Grounded in Community: Celebrating 5 years of the LCOEBH

students presenting in front of classroom with faculty member llistening
May 15, 2022

The Latinx Center of Excellence in Behavioral Health (LCOEBH) was launched in 2017 thanks to a Centers of Excellence grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) in the amount of $3,398,332. 

The Center’s unique programs include outreach, recruitment and support focused on addressing the shortage of Latinx MSW students, especially in the field of behavioral health; the provision of specialized trainings and education focused on the behavioral health needs of Latinx communities; the support of student and faculty scholarship focused on Latinx communities, and community capacity- building with behavioral health providers that serve those communities. We look back at the first five years of the center and look forward to its future projects. 

While the U.S. population is 18% Latinx, California’s population is 39% Latinx and growing. Unmet needs for behavioral health services that are both accessible and culturally responsive to the needs of Latinx communities persist.

LCOEBH Director and Associate Professor Adrian Aguilera stresses that, “behavioral health care is very highly embedded in terms of values and how you make meaning of the world. Having a clear sense of those meaning-making systems is really important as you try to help somebody improve their mental state.” The need for providers who can provide services in Spanish is especially acute.

Says Aguilera, “the provision of mental health care is done using words – doing therapy, providing education, etc. – so the language needs are high. There simply are not enough people that speak Spanish relative to the needs of Spanish speakers.”

LCOEBH faculty member Professor Kurt Organista adds that Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) in Latinx communities increasingly meet health and mental health care needs by providing Spanish-speaking services, regardless of immigration status or ability to pay.

Laying the Groundwork

When LCOEBH training consultant Luna Calderon arrived in Haviland Hall as an MSW student in the mid-1980s, Berkeley Social Welfare was already striving to better meet the behavioral health needs of Latinx and Spanish-speaking communities. Field consultant Joe Solis had recently founded Intercambio, a partnership between Berkeley Social Welfare and the Universidad de Guadalajara. Solis helped recruit and guide over 200 Latinx MSW students during his time at Berkeley; when he retired in 1995, Intercambio continued until 2010 under Rafael Herrera’s leadership with support from Peter Manoleas and Kurt Organista. When Calderon was hired as a field consultant in 2012, she relaunched Intercambio as Sin Fronteras. 

Late in 2016, HRSA published a funding opportunity through the COE grant mechanism focused on behavioral health workforce development. The decision to apply for a Latinx Center of Excellence grant was driven by the school’s eligibility under Latinx enrollment criteria but not under more general URM enrollment criteria. (That has since changed! Read on…) 

CalSWEC IBH Program Director E. Maxwell Davis, former Berkeley Social Welfare Field Director Greg Merrill, former Dean Jeffrey Edleson, Luna Calderon, and others developed and submitted a proposal in January 2017 that was funded that June. In Fall 2017, Calderon became the founding Director of the LCOEBH and Lissette Flores was hired as Program Manager. Over time, Flores’ role grew along with the Center, and she was named LCOEBH Associate Director. Maxwell Davis has continued to work with the Center as its evaluator, collecting and analyzing program and participant data for both reporting and program evaluation purposes. 

LCOEBH Programming

LCOEBH Scholars Program

pink icon of pen and paper The Center’s workforce development efforts are tailored to meet specific needs of Latinx social work students. Each year, the LCOEBH awards 20 $10,000 stipends to MSW students with demonstrated commitment to working in community-based behavioral health settings serving Latinx communities. As a condition of the stipend, LCOEBH scholars are partnered with Latinx-focused agencies for their field practicum. Scholars’ training is enhanced via the Latinx Leadership seminar, where students reflect on their individual as well as collective strengths and sharpen their clinical skills through presentations that explore case stories from micro, mezzo, and macro perspectives.

La Red de Apoyo

blue icon with bouquet of flowersA key element of the LCOEBH is La Red de Apoyo, a cascading mentoring framework whereby Latinx undergraduate students interested in learning more about the social work field are paired with LCOEBH Scholars. In turn, LCOEBH Scholars are paired with Latinx and Latinx-serving behavioral health practitioners in the Bay Area for a year-long mentoring partnership. Thanks to Berkeley Social Welfare’s alumni community and long history of working with local agencies, the LCOEBH has an extensive network of connections to draw from. The COE grant also provides funding for Dr. Marvyn Arévalo-Avalos, LCOEBH postdoctoral scholar who, under Aguilera’s mentorship, is developing and testing mHealth (texting) interventions to address behavioral health concerns among underserved populations.

The Center works to create a sense of community and support among Latinx students through other programming that includes a welcoming orientation for incoming students, and partnering with the Latinx Caucus to host events like the Día de los Muertos celebration.

“The program is really grounded in community”, says Victoria Juárez, LCOEBH program coordinator. “We want our students to feel empowered, and that they have people supporting them outside of the LCOEBH.”

Sin Fronteras

purple icon with agave plant and sunSin Fronteras, a five-week immersion experience in Oaxaca, strengthens MSW students’ understanding of language and culture through classes and service learning. Students must have intermediate Spanish fluency to participate, and language instruction focuses on communication needs related to social work and behavioral health. 

MSW Student Recruitment

teal icon with people and megaphoneEach Fall semester, prospective MSW students participate in a special admissions session offering tips for preparing a strong MSW program application.  “Sometimes lived experience and academic experience don't line up for some of our MSW applicants,” says Juárez. “Some of our most successful students have been out of school for a long, long time. It's a way for us to really show underrepresented students that we care about getting them into this program, and we're going to do everything we can to help them.”

