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Resiliency of MSW graduate inspired by the strength of his father

  • Alumni

In September 2023, nine weeks before he was due to complete the requirements for a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree at USC, Benjamin Roach, MSW ’24, lost his father. Over the previous four years, his father had been living with progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a rare, Parkinson-plus syndrome that affects body movements such as walking, balance and eye function. In 2019, Roach and his older sister became the medical and financial power of attorney for their father. They managed all of his care needs, including moving him to multiple board and care facilities in different part of California. 

Roach contemplated pausing his studies several times during this challenging period, but he persevered with support from family, friends, his USC professors and fellow classmates, who all helped him become a graduate of the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

During his sophomore year of undergraduate study, Roach’s father was living just outside of Sacramento, California, with Roach residing 500 miles away in San Diego. Coordinating his care from such a distance became progressively more difficult. He “white knuckled” his way through his spring semester, then spent the summer moving his father into a board and care home and organizing the sale of his house. Before the move, he promised his father that would not rest until his every need was met.

After about a year, Roach and his sister were able to move their father to a care facility in San Diego so they could manage his care more closely, and allow for Roach to spend more time with his father while continuing his full-time psychology degree program. Despite the ongoing challenges of caregiving, Roach graduated from the University of San Diego magna cum laude and fulfilled a goal he held since childhood.

Finding support in a virtual setting

Ben began investigating options for graduate programs and was inspired by social work.

“I kind of fell in love with the service,” Roach said. “An entire field based on helping others; and there are many ways to do it.”

The MSW program at USC offered a comprehensive and interactive online option for earning the degree, including practicum placements within students’ local communities.

The online option for the MSW, delivered through the Virtual Academic Center (VAC) platform at USC Social Work, provided interactive online modules, videos and readings, as well as clinical simulations with professional actors portraying clients for students to practice their skills in real time. 

“I was truly amazed,” Roach said. “It was very intuitive.”

Most remarkable, was the sense of community that the professors created in the virtual classrooms.

“The professors did a fantastic job of really bringing us together to support each other,” Roach said. “They created a really safe and supportive environment, even within Zoom. I felt that although I was going through this journey with my dad, all of my classmates were there with me, made time for me, and I could process with them. It was very powerful, and it all stemmed from the professors.”

His father’s condition continued to progress not long after Roach started his MSW studies, with an additional diagnosis of Parkinson’s-related dementia. Within six months, he had to make the difficult decision to move his father into hospice care. Having just begun his practicum placement at North Coastal Mental Health Center in Oceanside, California, Roach started a daily routine of meeting the challenges of his internship and then driving for over an hour in traffic to spend the evenings with his dad at the hospice care facility.

“Somehow Ben was always able to show up to class grounded, attuned to others and prepared,” said Jennifer Parga, associate teaching professor, who was amazed by Ben’s resilience through the unpredictability of a practicum placement, the intensity of full-time study and caregiving.

Parga explains that practicum placement is a course in itself, and as a faculty member she is able to assist students to digest their practicum experience in real time — both the triumphs and difficulties.

“Over the course of multiple semesters, you have sessions that are celebrations of client and student connection, of finally getting agency documentation correct, or having consistent supervision,” Parga said. “You also have classes where you unpack ethical dilemmas, talk about no shows, levels of disclosure or being enough.”

Roach credits Parga, with creating an incredible support structure and sense of community in the program.

Looking Ahead

At North Coastal Mental Health Center, Roach primarily worked with individuals suffering from serious and persistent mental health (SPMI) who were also experiencing homelessness. Statistics showed that about 35 percent of the center’s clients had a co-occurring mental health diagnosis and a substance use disorder. Yet, not one of the ten existing therapy groups specifically addressed addiction recovery. Roach pitched the idea of developing an additional group to his supervisor, who allowed him to create a 15-session curriculum for addressing addiction incorporating elements from Smart Recovery, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

After only three weeks, the new addiction recovery group was one of the most attended groups at the clinic. By the time his practicum placement ended, he had run the first seven sessions and trained a new clinician to replace him.

“I'm really proud of that one,” Roach said. “I like that you're working with people that truly need help. It was really powerful work and you could just tell that you're doing something important and it feels good.”

When his father passed away, in the final weeks of his MSW studies, Roach took a week off from his classes and internship. Then, he had a choice to make – delay completing his degree and subsequent graduation, or power through. Taking inspiration from his father, who never lost his smile or sense of joy throughout his journey with PSP, Roach decided to finish his degree and make up the hours he had missed.

“My father found peace and harmony at the end, and so that helped me process,” Roach said. 

At the end of his practicum placement, North Coast Mental Health Center offered him a full-time position as an associate clinical social worker and addiction specialist.

Despite all the difficulties he had to face and overcome during his studies, Roach graduated from USC with a 4.0 GPA, of which he is very proud. He is eternally grateful for the unwavering love and support from his mother Sherry, friends, siblings and professors that helped him accomplish this.

Roach plans to become a licensed clinical social worker, and complete a certificate program in alcohol and drug abuse counseling to also become a certified alcohol and drug counselor.

During a recent site visit to North Coast Medical Center, Roach’s practicum instructor jokingly said to Parga, “Send me more Bens!” And Parga understood exactly.

“You can see the drive in Ben,” Parga said. “And at the same time, you also see an immense patience in him for the opportunity of more learning to come.”

 

Rest in peace Roger Stanley Roach (1/7/55 – 9/30/23), a man of joy, love and passion.

 

To reference the work of our faculty online, we ask that you directly quote their work where possible and attribute it to "FACULTY NAME, a professor in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work” (LINK: https://dworakpeck.usc.edu)