Undergraduates Engage with Social Work through the Justice and Pandemics Preparedness Academy
Columbia School of General Studies reached out to CSSW to partner on a novel Columbia undergraduate co-curricular program.
Toward the end of last summer—as a pandemic and racial justice movement continued to sweep across the country—James Elliott, an undergraduate at the Columbia School of General Studies (GS), was registering for courses and came across a co-curricular program called the Justice and Pandemics Preparedness Academy. The newly formed Academy would draw on the experiences of COVID-19 to teach and encourage further study of the way structural racism shapes public health crises.
”It was an opportunity I could not turn down because of its relevance to this moment in American history, coupled with the opportunity to learn from some of the leading minds of Columbia University,” Elliott said.
Launched last semester with funding from the Office of the Provost’s Addressing Racism seed grants, the Academy is the fruit of an innovative partnership among GS and three Columbia graduate schools, the School of Social Work, the Mailman School of Public Health, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. As James Colgrove, the Dean of the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program at GS, explains, the idea of the Academy emerged last summer “as COVID-19 and mass mobilization against anti-Black racism both grew in urgency.” A total of 120 students from across Columbia’s four undergraduate schools—Columbia College, Barnard, GS, and Columbia Engineering—applied to take part in the Academy’s inaugural cohort, from which 24 were selected.
“This initiative provides an opportunity to convey to extraordinarily talented undergraduates the true breadth of social work research and practice, as well as the outsized impact of health and social crises on communities of color,” said School of Social Work Dean Melissa Begg.
The Academy’s curriculum encourages focused study of social work and public health approaches to addressing pandemic preparedness and the disproportionate impact these pandemics have on people of color drawing on the COVID-19 pandemic experience. It consists of one week of foundational lectures, followed by an eight-week-long seminar and a weekly journal club in which students record thoughts on readings and presentations. A further component enables students to work closely with faculty at Columbia’s social work, public health, and arts and sciences graduate schools on research projects that aim to reduce racial health disparities.
Noting the wide range of majors, from biology and premed to urban studies and sociology in the inaugural cohort, GS Dean Lisa Rosen-Metsch said: “These are students who are destined to do many different kinds of work. The hope is that all of them will take away some new knowledge and skills that they can incorporate into their future work. The outcome that we all want to see is a more just and healthy society.”
Julien Teitler, a CSSW professor who serves as senior associate dean of research and academic affairs, recalled that when Dean Rosen-Metsch approached the School last summer with the idea of the Academy, social work faculty members—including Courtney Cogburn, Lauren Gates, Desmond Patton, and John Robertson—had responded with enthusiasm. For Teitler, they were natural choices to take part in mentoring undergraduates in these areas. “Many of our faculty have devoted their career to understanding and finding ways of undoing structural inequalities, so they have the domain expertise,” he said.
Elliott, who began his studies while incarcerated, said that the Academy has afforded him the opportunity to learn how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the prison population. He joined a “ban the box” policy research project led by Rosen-Metsch that documents whether and how colleges ask about students’ criminal justice involvement in their applications. “It is work I never imagined doing during my first semester,” he said.
Elliott also enjoyed a journal club session led by CSSW Associate Professor Desmond Patton. The founding director of SAFELab, Patton also serves as our School’s Associate Dean for Curriculum Innovation and Academic Affairs as well as MSW Program Director. He is renowned for his work examining pathways to violence, both on-and offline, among low-income youth of color.
For Patton’s session, students were asked to read and then discuss three of Patton’s published articles and then relate the ideas to new work around COVID-19 and grief. For Patton, Elliott’s contributions to the session were a highlight. “James understood and amplified conversations on grief and trauma as triggers for aggression,” he said.
As this example implies, one of the Academy’s most successful aspects has been bringing undergraduates in contact with faculty at Columbia’s graduate schools, and giving them the opportunity to explore disciplines that are less well known at the undergraduate level, such as social work and public health.
The experience of Sarah Wang (Columbia College, ’24), another member of the Academy’s inaugural cohort, corroborates this. She joined a research project with Lauren Gates, the senior research scientist who directs the CSSW Workplace Center, which for over 50 years has been responding to economic disparities in the American workplace. A major focus of its current efforts is to ensure that young people in the foster care and juvenile justice systems can connect with meaningful careers and gain economic self-sufficiency.
“I’ve learned about monetary and fiscal policy through my courses, but with this Workplace Center project I’m more immersed in the ‘real-life’ side of things,” Wang said. “It’s been eye-opening.”
For Wang, one of the most exciting features of the Academy was the chance it provided to work with Gates and the Assistant Workplace Center Director Gwyn Kirkbride, both of whom are nationally recognized experts in their field. “Lauren and Gwyn have really appreciated the research I’ve been able to contribute,” she said. “Coming fresh out of high school, I find that rewarding.”
As Marlyn Delva, Dean of Students at GS, put it: “We hit a jackpot with these students. They are fearless about asking the hard questions.” She hopes the Academy will serve as a vehicle for introducing students to fields that have a desperate need for young leaders.
The second term of the Justice and Pandemic Preparedness Academy launched at the start of the Spring 2021 semester, with a new cohort of 20 students. Information is available on the GS website.