Helping poor women, children

Professor of Macro Practice Shanta Pandey arrived at the Boston College School of Social Work this fall following more than 25 years at the Brown School at the University of Washington in St. Louis. A respected researcher, educator, and mentor, Pandey is focused on understanding and improving the life chances of poor women and children around the world.

Her research examines the impact that policies and programs have on the most vulnerable populations in the United States and developing regions of South Asia, and she has trained and mentored social work faculty from Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Nepal.

In this Q&A with the BC Social Work blog Innovate, Pandey discusses her early observations of the innovation taking place at BCSSW, her professional call to empower women and children, and how her own upbringing prepared her for this critical work.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today Professor Pandey, and welcome to Boston College. We are very excited that you have joined the faculty here at BCSSW. Tell us about your initial impressions of the school.

I am so happy to be here. Boston College is of course a fantastic institution, and since arriving here in July, I’ve already seen so many new and innovative ideas that are taking shape, thanks in large part to the young faculty at the School of Social Work.

One of my first projects here was to serve as a judge for BCSSW’s shared IF Challenge with the United Way to ‘end homelessness.’ This contest makes me think of the grand missions conceived by Bill Gates and his foundation, such as his charge to eliminate polio across the globe. People said to Gates that no, this was impossible, and now he is almost there. Similarly, BC and the United Way have set the bar high — to eliminate homelessness in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. To me, it’s important to set ambitious goals. Sometimes, you meet and then go beyond them, and other times, you may fall short, but along the way, you make progress, and you energize communities.

I love the notion that young people can think big, join hands, and then create real change. I see this happening through the IF Challenge, and at BCSSW on the whole.

"I love the notion that young people can think big, join hands, and then create real change."

You’ve devoted your entire career to thinking big, on a global scale, working with populations all over the world. What have been some of the common threads throughout your research and mentoring in the U.S., India, Nepal, and beyond?

Throughout most of my work, I have focused on empowering women and their children; it’s an issue that has been very important to me since I first began my studies in social work back in college.

Most recently, I published research focused on my native country of Nepal that delves into women’s empowerment measures and how these measures correlate with child mortality risk. Specifically, we looked at: age at first marriage, education, employment, participation in women’s groups, and ability to make intra-household decisions, and cross-referenced these criteria with the women’s socio-demographic characteristics and their access to health services. Mostly we found that, in order to reduce childhood mortality, the data supported our professional imperative as health and social workers to collaborate directly with local communities in order to delay girls’ age at marriage, improve their access to education, and promote active interactions with local healthcare providers. Nepalese women’s predicted odds of experiencing neonatal mortality, for example, dropped by 35 percent in regions that embraced active interaction with community health workers and volunteers.

Other studies have focused on limiting night blindness in pregnant women in India, the effects of welfare on Native American populations, and tobacco use among married women in Nepal and how empowering these women to make their own decisions with regards to their health lowered smoking rates, especially in poor communities.

I’ve also used large-scale datasets to demonstrate the power of a college education with regards to the economic well‐being of women with children living in the U.S. In fact, I’m currently working to conceive a project related to this work in collaboration with my colleague Rocío Calvo, and with the City of Newton.

What more can you tell us about this budding idea?

It’s a project that is very close to my heart. In the United States, our research shows that the risk of living in poverty drops almost to a single digit percentage even for single mothers with children if they have a bachelor’s degree. Helping the nation’s two million single mother students to attain their degree is the most powerful way to eliminate the cycle of poverty and homelessness among the 4.8 million single parents trying to pursue a better life through higher ed. Unfortunately, for single parent students, immigrant students, and refugee students, this is incredibly difficult, even for those who have managed to enroll at an institute of higher education. Dropout rates are high among these groups, and I’d like to learn more about the kinds of services these various populations need in order to stay in school and earn their degrees, and then develop and build the needed structures to support them so that they are able to realize their dreams and full potential.

Professor Calvo is already looking into the specific cultural challenges for Latinos in post-secondary education thanks to a prestigious Spencer Grant, and I’m hopeful we can collaborate on this critical opportunity in human capital development, an area that I’m very passionate about. I’ve been very lucky in my own life, largely because I was empowered by my family to follow my dreams. It’s important to equip others with the training and education to be able to do the same. When a woman can lift herself and her family out of poverty, this is true success.

"Helping the nation's two million single mother students to attain their degree is the most powerful way to eliminate the cycle of poverty and homelessness among the 4.8 million single parents trying to pursue a better life through higher ed."
Shanta Pandey
Shanta Pandey

You mentioned that your current research interest around opportunity and higher education is something that is ‘very close to your heart.’ Can you expand on this?

Absolutely. As I mentioned, I’ve been very lucky. I grew up in a small rural village in Nepal. There was no school in my village when I was growing up. My parents, who were never educated in the traditional sense, taught me to read, write, and do math at home. Reading was especially important; we read every day, together and separately. Between the ages of 10 and 16, they sent me to schools in Kathmandu where my brothers were getting educated, first intermittently and then continuously for the last three years. I finished my high school near the top of my class, which gave me a competitive advantage to attend any college of my choice in Kathmandu. I chose the most prestigious science college at the time, Tribhuvan University.

From a young age, I always knew I wanted to help people, and at first I thought maybe I’d be a doctor. Ultimately, though, after I completed my bachelor’s degree in Nepal, I chose social work, and found a social work program at Delhi University.

Following graduation, I returned to Nepal to work with local rural communities to address their needs, such as access to natural resources: water, fuelwood. During this time, I learned how important it is to help local communities to build on what they already have, through their own systems. They didn’t need an outsider telling them what to do, they needed someone to support them to build capacity. I also learned that I needed to get a PhD if I was really going to make a difference in the ways I wanted to.

"I was able to fulfill my dream, and for this, I will always be grateful to my parents.  I have been incredibly fortunate; if we allowed every woman to realize potential and go after their dreams as I have, what would our world look like?"

So I came to the U.S. and Case Western Reserve University for my PhD. This was a real experiment in Nepal at the time. I remember that most of my relatives were surprised that my parents would let me, in my mid-twenties, go off to pursue such an education before getting me married, but my father said that no, there would be no albatross around his daughter’s neck, and that she would be free to go to America and get her degree.

I was able to fulfill my dream, and for this, I will always be grateful to my parents. I have been incredibly fortunate; if we allowed every woman to realize her potential and to go after their dreams as I have, what would our world look like? I’m devoted to making a dent towards finding this out, through my scholarly work and teaching. It’s a lofty goal, à la Bill Gates and the IF Challenge, but one that I am so pleased to pursue.

As a girl, all I ever wanted was to go to school, and still today as a university professor, I learn every day — in the classes I teach, through my research, and from the people I collaborate with. I love to challenge my students to transcend national boundaries and explore evidence generated through good research both within and outside of the U.S. as they seek solutions to persistent social problems. As I do this, we learn together. It is such an exciting way to live life, and I get paid for it. I’m a lucky person in every way.

For more BCSSW news, read the Innovate @ BC Social Work blog.