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Faculty Profile: Assistant Professor Paul Sterzing

Addressing the Needs of Vulnerable Adolescents: Paul Sterzing, PhD

Dr. Paul Sterzing is a graduate of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and the newest member of the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare faculty.

He has held a special interest in working with vulnerable youths throughout his academic career, and his research includes studies that have focused on the needs of adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder, homeless children and sexual minority youths.

Dr. Sterzing relates a personal story about how his professional and research interests developed.

“I have a cousin whose life I’ve been actively involved in since he was about six years old,” he explains. Dr. Sterzing recalls that his cousin, who started getting bullied and ostracized by the time he reached the fifth grade, came out to him about his sexuality when he was 15. The teenager shared his fear that his own mother would stop loving him if he came out as gay. “My cousin’s struggles were happening in the years between my MSSW and PhD work,” he says. “And that’s when I knew I wanted to return for my PhD and focus my research on the needs of sexual minority youths.”

In addition to his research interests, Dr. Sterzing shared details about his small-town background, educational trajectory and his primary goals as the School’s new assistant professor.

Tell us about your personal and academic background.
I’m from a very small town called Crivitz in northeastern Wisconsin. My father mass produces pallet lumber, and I would have been a fourth-generation logger if I stayed in the family business. I’m the first in my family to get a college degree.

I was a non-traditional student when I started college in earnest at 23 years old. I tried college straight out of high school, but I had very little focus. I dropped out and worked for my dad on-and-off for five years. I eventually decided to go back to school to get my undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I wanted to become an alcohol and other drug abuse counselor; there was a fair amount of those issues in my family, so the topic had great importance to me personally. 

As an undergrad, I worked at a six-week residential treatment center that primarily served the needs of the uninsured. I was hired as a house manager but that led quickly to leading a weekly group therapy session. I started case managing about three to four clients, and that lasted for about two years. I then worked for the Wisconsin Autism Project, where I did behavioral therapy with a seven-year-old girl with an autism spectrum disorder.

After I graduated, I applied for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s MSSW program. It was a very pragmatic decision because I was advised that a MSW clinical track would be the fastest route to getting my certification as an alcohol and other drug abuse counselor. In the middle of the program, I ended up switching my area of concentration to health policy and did a three-semester practicum with United Way. I continued to work for United Way after completing my MSSW on a campaign to recruit homechore volunteers to help older adults continue to live independently in their own homes.

Why did you decide to return to graduate school to pursue your doctoral degree?
I have always been interested in the needs of sexual minority youths, and this is reflected in my course work throughout my undergraduate and master degrees. I am deeply invested in understanding and addressing the higher rates of mental health and behavioral problems that exist among sexual minorities compared to the general population. These disparities include higher rates of depression, suicide, substance use, risky sexual behavior and dropping out of school.

I focused specifically on bullying and peer victimization because my doctoral advisor kept asking, “Paul, why do you think gay and lesbian adolescents are experiencing higher rates of mental health and academic problems compared to their heterosexual peers?” I contended that something key was preventing the formation of protective peer relationships, and the literature suggested homophobic peer rejection and victimization may be some of the main causal factors. I couldn’t have known at that time that just two years later bullying victimization and suicide among sexual minority youths would grab national, mainstream attention.

What are your current research interests?
Little research exists on the full continuum of bullying involvement for sexual minority youths. We are starting to get a more complete picture about their level of victimization, but few researchers have bothered to ask if this population is also bullying other peers. This is an important question because students who play the role of bully-victim have been shown within the general adolescent bullying literature to have the worst mental health outcomes in comparison to those who only play the role of the bully or the victim.

I am interested in exploring this potentially more vulnerable subgroup of sexual minority youths. Bully-victims may report greater depression, anxiety, suicidality and truancy compared to other sexual minority peers. The bigger goal is to start understanding why some sexual minority youths are less likely to be bullied than others and why some bullied sexual minority youths are less likely to develop mental health and academic problems.

I want to move away from a deficit model that has been the norm for sexual minority research and move towards a strengths perspective. Important questions need answering: Why do some sexual minority youths never get bullied? What’s going on in these non-bullied youths’ families, schools and peer groups?

What are some of your goals for the upcoming year?
I am going to be teaching Human Behavior in the Social Environment. I think courses are a lot more interesting when you hear professors discuss their current research and apply it to the various course topics. I plan to use my practice experiences and research to enliven class discussions of theories of human behavior and change.

I will be spending this semester developing my course materials for Human Behavior, but I also want to start designing my own course that addresses the prevention of youth violence with a special emphasis on the needs of schools.

I also look forward to holding office hours with an open-door policy where Master’s and PhD students with interests in youth violence, school bullying or vulnerable adolescent groups can come and meet with me. As a PhD student, the thing I most enjoyed and found the most fulfilling was my opportunities to provide one-on-one mentorship.

In terms of my larger, university-level goals, I will spend my first year getting a lay of the land and developing relationships with scholars in other departments relevant to my research agenda, including psychology, public health, public policy and sociology.

One of my research goals for my first year is to develop a federal grant proposal exploring the potential relationship between polyvictimization (e.g., child abuse and neglect, witnessing domestic violence, sibiling aggression and neighborhood victimization) and revictimization at school in the form of bullying. I plan on submitting this proposal in the fall or spring of my second year to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development or the CDC. My dissertation was funded through the Fahs-Beck Doctoral Dissertation Grant Program, and I also plan on applying for their early scholars' mechanism.

What attracted you to the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare?
The UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare is one of the top schools of social work in the country with an incredible faculty. The work being done by Dr. Susan Stone was a big draw for me. She will be my formal mentor as a new faculty member, and I couldn’t be more excited. Further, the level of excellence that exists across the entire university affords me some amazing opportunities for ongoing professional development and collaboration.

What are your expectations about School of Social Welfare students?
I am expecting a very politically engaged, socially progressive and intellectually savvy group of students. I’m anticipating engaging discussions in the classroom and to be challenged by my students. I’m excited by the prospect of sharing my expertise with them, but to also learn from their diverse and relevant practice experiences.