Nationally Ranked M.S.W. Degree Fills Void with Underserved in Bronx

January 24, 2014 5:00 pm Social Work Dept

Prof. Carl Mazza

To meet the damand of students and the job market, Lehman College is combining some of its most successful departments—Nursing; Health Sciences; Social Work; and Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences—into a new School. Meet the people who are making it happen in the first of a four-part series.

In the eight years since its launch in 2005, the Masters of Social Work program at Lehman College has achieved status among the top 100-ranked graduate social work programs at colleges and universities across the country, and has provided much-needed aid to the Bronx, where there was previously a dire need for social workers.

“The emphasis of our program is social and economic justice,” said Professor Carl Mazza, the program director and a founder. The program, he said, has filled what was once a huge community void. “The reason the M.S.W. program came into existence was because agencies in the Bronx started telling us more and more that they could not get graduate students from Manhattan for field placements. And even more of an issue was that they could not get M.S.W. graduates to take jobs because of the location,” said Prof. Mazza, who has spent thirty-five years as a social worker, specializing in criminal and juvenile justice.

Prof. Mazza and his colleagues, including Professor Norma Phillips, the department chair who was also integral in launching the program, saw a perfect opportunity for an M.S.W. program, many of whose students are Bronx-born and motivated by a desire to give back to the community. “Our program has always had a strong commitment to the Bronx. We decided that we were going to start an M.S.W. program specifically to serve underserved populations and communities,” he said. Students “feel a strong sense of justice, and that these populations in these areas have just as much right to services as other communities.”

Prof. Phillips, who had previously worked as an adoption consultant for domestic and international adoptions, said, “Agencies know our students, and they know what they are prepared to do. We have graduates holding high positions as directors and supervisors. A lot of our graduates, after being in the field, come back and supervise our students.”

The two-year program costs about $11,000 annually, affordable when compared to similar M.S.W. programs offered at private schools. This academic year, just over 100 new students were accepted. Compared to other programs, second-year students do not have varying concentrations; rather, everyone is an “advanced urban generalist.”

“We are training social workers to work with any population, in any capacity in the urban environment,” said Prof. Mazza. Some students hold bachelors degree in social work from Lehman, which has one of the oldest and largest programs in the country.

One of the M.S.W. program’s great successes is credited to real-life experience students get through Bronx internships. They serve with organizations such as the Hispanic AIDS Forum, Montefiore Medical Center, Good Shepherd Services, East Side House Settlement, Partnership with Children, and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital. The employment rate record of the M.S.W. students after graduation is impressive. “Within six months of graduating, about 90 percent of our students are employed full time. Many of them are bilingual or trilingual, and that becomes a huge selling point,” said Prof. Mazza.

Nelson Torres, who received his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Lehman in 2001 and his M.S.W. in 2008, is a prime example. An internship at the Hispanic AIDS Forum turned into a fulltime job, and he is now the non-profit’s Bronx site director. He calls his Lehman education hugely influential. “What is special about Lehman is that it’s a family. The students were very close,” he said. “Whenever I go back, the professors remember you. They dedicate so much time to each student, and that is so crucial. Plus, we had the opportunity to work in the community and do fieldwork. It made a big difference,” he said.

Khalil Cumberbatch, a current student, is already making an impact. He works as an academic counselor at The College Initiative in Queens. His interest in social work began atypical from the average student. He was incarcerated for six-and-a-half years on a robbery conviction, and while serving his time, enrolled in an education program that showed him how a college degree could change the course of his life.

“I started to understand that there are social issues that exist in our communities that lend to high crime rates and high incarceration rates,” he said. “When I was released, I had a sense of a debt that I owed to myself, to my family, and to the community. It was that mind frame that made me want to pursue higher education. If I wanted to be educated and speak on issues, outside of my personal experience with the criminal justice system, I had to be exposed to higher education.”

He first met Prof. Mazza while incarcerated, when the professor spoke to prisoners about the value of education. “The reason I feel the Lehman program is so successful is that it is a small program, and the professors have the flexibility to be hands-on. You walk up to professors and they know you. Prof. Mazza is very inclined to have your best interests at heart.”

— Suzanne Rozdeba