13:35 PM

Social work students help young immigrants' transition to America

Mariana Martinez
Mariana Martinez will use her Spanish language skills and her experiences as a senior in the Social Work program in a middle school with a large population of refugee students.

U.S. public schools are serving significantly more immigrant students today than in recent decades, reports the George W. Bush Institute. Educators are doing their best to support them. Mariana Martinez and Josue Luna, students in University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Social Work program, have learned to apply their Spanish language skills and their social work training to help immigrant students transition to life in an American school.

Martinez, currently a senior, and Luna, who received his bachelor’s degree in social work in May, both received a year-long internship at Las Americas Newcomer School in the Houston Independent School District. Luna completed his internship in the spring, and Martinez will begin her internship this month.

“I’ll be shadowing a social worker who is helping mostly refugee kids who need help with social issues they’re facing here,” Martinez said. “Some kids are from detention centers and have been deeply traumatized. Back in their home country, their education system probably wasn’t the same—they might have had to sit on the floor with no desk, and perhaps they couldn’t go to school regularly.”

While interning, Martinez will help students acclimate to the norms in U.S. schools and feel more comfortable. “Because I speak Spanish, I can let them know I’m here to support them and they can trust me,” she said. “Many of them had a very traumatic journey here and have found they have not been accepted because of their immigration status. They’re in constant fear, and even DACA recipients are worried they could lose their status.”

Martinez said that often, a family might be there one day, but gone the next. “It’s hard for the other kids when they come to school and realize someone is gone,” she said. “I’ll be there to help students deal with this, as well as support the kids who are afraid this could also happen to them.”

Luna said his experience at Lasa Americas strongly influenced his desire to begin a master’s degree in social work. When he began his social work studies at UHCL, he was not planning to pursue a graduate degree or work with children. “To say the least, this internship experience influenced my career path,” he said. “I went in wanting to learn as much as I could, but what stuck with me most was the importance of the family system in the mental and physical development of all the students. It was the impact of the presence or absence of the family system that intrigued me.”

He learned how family separation affected all the children. “Some had no parents here and some were with a relative,” he said. “I really wanted to explore this and look for more experiences to create my social work identity. My wish to learn more about this is why I went to graduate school.”

Encouraged to take on the challenge of graduate school by Professors of Social Work Roberta Leal and Heather Kanenberg, Luna said he was grateful for his education at UHCL. “It was very real, and I felt immensely well prepared for social work and for graduate school,” he said. “They told me Las Americas would be a hard internship, and it was. They prepared me to be comfortable with my discomfort and to know that I would ask myself if I was cut out for this.”

Leal, who is also director of Field Education for UHCL’s Social Work program, said one of her responsibilities is to match student learning goals with field agencies to help students engage with vulnerable populations and have one-on-one mentorship from a licensed social worker.

“In addition to their BSW academic skills-based training, some of UHCL's Hispanic/Latinx students may have a shared immigration journey with students at Las Americas Newcomer school which may be helpful in building trust, providing professional support to the families, and teaching newcomers skills that are useful in navigating the formal health and educational systems that exist within the United States,” she said.

UHCL’s Social Work program equips professionals to empower vulnerable populations, support individuals and families and make a difference in their communities. Learn more about the Social Work program online.