April 10, 2006
Sacramento State Bulletin

New social work program to help Southeast Asian community

Responding to a strong community need, Sacramento State has launched a program to train social workers to work specifically with ethnic groups in the Southeast Asian population.

The program, believed to be one of the first of its type, will help social services agencies better provide needed services to Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Mien and Laotian families in the Sacramento region.

“We are trying to break down the barriers to social services,” said Serge Lee, the professor of social work who created the program. “Many in the community are not accustomed to seeking help for private, family matters. They have needs in the areas of health, mental health and education, and many times don’t know where to turn.”

Lee said that few social workers have knowledge about the culture of Southeast Asians, many of whom are immigrants or refugees. Better-trained social workers who have a thorough understanding of the Southeast Asian community would provide a vital link, said Lee, a noted social work researcher who is believed to be the only person of Hmong descent to have earned a doctorate in social welfare.

To reach more Southeast Asian families in need, Lee has put together Sacramento State’s new Southeast Asian Focus Cohort Master’s Degree Program in Social Work, which he hopes can be a model for other communities with large Southeast Asian populations. Nineteen students, most of who are already employed with social services agencies but are seeking a master’s degree and want to work with Southeast Asian individuals and families, are currently taking the classes as a group, also called a cohort. The classes, which began last fall, cover subjects such as human behavior and the social environment, social welfare policy, and social work practice with diverse populations with emphasis on Southeast Asian content

Lee said the program grew out of the concerns from three area agencies: the Hmong Women’s Heritage Association, the Asian Pacific Community Counseling program and Asian Resources, Inc. The agencies, along with Sacramento County mental health officials, felt that something needed to be done to provide better training to social workers to address the needs of individuals and families in the Southeast Asian community.

About 70,000 people in Sacramento County make up the Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Mien and Laotian communities, according to the 2000 Census.

Over the course of the three-year program, the students also must take 18 specialty seminar sessions that allow them to more fully explore the historical and cultural background of Southeast Asians. The students learn about the life-changing experiences of groups escaping from their native country, becoming refugees in other countries and ultimately settling in America and the Sacramento region.

“In order for social workers to gain a better understanding of the experiences of Southeast Asians as they are assimilating into the mainstream of American society, the students need to understand how individuals and families got where they are and how they are adjusting to life in the United States,” Lee said.

One part of the program, Lee said, will help the social work students better understand Southeast Asian youths, who often balance the cultural expectations of their parents and those of American society. “Southeast Asian youths and adults look at themselves and the environment around them, and wonder who they are among these differing cultural values.”

Lee said one negative outgrowth is that gang membership is perceived as a new and enjoyable culture for some Hmong youths.

The social work students will also learn things they won’t find in a social work textbook, Lee said. Slapping someone on the back may be considered taboo, especially in a Buddhist family. And “yes” doesn’t always mean yes. “Southeast Asians place high value on harmony and may tell the American what they think the American wants to hear rather than their true feelings,” Lee said.

This fall the social work students will begin working in the field in agencies serving the Southeast Asian community. They are expected to receive their master’s of social work degrees in spring 2008.

— Ted DeAdwyler


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