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Alumni in Action: James Orlando (MSW '11)

James Orlando

James Orlando (MSW '11) on holding the values and ethics of social work with an international perspective 

James Orlando, who graduated with an MSW in the Management and Planning concentration, jokes he is a “one-trick pony,” having also completed his undergraduate degree in social welfare at UC Berkeley.

As the first student at the School of Social Welfare to organize successfully for international service to be incorporated into the field work component of his graduate training, Orlando has proven that he has more than one trick at his command. The pony metaphor, however, is still apt, considering the hoops he jumped through because of unusual circumstances related to his second-year placement.

Orlando spent last summer in the nation's capital, interning for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). He worked for a group within the governmental organization that looks at federally funded programs overseas assisting orphans and vulnerable children. When Orlando returned to Berkeley for the fall semester of his second year, his established plans with a particular field agency fell through due to a personnel shakeup, leaving Orlando scrambling for a placement. “This was a requirement for me to finish,” he remembers. “And everyone else was already starting on their internships and getting to know their supervisors.”

What Orlando ended up working out instead – with the guidance of School Director of Field Work Operations Greg Merrill and MAP Field Work Consultant Andrea DuBrow – was an internship experience that very much, as Orlando puts it, “connected well with [his] interests in creating international field work opportunities for students here at Haviland.”

Demonstrating a mastery in navigating multiple bureaucracies – a skillset that will no doubt serve him in the MAP track – Orlando successfully negotiated a plan for a field placement that entailed an extension of his summer internship with USAID; the cooperation of the Public Health Institute (PHI), which served as a subcontractor for the position; federal work study funding to help subsidize his work; and the School of Social Welfare agreeing that this service fulfilled the field placement requirements for his MSW. “It was an alignment of the stars,” says Orlando. “I’m just happy to be part of it.”

In his academic year internship, Orlando continued his summertime role helping gather data and conduct research for the Orphans and Vulnerable Children program. “We wanted to focus on one country and really find out about the six U.S. departments that are working in Ethiopia, including where they are working and who they are helping-- children who are trafficked, children who are sex-traded, children living below the global poverty level or children that are abused and on the street,” he explains. “We wanted to take a look at a very complex country; we basically started with the hardest country first.”

In addition to working in PHI’s Oakland office and remotely with USAID in D.C., Orlando traveled to Ethiopia and worked in-country from the end of January until mid-February. “We brought together all the different agencies we were working with as well as the ambassador,” he says. “We wanted to create a working group that would live past our short 12 days there.”

Orlando’s compassion for vulnerable children and his interest in international service are reflected in his professional history, starting from the moment he completed his undergraduate degree.  He spent two years at Seneca Center in San Leandro, working as a classroom counselor for at-risk youth, before deciding to assist with overseas tsunami relief efforts in 2005. He traveled to Thailand with Habitat for Humanity, learning construction skills and teaching English on his days off. “The villagers got together and unanimously decided I was better as a teacher than a carpenter,” he deadpans. He did ultimately decide to hang up his hammer and devote himself to language teaching.

From Thailand, Orlando went on to settings as diverse and divergent as the students he taught, including kindergarteners in Japan, nuns in a convent in Vietnam and a young men’s prison in Mongolia. “I have an inclination to take jobs that no other people want,” he says. “When they offered me the volunteer job in Mongolia, I thought to myself, ‘If I’m not going to take it, then who will?’ Not a lot of people, and not a lot of volunteers in Mongolia.”

Orlando’s global experiences and his resulting perspective have profoundly affected him, as evidenced by his ambitious long-term goal to create “a wide international array of volunteer opportunities for graduating high-school seniors and college undergraduates, where they get to work with local NGOs and get that experience.” The project – which Orlando says his father calls his “personal Peace Corps” – is to give young people the ability to “go out and experience the world and really get to know different people and different cultures and hear their stories.” “It might not change a future investment banker into a social worker,” he notes, “but it could change that investment banker into someone who is willing to serve on a nonprofit board.”

This strong belief in how an environment can shape an individual’s outlook and behavior seems to be a direct outgrowth of his social work training, but his foray into the field of human services is arguably equal parts nature and nurture. “I had parents that were in ‘the biz,’” he explains. “My dad was in the Department of Education, and he ran a large state program that hired counselors to help at-risk high-school students. My mother was a public school teacher, and in Sacramento she worked at a school that taught homeless children.” 

Another strong influence cited by Orlando is School of Social Welfare undergraduate advisor Sherman Boyson. “The guy is by far the shining star of UC Berkeley for me,” he says. “There was a point in my junior year when I was doing an economics and social welfare double major, and Sherman said, ‘You’re going to have to choose because you're not going to have enough to do both.’” Orlando recalls that the practical advice helped him focus on what he really wanted from his education and ultimately his life. “There were reasons I was drawn to classes about homelessness or marginalized populations. I looked inside myself and thought if I’m going to make a decision based on my own personal passions, then I’m going to choose social welfare – and I did and I never looked back.”

When asked to reflect on his time in Haviland, Orlando says he feels “forever indebted to the School of Social Welfare.” “It’s a living and dynamic thing, and there are constraints and limitations," he says. "But as a whole, it’s a place that brings together people with some incredible aspirations and connects them with knowledgeable, profound professors and incredible staff and social services and work. The School has obviously trained me to be a social worker in a management sense – and maybe that just means holding the values and ethics of social work in my management. The School's given me opportunities; sometimes by providing me with the chance to succeed and sometimes by providing me with barriers and challenging me to get around them. I am very thankful for it.”

As part of his gratitude, Orlando has been putting his hard-earned knowledge about international field service to good use and continues working towards establishing formal overseas placements for future generations of MSW students at the School. "They say if you want to learn a language, you have to go to a country and be immersed in it, and I think the same thing applies to engendering service or social service philosophy," he says. "It's one thing to learn it in these halls, as Haviland does as well as any other institute can, but it's another thing to connect with somebody and let your compassion and empathy ignite and see where it goes from there.

"There is a connection here; hopefully working with Greg Merrill in the future on international fieldwork opportunities," continues Orlando. "That is something I still very passionately believe in. Greg has talked to me about creating a task force or even just a group of people to sort out how to do this in the future -- and that's the least I can do. I really want to leave something here as a way to say 'thank you.'"