A voice for the vulnerable: How social workers in Guam first came to be through UOG
Story by Jasmine Stole Weiss and Jackie Hanson
At 28 years old — four years after earning her Master of Social Work from Wayne State University in Detroit — now retired professor Vivian Dames had been hired to stand up the brand new social work program for the University of Guam.
“This was 1978 when people really didn't have much of an understanding of what social work was. And it certainly was not seen as a profession at that time,” Dames said.
Despite that, Dames dove headfirst into creating a homegrown social work program — one that would be culturally relevant to the people in the region. Based in what was known as the A Building, where the School of Business & Public Administration now stands, she identified two other faculty members, involved an existing social work student organization, got a grant to form a regional advisory group, and brought in consultants. Within two years, UOG was able to offer a Bachelor of Social Work.
Professor Gerhard Schwab said Dames would travel across the Pacific — including to Polynesia, Melanesia, and Papua New Guinea — researching indigenous social welfare systems.
“No mobile phone, no laptop, no internet, but she had a manual typewriter that she carried with her all the time,” Schwab said. “She looked at how island communities take care of each other and meet each other's needs. At the same time, she examined [...] what type of international aid works and what does not work.”
While some refer to Dames as the grandmother of the UOG Social Work Program, Dames said she prefers to think of her role as being the first weaver.
“The program came about and has been able to be maintained because of what I did back in the late ‘70s and ‘80s — weaving together certain elements, certain threads that were necessary to establish the program. […] The leaders of the program who have succeeded me have continued that practice of continuing to weave the new strands,” Dames said.
Social workers work for both government and nonprofit agencies. They help vulnerable individuals to improve their quality of life and develop local programs and advocacy initiatives to assist and protect them. They serve children, the elderly, the homeless, the sick, and everyone in between.
“Our role is to dignify the people we work with by empowering them,” said Professor of Social Work Lisa Linda Natividad.
A key part of the BSW program at UOG in developing the region’s social workers is hands-on experience and cultural exposure. In the 400-level “Fields of Social Work Practice” course, students travel to neighboring countries and islands to learn about the challenges for the poor and underprivileged there and the organizations that are working to help them.
In 2018 the students went to the Philippines and visited Missionaries of the Poor — an international organization that houses elderly men and disabled children — and the Buklod Center Inc., an organization that helps women transition out of the sex worker industry.
They have also visited the islands of the Federated States of Micronesia to better understand the background and culture of FSM nationals living in Guam.
Jennifer Lee, a 2015 graduate of the BSW Program, said her trips to Chuuk, Palau, and the Philippines helped her better relate to those immigrant communities after she’d visited their home countries. Having seen firsthand what life is like there, Lee found that the families she works with in Guam are more comfortable speaking and sharing with her.
“In my experience as a practicum student, I see myself being more culturally competent,” Lee said in 2018. “I’ve become more aware of their cultural background. I bring back this experience through these trips.”
The regional relationships the program has maintained are part of what makes the UOG Social Work Program so exceptional.
UOG social work students have testified in Pohnpei to pass the Family Safety Act. They worked to draft the Social Work Practice Act that was later enacted in Guam. And they’ve organized countless donation drives to benefit families across Micronesia.
The BSW Program has now been nationally accredited for nearly 20 years through the Council on Social Work Education, and interest in the major has doubled in the last decade, with an average of 27 students being accepted into the program every year, leading to more social work graduates than ever before.
“We graduated over 30 social workers last spring. And our incoming junior cohort right now has 25,” Natividad said.
UOG also formed a partnership with the University of Hawaii in 2012, providing BSW graduates a pipeline to continue on to get their Master of Social Work at an in-state tuition rate. The partnership has produced 20 graduates, the majority of whom have stayed and worked within the region in a more administrative capacity.
From establishing the profession of social work in Guam in 1980 to producing graduates to lead and staff the agencies that serve as a lifeline for the most vulnerable, the Social Work Program at UOG has truly advanced communities and transformed lives throughout the region.
“I believe social work is literally the work of God's love made manifest,” Natividad said. “Social workers are instruments of that love to help those suffering improve their well-being and maximize their potential. We are truly privileged to be witnesses to this process.”