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Social work professor models work in action to students, community

April 30, 2019 | Katherine Adams

Social work professor models work in action to students, community

For some people, the precise moment they realize their life’s calling remains clear in their memory forever. University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Assistant Professor of Social Work Roberta Leal was nearly finished with her undergraduate degree in psychology when she took an introduction to social work class. She’d always known she wanted to be in a “helping” profession, but on the first day of that particular class, she knew exactly the way her “help” would manifest itself.

“It was a lecture on justice and community development, and all I could think of was that these were the stories I heard my entire childhood,” Leal said. “I always heard that just one social justice action could make a huge impact and improve lives. It made sense and it connected with my family. At that moment, the light bulb went off and I knew social work was where I was supposed to be, and that I needed to continue with a master’s and eventually a doctorate in social work.”

Paying it forward

The daughter of an undocumented migrant farm worker, Leal was born and raised in Pasadena, Texas. Her father got a job in the oil refineries, but during the economic downturn in the 1980s, her family found themselves in dire need of social services. “My mother didn’t speak English nor have enough job readiness skills to enter the workforce,” she said. “We needed food stamps, access to quality health care, and we needed to sign up for the free lunch program at school. Social workers were the ones who helped us get what we needed and in the end, our family grew stronger.”

Leal said her mother role-modeled for her the importance of paying it forward. “Ultimately, both my parents have high school diplomas and between my three siblings and me, we have 10 college diplomas, including a doctorate. That happened in just one generation,” she said.

“What stood out were the formal and informal networks we navigated through and the demonstration of the community members coming together to support people trying to achieve their goals,” she continued. “Social workers helped our family to get where we are today. Through them, we accessed multiple nonprofits like Salvation Army, which is where my mother learned to read, and BakerRipley, which is where she attended GED classes. Our family culture taught us that we could demonstrate that you can learn something new, then apply those skills to your own life, and then teach that knowledge to others. That’s what social work is about. Positive social change.”

Role model

One of Leal’s students, senior Dubelsa Salinas, is completing her internship at BakerRipley. Salinas feels that her professor’s family connection to that organization has inspired her as she completes her internship there. “I always felt very connected with Dr. Leal because my family and I were migrants farm workers like hers,” Salinas said. “I can see Dr. Leal as my role model, because her background is inspiring to me. It motivates me to finish my degree and inspires me to continue forward to graduate school. She’s the chair of the advisory board for the Cleveland campus in Pasadena, and she’s very involved in the Latino community.”

Salinas said that at first, when she was considering the options for her internship, she thought she would like to go into the health care side of social work. “We went through an interview process with our professors and gave them our choices for where we’d like to do our internships,” she said. “After doing scenario questions and finding the best fit based on our answers, Dr. Leal decided to place me at BakerRipley in a position that is more on the community development side of social work. I was surprised, but it turns out, she was right. I am a much better fit in this area than I would have been on the clinical side.”

She said that Leal has always taught her to believe in herself. “She is always so motivating and knows exactly what to say,” she said. “I know that because of my professors’ dedication to my success, and all I’ve learned in this program, I am very well prepared to go out in the community and, begin a new job and be a great social worker.”

Some graduates of UHCL’s Social Work program, such as Maria Wilson, begin their professional career in another field and find their passion for social work later in life. Wilson, who is an adjunct professor of social work at UH-Clear Lake and senior behavior researcher at University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social work, graduated with her Bachelor of Social Work from UHCL in 2012 and is Leal’s research colleague. “I was a licensed vocational nurse for 12 years before switching,” Wilson said. “I found myself wondering what happened to my patients and their families after I took care of them. I wanted to provide more for them than just medical care. I found that in the Social Work program at UHCL. This was my real passion.”

Wilson said that everything she learned in her Social Work program at UHCL has real-world applications that are put into practice during a student’s internship. “The program prepares you to take those pivotal moments from each course and use it in the real setting. We’re told in classes, you’re going to see this in your internship,” she said. “We had all the tools we needed when we finished our program, and we knew our professors were behind us.”

Working with Leal on a number of research projects has been enlightening, Wilson said. “She has so much passion for the Latino community and her experience is extensive,” she said. “Her ability to pause and teach in the moment and offer her expertise is so valuable. She’s very passionate about her work, and it shows. It’s what I admire about her the most.”

Community outreach

It’s important, said Leal, to make sure that UHCL does not just exist on its own property. “Whenever I go out into the community, UHCL is there,” she said. “UHCL is being represented, the collective faculty, staff and administration are being represented in the reaches of the community. I am with people who probably did not realize that there’s a four-year university in their backyard.”

That’s why she considers herself a role model for the current students who are interning out in the field, and for future students she might encounter. “It’s significant for me to make a difference, to create that link. Perhaps they could be inspired to get their GED, the next step might be a community college or the workforce, but perhaps they could enroll at UHCL,” she said. “I do my best to engage students, make sure student interns see the university in action and model to them how to do this. It’s social work in action.”

For more information about UHCL’s Bachelor of Social Work program, visit

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