MSW at USC and receive my social work license.

USC: How has your social work career intersected with law enforcement and policy making?

During the time I was pursuing my MSW, I interned at DCFS in a specialized unit called the Multi-Agency Response Team (MART). This unit works in tandem with law enforcement to provide emergency protective services to children exposed to high levels of illegal gang, firearm and narcotic activity and other high-profile child endangerment cases. After working with MART, I became a co-located law liaison for LAPD while working as a child abuse investigator for six years at DCFS. Eventually, I went on to do special assignments and supervise an emergency response team.

Soon thereafter, I became involved in a special project called the California Partners for Permanency (CAPP), which seeks to address the disproportionate number of African Americans and Native Americans in the child welfare system. Through this program, I collaborated with a committee of leaders from four other California counties to develop a core practice model to help alleviate this issue statewide.

I transitioned to work as a DCFS children services administrator and manage a number of DCFS programs—including one that provides transportation for foster care children and monitors their activity while they await court appearances. Currently, my primary focus is working as regional children services administrator, where I manage our community program referrals and monitoring and visitation between parents and their children. I feel fulfilled in this role, more than I have in any other position, because it affords me the opportunity to work directly with families.

USC: How has your experience at USC and your involvement in the USC community shaped your career path?

RM: My MSW not only equipped me to pursue my passion of helping families and children, but helped me understand the broader mission of social work. A staple of USC’s MSW program is the community immersion program, during which all new MSW students explore various communities in the greater Los Angeles area, examining vulnerable populations and their social capital. It opens your eyes and really makes everything that you’ve studied in textbooks real. Being forced to confront the challenges faced by underserved populations head-on as a new student helped me to understand why social work really matters.

My continuous involvement with USC has enriched my experience as a social worker and as a member of the community. As an MSW student, I was highly involved in activities on campus—I was a member of the Black Social Work Caucus and the Latino Social Work Caucus, and I chaired the Christian Social Work Caucus. After I graduated, I became the chair of outreach and recruitment on campus. Today I serve as president of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work Alumni Association. I continue to participate in the alumni mentorship program, host open houses, and assist with student welcome weekends and homecoming.

One of the most meaningful parts of my involvement with the university is the annual USC Alumni Day of SCervice, which is an opportunity for members of our community—from current students to faculty and alumni—to get involved in an outreach initiative. Whether the day is spent with the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank or the Downtown Women’s Center, it’s a communal effort that exemplifies the spirit of social work and Trojan values.

USC: What was your reaction to receiving the 2018 Widney Alumni House Volunteer Award?

RM: I was shocked and overwhelmed with emotion. It was quite a busy time in my life, as my two daughters were getting married within two months of one another. I was checking into a hotel in Pasadena for one of the weddings when I received the call confirming that I had won the award. I was able to share the moment with my family, which was incredibly special.

I am extremely thankful to Harmony Frederick, director of alumni relations at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, who nominated me for the award. It is humbling to be recognized for my work, but my involvement in serving the USC community simply stems from my love for the university, its students and alumni. I’m proud to be a Trojan.