Building the Pipeline

turquoise icon with stack of books and price tagLast year, the LCOEBH partnered with the Public Service Center to offer undergraduate students $4,000 stipends for summer internships with a social services agency. The opportunity for students to connect theory to practice proved an invaluable experience for students. One such intern, Jocelyn Villalobos, reflects, “the Summer internship with the Basic Needs Center has sparked a passion and commitment to alleviate basic needs injustices in my community. The internship experience helped me gain macro experience before I apply to the MSW SOC program.” 

Community Trainings and Events

orange icon with group of peopleEvery year, the center offers Spanish-language trainings for local behavioral health practitioners. Recent trainings have included narrative therapy, solution-focused brief therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy — all in Spanish. The LCOEBH also hosts a speaker series — virtual and open to the public — that has featured prominent  scholars like Dr. Carmela Alcantara from the Columbia School of Social Work and Dr. Daniel Solorzano from UCLA. 

Latinx Social Work Certificate

teal icon with graduation mortarboardIn 2016, Aguilera, Calderon and Organista launched the Latinx and Social Work certificate within the MSW program. To complete the certificate, students must complete SW250J: Social Work with Latino Populations, two relevant elective courses, and 120 hours of field training in an agency that serves Spanish-speaking Latinx clients. 

Center Impact

As UC Berkeley works towards its goal of becoming a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), the Center provides a model of successful ways to support diversity and inclusion in student recruitment, training, and community capacity-building. Through all of its programs, the Center has helped increase Latinx enrollment in Berkeley Social Welfare’s MSW program, created a greater sense of community among Latinx students, provided specialized training to MSW students committed to serving Latinx communities, supported the scholarship and professional development of Latinx graduate students and early career faculty, and strengthened Berkeley Social Welfare’s relationships with local agencies and providers who serve Latinx communities.  

Since the Center was launched, it has awarded stipends totaling $950,000 to Latinx MSW students.

Recognizing that the cost of graduate education is a significant barrier for historically underrepresented students, it makes a difference when students can receive a $10,000 stipend for completing field training in a Latinx-focused agency.  LCOEBH funding for Sin Fronteras has also removed financial hurdles to student participation in its specialized immersion experience. To date, LCOEBH funding has covered the cost of the immersion program for 35 students, and has dramatically increased the number of Latinx students who participate in that program.

In 2016 - 2017, 17.6% of Berkeley Social Welfare’s MSW students were Latinx. Today, that number has more than doubled to 36%.

LCOEBH staff feel that the Center is a draw for these applicants. As Lissette Flores adds, “I’d like to think that the motivation for students  to choose Berkeley over another school offering them a comparable financial aid package has to do with the  community of Latinx students here as well as the Latinx faculty and staff whose job it is to support them.”

What’s Next?

The Center submitted a proposal for another five-year HRSA COE grant in January 2022. At that time, Berkeley Social Welfare enrollment data enabled the LCOEBH team to craft a proposal for a Center of Excellence that will address the behavioral health needs of underrepresented minority groups more broadly.

If that proposal is funded, the Center will be able to support Latinx, African American and Native American students.

Says Organista, “we've been overjoyed to have overdue support, education and training for Latinx students. But ultimately, you want that for all [underrepresented] students.”

Aguilera adds that the Center and the School are working to secure additional funding so they can continue providing the same level of support to Latinx students while adding resources for other student populations. This new project would better reflect Berkeley Social Welfare’s mission to recruit and support all URM students.  

The school is also excited to welcome two new Latina faculty members in Fall 2022. Both new positions are part of the Latinx Migration and Democracy Cluster initiative, which brings together units in the social sciences and professional schools to address the US-centered Latinx experience, research and knowledge production. Latinx faculty from across campus, including Professor Organista, successfully competed for this cluster hire initiative offered by the University. Further, the Latino Faculty Association — co-chaired by Organista — helped secure $500,000 in seed funding. The School is also planning a forum this October around the theme of Latinx and Democracy; dates and speakers will be announced soon.

Much more work is needed, of course, to make UC Berkeley’s student body and faculty representative of the state it serves. Even so, Luna Calderon feels like she has seen a significant shift. “Having been a student here and now being in this position of helping to support what's happening… I'm really proud of it. And I know that Joe Solis, wherever he is, he's probably looking upon us proudly. This morning we had our leadership class and there were 26 students. In my day there were six or seven of us [Latinx students], and it felt like a very different experience. So I feel like there has been some institutional change, and it's great to be a part of it.” 

LCOEBH leadership, from left: Victoria Juarez, Kurt Organista, Lissette Flores, Adrian Aguilera. Other members not pictured.

Incoming Faculty Fall 2022

Dr. Kristina Lovato

Dr. Lovato's research examines the impact of immigration policy on child well-being, culturally congruent maltreatment prevention strategies, and improving social service system responses to meet the needs of Latinx immigrant families.

Dr. Laurent Reyes

Dr. Reyes’s work evaluates access to health and community services among indigenous, Black, Latinx, and immigrant communities in Mexico and the United States. Her work also focuses on understanding the experiences of Latinx and Black older adults in the United States.

In 2016 - 2017, 17.6% of Berkeley Social Welfare’s MSW students were Latinx. Today, that number has more than doubled to 36%.

Since the Center was launched, it has awarded stipends totaling $950,000 to Latinx MSW students.

I feel like there has been some institutional change, and it's great to be a part of it.
Luna Calderon