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Alumni in Action: Amy Conley Wright (MSW '04/PhD '08)

Amy Conley Wright (MSW '04, MAP; PhD '08), co-author of Changing the World for Children: Six Steps to Successful Child Advocacy, on growing a social work program in Australia

Cathy Lapid

Please share a few words about what you have been doing since you graduated from Berkeley Social Welfare.
After graduation and until recently, I was an assistant professor of child and adolescent development at San Francisco State University, where I led the policy, advocacy and systems concentration. I developed and taught courses in child advocacy, child and family policy, working with diverse families, social ecology of child development and an internship seminar. I also planned and led two international field study trips to Central America and Eastern Europe. I’ve also been active in research and have published a number of peer-reviewed journal articles as well as two books on the topics of child welfare innovations, advocacy and social investment in children. My responsibilities included service to campus, such as chairing a university-level committee to revise undergraduate education in social sciences, and to the community, by consulting and serving on boards for community agencies.

About a month ago, I started a new position as a senior lecturer of social work in the School of Health and Society at the University of Wollongong in Australia. Wollongong is on the south coast of New South Wales, about an hour’s drive from Sydney. I was attracted to this position for the opportunity to start a new social work program and to be part of the Early Start Initiative, which aims to break the cycle of disadvantage in early childhood, through innovative research, teaching and community outreach.

Tell us about your current position in the University of Wollongong. What is most rewarding about your role? Most challenging?
I am part of a three-faculty member team charged with developing a bachelors degree, and later a masters degree, in social work. The program will be accredited by the Australian Association of Social Work, and the accreditation process requires that we consult the community and incorporate specific skills and content into the curricula. So we are in the process of talking with our advisory group, constituted of representatives of local agencies, and we are also going out to communities in the region to ask them about what they would like to see in the new social work program. We are using the feedback we receive to design course proposals. These consultations also allow us to build relationships with the community that will lead to opportunities for community-driven research, field placements, and community service learning. I've also been appointed head of discipline for the social policy major, part of a new bachelor's degree in social sciences. In this role, I will be designing the new major and developing coursework on policy development, analysis and advocacy.

It is exciting to work with my colleagues in social work, since we have a shared commitment to developing an innovative educational program that will train students through problem-based and experiential learning. It’s also wonderful to work in a region where there is demand for a social work degree and a social services sector that is eager to partner with the university. The most challenging aspect is becoming grounded in social work in the Australian context. I am learning about social policy and social work interventions in Australia, building relationships with agencies in the local community and meeting researchers from around the country. 

What's next for you, personally and professionally?
I have an infant son, and my husband and I are enjoying raising him in a child-friendly area, with lots of activities and a supportive environment. My husband is from Australia, and we live near his family, so my son gets to see his grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles regularly. We plan to travel around Australia when he gets older.

I am learning a lot from the process of developing the new social work curriculum. I enjoy the creativity of teaching using active learning pedagogy and real-life application. While these experiences can be risker and more work from the instructor’s perspective, they offer authentic learning and an opportunity for transformation that is the promise of education. I look forward to learning and growing alongside my students, after our inaugural class begins their studies in 2015.

I am also enthusiastic about the opportunities here for meaningful research. My research focuses on support for families experiencing challenges and advocacy to address structural issues. I am currently conducting research on advocacy by parents of children with special needs -- with fellow Berkeley Social Welfare alumnus Dr. Sarah Taylor (MSW '02, PhD '07) -- and strategies for policy advocacy by nonprofit organizations. I am also interested in exploring the integration of family support and child protection in early childhood programs, like childcare programs and playgroups. There is promising work in Australia that is worthy of study and could inform best practices internationally.

What aspects of your education at the School of Social Welfare have been the most helpful in preparing you for your career?
The most helpful aspect of my education at the School of Social Welfare was the mentoring I received in research and scholarship from Jill Duerr Berrick and James Midgley. This mentoring prepared me to be an independent scholar, able to design, conduct and publish my own research.

I trained in research by working on projects as a graduate student researcher with Dr. Berrick and observed how she worked with community agencies, from the initial research design stage to dissemination of findings. Dr. Midgley and I co-edited a collected edition on social work and social development, which taught me how to write a book proposal, develop a manuscript and work with editors. This prepared me to publish my recent book (with co-author Ken Jaffe), Changing the world for children: Six steps to successful child advocacy, with Sage Publications. My advice to current students, particularly doctoral students, is to seize opportunities to collaborate with the world-class scholars at UC Berkeley and learn skills that they will apply in their future careers as social work scholars.