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As a first-generation undergraduate at USC who grew up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of LA, Irma Gonzalez struggled to adjust to college. Despite being a excellent student in high school, she was not doing well in her pre-med science classes.

“I quickly realized that I didn’t want to be a doctor,” Gonzalez says. “But I needed another path.” It didn’t take long for Gonzalez to find her way. The next fall, she landed a volunteer position with a psychology research study. The focus of the study was stress levels in caregivers of people with memory impairments.

That project was the light that brought the fields of social work and gerontology into view for Gonzalez.

Finding the right graduate program

Gonzalez graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology. To help figure out her next steps, her contacts from the psychology research project directed her to Professor Anne Katz. Now retired, Dr. Katz had a joint appointment in the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.

“Dr. Katz didn’t know me but was enthusiastic to meet and gave me an hour of her time,” Gonzalez says. “After listening to my story and interests, she directed me toward the dual Master of Science in Gerontology (MSG) and Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.”

Completing the MSG/MSW degree in two years

The dual degree requires 73 units and offers concentrations in:

  • Community organization, planning and administration
  • Health
  • Mental health
  • World of work

“To complete my degree in two years, I added a few extra credits each semester and took classes during the summer,” Gonzalez says. “My advisors helped me plan my course of study to keep me on track.”

USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology has been a pioneer in distance learning, offering the first online gerontology degree program in the U.S. Although Gonzalez was an in-person student, the online gerontology classes helped her avoid conflicts in her schedule.

From the classroom to the community and the world

Gonzalez’s master’s program was a rich experience that left a lasting impression. Some highlights include:

Relevant classes

It’s been 13 years since Gonzalez was a graduate student, but Gonzalez still references a class she took on death and dying. “That’s a big theme in the work I do with older adults,” she says.

This class examined end-of-life issues across the lifespan. “We looked at how children grieve and the cultural, religious and spiritual aspects of death,” she says. “The instructor also led an exercise where we made a list of our loved ones. We then had to think about who would still be with us in 20 years, 30 years and so on. I hadn’t thought about that before.”

Real-world experience

The MSG/MSW program requires internships in both areas of study. For the gerontology internship, Gonzalez opted to work in the USC Family Caregiver Support Center. At the Center she provided therapy, home visits and group counseling.

Gonzalez’s supervisor was Associate Professor Donna Benton. “She helped me learn the ropes and shared all her knowledge to help me grow,” Gonzalez says. “Working in the center was a high-level experience that made me very marketable.”

Dr. Katz continued to be present throughout Gonzalez’s graduate work. “She would have me record my therapy sessions, which were an hour long,” she says. “She’d listen to them and give me helpful feedback. She pointed out my hesitation to ask questions, which is essential to social work. I was raised not to question older adults, so that was hard for me to learn.”

International travel

The summer after Gonzalez graduated, she had the opportunity to travel to China through the School of Social Work. It was a two-week trip that included visits to facilities for older adults in Shanghai and Beijing.

“They have a different view of older adults and aging than we do in the U.S.,” Gonzalez says. “We went to one facility and saw a large group of older adults doing tai chi. It was a beautiful trip.”

Realizing a rewarding career

After receiving her MSG/MSW degree, Gonzalez found a position at Pacific Clinics and has been there ever since. Pacific Clinics is a nonprofit organization that provides a range of behavioral health and social services to individuals and families across California.

Gonzalez’s first role was as a therapist in a program for older adults. She provided individual therapy, case management and rehabilitation services for high-need clients. “It was a challenging job,” she says. “At times, we had to manage patients who were suicidal before first responders arrived, which could take hours.”

In 2014, Gonzalez became certified as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and started to climb the ranks at Pacific Clinics. “I really loved the older adult population, but I also wanted to grow,” she says. “For a few years, I directed a children’s program, but now I’m back working with older adults.”

Gonzalez currently supervises the mental health services Pacific Clinics provides under a Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) contract. PACE is a Medicare and Medicaid program that provides care in the home, so people don’t have to go into a nursing facility. “This is rewarding work,” Gonzalez says. “I feel like it’s my job to advocate for my clients and get them the support they need to stay in their home. Having a degree that focuses on aging-related issues has been particularly useful in this work.”

Making connections and opening doors

Looking back, Gonzalez says USC was instrumental in helping her succeed. “My mentors inspired, supported and guided me. They opened doors with connections, letters of recommendation and work opportunities,” she says. “They believed in me. To this day, I’m so grateful for that.”

To learn more about the Master of Science in Gerontology/Master of Social Work dual degree program at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, call us at (213) 740-5156.

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