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Desire to Help Others Leads to Title IV-E and a Transformative Experience

San Diego State Grad Omar López Applies Social Work Skills throughout His Eclectic Journey

Omar López did not know what a social worker was, but he can still vividly recall his aha moment, when he decided he needed to do something to help others.

He was a sophomore at UC San Diego in a sociology class studying the U.S. educational system. “Learning about the disparities that exist in society fueled a fire that concurrently burned with a sense of guilt because I realized that I was one of the lucky ones from my community attending college,” he says.

That fire continued to burn after one of his Chicano professors encouraged him to leave a janitorial work study job he had to do something “that could prevent me from internalizing stereotypical societal pressures typically exerted on someone with the profile of a recent undocumented immigrant similar to mine.”

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Omar took that wise counsel seriously. He obtained a work study job as a case management intern, then a regular position, with the Chicano Federation of San Diego County. In January 1999, he recalls having a brief conversation with Dr. Maria Zuñiga, a federation board member and social work professor at San Diego State. In those five minutes, Dr. Zuñiga told him about the MSW program and especially IV-E. Omar says his first thoughts were, “You mean that they will pay me to go to school, to learn about something I want to do, and then they are going to hook me up with a job?... Sign me up!” A few months later, he was an MSW Title IV-E stipend recipient at San Diego State, embarking on a journey that would transform his life.

The Transformative Power of Title IV-E
When he began the IV-E program, Omar describes himself as “a somewhat misguided 21-year-old who was trying to figure out his identity and how to fit in.” He was dealing with acculturation issues, still learning English, and coming to grips with his background that included formative years spent navigating a gang-affiliated, drug-infested environment.  

“The Title IV-E and MSW programs not only impacted my career but truly changed my life,” he says. “The camaraderie of my cohort allowed me to see that there were other ways to build relationships. The personal growth was exponential after many insightful experiences that allowed me to develop clinical skills and learn about resiliency, starting where the client is at, group facilitation, policy, advocacy, and many other fundamental pieces that built my social work persona.”  

Besides this, “The focus on public child welfare allowed me to learn how to work with one of the most vulnerable populations in our society. Retrospectively, I value how much the Title IV-E program changed my career by nurturing the development of soft skills, such as critical thinking, political acumen, knowing how to build and maintain relationships, etc. These soft skills have been critical in both my employment and volunteer contexts,” he says. 

RELATED: More about Omar Lopez

An Eclectic Social Work Career
Following graduation from San Diego State in 2001, Omar started out as a San Diego County adoptions social worker. Today, he is clinical associate professor and assistant director of field education at the University of Southern California School of Social Work, leading a team of faculty and staff who manage and implement all the workforce development initiatives, which fund student stipends. He also holds appointments on the School’s curriculum council and faculty search committee and teaches specialized stipend seminars, field courses, and the MSW leadership course.

Reflecting on his career, Omar says, “My post-MSW career of 14 years is an eclectic journey that has allowed me to use many transferrable skills of the social work profession.” That career, evolving through county government and academia, has led to a variety of positions: international liaison, supervisor, administrator, analyst, trainer, therapist, union president, board member, research consultant, non-profit board member, advisor to Mexico’s federal government, faculty member, principal investigator, and department vice-chair. Currently he is finishing up a doctorate of education in educational leadership with a concentration in higher education administration at USC.  

Volunteer service also continues to be important to Omar, who joins “organizations that align with my values.”  He says, “This involvement keeps me grounded and aware of community developments. These experiences provide me with invaluable teaching material that I share with my students. It also provides me with a platform to be a social work practitioner, particularly at the macro level.”  

“The diversity of experiences—while employed or through volunteer work—is what I have enjoyed the most,” says Omar. “This has given me a well-rounded perspective to carry out my responsibilities as vice-chair of the newly created Department of Children, Youth, and Families.” That same perspective is what “facilitates teaching, networking, and moving a project or endeavor in a particular direction that aligns with the values of the social work profession. “

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Challenges ahead for the Social Work Profession
His varied experiences have given Omar a unique perspective on his profession, which, he says, “is expanding as it adapts to new demands of our society,” while “society is increasingly becoming aware of the profession’s value and its transferable skills.” He cites a recent publication, “Is the MSW the new MBA?” (http://www.fastcoexist.com/3035124/is-the-msw-the-new-mba), which argues the corporate world of the 21st Century is quickly evolving to needing system thinkers who can see the interconnections between “the bottom line” and its impact on employees, their families, and the community at large.

Says Omar, “Our profession has gravitated towards a clinical orientation, so I believe one of the major challenges facing the social work field is finding a balanced approach between micro and macro levels of practice. This obviously needs to be considered in academia where we first imprint the identity of future social workers.  

“We need to expand the horizons of our noble profession by exploring non-traditional settings that can benefit from our skills and view of the world. Banking institutions, entertainment companies, sport organizations, and many other similar entities can provide the platform to carry out the 21st Century evolution of the social work profession. 

“Public child welfare would benefit from a social work profession that is able to communicate with the aforementioned non-traditional partners by bringing additional stakeholders to the table.”