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Stipend Program Helps Students Achieve Goals On and Off Campus

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Brandee Sosa
Brandee Sosa, MSW '18, on Commencement day

Lots of people talk about gratitude during the holiday season. But to be grateful for traffic? That was a new one to Brandee Sosa, MSW ’18.

Sosa is a social worker at Pacific Clinics Portals division not far from the University of Southern California. The man who said he was glad to be stuck in traffic was one of the clinic’s members (the term Pacific Clinics uses for its clients) who had recently found a job after being unemployed. When she asked him why, he told her he was glad to be with all the other people with somewhere to be and a purpose to fulfill. His thoughtful answer struck a chord with Sosa.

“I learn all the time from our members,” Sosa said. “They teach me all sorts of things about resiliency and self-dedication.”

Sosa knows that working at an integrated behavioral health clinic such as Pacific Clinics, which contracts with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health to help the neediest individuals, isn’t for everyone. Yet she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

She started at Pacific Clinics’ Pasadena location in her second year of study at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, her sights set on an internship that would help her learn how to work within the LACDMH framework. Pacific Clinics’ strong reputation among students and faculty as a great field placement offering clinical training drew her interest both as an internship and a potential employer after graduation.

That the internship came with a one-year stipend of $10,000 awarded by the social work school’s West Coast Project in addition to being paid for the hours worked meant she would be able to cover tuition as well as contribute to household expenses instead of relying solely on her husband’s income. Toward the end of the academic year, Sosa benefited from an additional opportunity to apply for a stipend of $18,500 from LACDMH. She was successful with the application and interview in that competitive process to secure a second stipend award.

Paying it forward

Through its workforce development and stipend programs, the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work offers Master of Social Work students financial incentives to specialize in an area of practice with a high need for qualified social workers. Students benefit from specialized curricula and field placements that match their interests and career goals.

The West Coast Project is funded by a $1.9 million federal grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration through its Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training program. This stipend program’s goal is to train 120 MSW students from 2017 to 2021 to provide integrated and inter-professional behavioral health services to vulnerable populations across the lifespan, including in rural and medically underserved areas in California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska.

“In the field of social work, we have several organizations at the local, state and federal levels that offer programs to help MSW students pay for part of their education in exchange for an employment commitment at a particular type of agency or serving a specific population,” said Omar López, clinical associate professor of field education and director of the Workforce Development Stipend Programs at the school. “The one-year employment commitment is required right after graduation, but for many of our students, that commitment is easy to make because it’s what they want to do anyway.

“Brandee epitomizes the characteristics of students who receive a workforce development stipend. In addition to being an excellent student not only in the classroom but also in practice, she is dedicated and has a passion to serve in a specific field of high need,” López said.

Taking a leap

Going back to school in the first place was a big decision for Sosa, who had been working full-time as an intake coordinator for Tierra del Sol Foundation. She remembers talking to her husband Anibal Sosa about what it would mean for her to go back to school. They’d cut their income in half and have to take on some debt. He supported her 100 percent. “He knew how deeply I wanted to have those MSW initials after my name,” she said.

Sosa’s path to graduate school didn’t begin by going to college straight out of high school. As a high school graduate, she started working full-time with adults with developmental disabilities at Tierra del Sol. She began as an instructor, helping individuals with job development and community engagement, eventually moving up the ranks to client coordinator and finally intake coordinator during the 9 1/2 years she worked there. “Interviewing prospective families…as well as spending the first 30 days with new participants cultivated my interest for clinical work and therapy,” Sosa said.

She decided that earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees would allow her to do more of the one-on-one work she loved. She kept working while she earned her bachelor’s at Mount St. Mary’s University. But she always had her eyes on the USC campus just across the street.

“I knew I wanted to get my MSW and I always wanted to go to USC. Their social work program is amazing. I applied for it thinking I wouldn’t be able to afford the price tag,” she said.

In the end, a combination of scholarships, part-time work and workforce development stipends ultimately made it affordable for Sosa to pursue her MSW at USC.

Ahead of the game

Today, she works as a mental health therapist at Pacific Clinics Portals, serving Medi-Cal/Medicare eligible individuals and families. She was able to hit the ground running when she was hired full-time there, just as she had planned, by learning the ropes as an intern the year prior.

“I want to help those with no other option or way to get help. I’m here to help people in absolute need,” she said. Her goal to provide quality support to them is matched by their ability to inspire her to think about life — and traffic — differently.

“Working in community mental health is very difficult. But it has lots of beautiful parts mixed in with the challenges,” Sosa said.