He’d seen it all.
A young Dr. Gerhard Schwab witnessed the entire spectrum of human limitation—all from the back of an ambulance as a driver during his year of alternative civil service in Austria.
“I got to know people in prison, rich people, old people, healthy people who had accidents, the terminally ill—I got the whole spectrum,” he said. “Life is not fair. I saw those personal stories and thought that these people are in trouble—not because they’re failures but because they are at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
At 24-years-old, Schwab decided to make it his life’s mission to help those who had fallen through the cracks of society’s social structures.
And more than 30 years later, he was rewarded for his service and dedication to the field with the lifetime achievement award on March 18 from the Guam Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
Service and Education
Schwab’s service to the people of Guam began in 1986, where he led and developed youth programs at the Chancery for three years.
To make a bigger impact, Schwab went back to school, and, ten years later, returned to the island with three masters degrees—one in social work and another in psychology from the University of Michigan and one in human relations from a University of Oklahoma satellite degree program from Anderson Air Force Base. He also completed two doctorate degrees in social work and psychology from the University of Michigan in 1998.
Schwab celebrates his 20-year anniversary working for the University of Guam this year—a surprising event since teaching wasn’t in his plans at all.
“I never thought I would be a teacher,” he confessed. “As a social worker, I got to work with people in difficult positions. It’s a very exciting job, non-routine, with lots of new challenges. But when I started teaching, I realized teaching is even better.”
Social Work at UOG
As the current Division Chair of the program, Schwab recalled the major changes he’d seen throughout the years.
“Our most significant achievement was when we established ourselves as an accredited program in 2003,” he said.
Nine years later, a crucial partnership with the University of Hawaii at Manoa Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work established an opportunity for UOG Social Work graduates to earn a Master of Social Work degree. Three Tritons have graduated already, and another will receive her degree this spring.
Another major milestone for the program is the recent collaboration with the University’s Chamorro Studies program, which created a seamless and complementary pathway for students to double major in the programs.
“We have harmonized the curriculums and adjusted them to mutually enhance the value of the degrees,” he explained. “To understand the history, indigenous values systems, and cultural practices allows you to better understand current social trends and social problems. When I look at collaboration, for me, I see the actualization of how we developed from a good program to a great program. We’re right in the core of the Good to Great vision.”
Among the numerous changes to the degree program, Schwab said one of the most positive changes was the reintegration of Social Work under the umbrella of the School of Health (SOH).
“When I look back the last twenty years, we’ve never been as well nested,” he said. “We work well together because we have this vision: health is physical, social and mental. Our shared definition that health has a physical, social and sociological component—that makes us a good school.”
Dean of the School of Health Dr. Margaret Hattori-Uchima said not only does Social Work fit within the SOH but that since its integration, Schwab has made significant contributions to the perpetuation and development of the degree program.
“This award is a wonderful testament to the commitment and dedication of Dr. Schwab to our students, university, and island community” she said. “He has touched many lives and continues to be a driving force for the social work program and for the profession. He is an inspiration to many of us.”
And Schwab's students-turned-colleagues echo the same inspiration.
" The award was well earned and deserved," said Tricia Lizama, assistant professor of social work. "Dr Schwab was my professor in undergrad and advised me with pursuing social work and furthering my education to obtain my master's in social work. Now life has gone full circle, and we are colleagues. He has been and continues to be a great mentor, colleague, and friend."
For the love of Social Work
Every summer, Schwab returns to his alma mater Vorarlberg University of Applied Sciences in Austria—where he received a terminal degree in social work in 1981—to teach budding social work students, a few of whom have even studied abroad at UOG.
“When I see my Austrian students in the summer, the common denominator is always the same: they say being here is a transformational education experience,” he said.
But Schwab always looks forward to coming back to UOG to teach the students of this region because, he said, teaching them has helped to continuously reignite that fire inside of him that inspired his want to help others.
“UOG is a world class university,” he said. “And I think we become ourselves in the engagement of others. I learn from my students and the people I work with. Over time, I’ve continued to grow, and I’m very grateful for that.”