A portrait of Maria Fernanda Garcia

Postdoctoral Researcher Maria Fernanda Garcia. Photo by Christopher Soldt.

The Boston College School of Social Work has formed a partnership with UNICEF USA to improve the health and well-being of migrants who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of humanitarian crises.

In particular, BCSSW Postdoctoral Researcher Maria Fernanda Garcia has received a one-year, $50,000 fellowship from the non-governmental organization to address the barriers that young migrants face while trying to access social services. 

“My ultimate goal is for this work to result in real-life changes in services and policy at the local and federal levels,” said Garcia, who studies immigration and refugee well-being. 

The partnership between BCSSW and UNICEF USA is the latest example of the School’s commitment to addressing the compound needs of the growing number of migrants whose lives have been turned upside down by war, natural disasters, political upheaval, and other crises. 

Ten faculty members are currently designing solutions to improve the lives of some of the more than 100 million migrants on the move, pushing the boundaries of research through inventive collaborations that span communities in sub-Saharan Africa, the United States, and Latin America.

“UNICEF USA is engaged in a research partnership with BCSSW because of our commitment to producing systematic evidence about crisis migrant families and their children and our equal commitment to translate such evidence into practice-relevant findings for designing better policies and programs on the ground,” said BCSSW Dean Gautam N. Yadama.

Anne Day Leong, the senior director of Research, Evaluation, and Research Partnerships for UNICEF USA, said that BCSSW’s commitment to addressing the needs of some of the globe’s most vulnerable people aligns with the non-governmental organization’s vision of a world that upholds the rights of all children and helps every child thrive.

“We were looking for a partner with strong expertise in the state of migrant youth in the U.S., but also a good understanding of what kids came from and what pushed them from their homes,” said Day Leong, who received a doctoral degree from BCSSW in 2017. “We found that the BC School of Social Work really has that expertise, not just in what’s going on with kids once they’ve arrived, but also what happened when kids left. That depth of expertise just made for a seamless transition to inform our policy advocacy.”

This is not only a one-off to build up skills in Mafe, but a way to create a pipeline of researchers who can speak the language of policy so that work doesn’t get locked up in an ivory tower.
Anne Day Leong, senior director of Research, Evaluation, and Research Partnerships for UNICEF USA

Garcia is helping Professor Christopher Salas-Wright collect and analyze data for three of his studies, looking especially at how young migrants from Venezuela and Puerto Rico have fared in accessing social services. 

Salas-Wright, who examines the social, cultural, and economic challenges facing immigrants, is at the forefront of research into Venezuelan migrants, having authored more than a dozen articles on the population since 2018.

Garcia is analyzing qualitative survey data for one of his studies that aims to address the needs of Venezuelan migrants who have fled to Colombia, an investigation that is supported by a five-year, $2.1 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities

As part of the survey, Garcia included several questions focused on the challenges young Venezuelan migrants have faced in accessing services in support of their physical and mental well-being. 

A second study, backed by a $50,000 grant from BC’s Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society, is zeroing in on the pre- and post-migration experiences of 20 Venezuelan parents with young children who have moved to or plan to move to Colombia. Garcia is interviewing parents before they leave, asking them what’s motivating them to flee and whether they’ve been able to access social services for their kids, and plans to repeat the survey after they resettle.

After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, Salas-Wright interviewed hundreds of residents of the island who had been forced to flee to the mainland. How, he asked a group of migrants who had moved to Florida, had people on the mainland treated them? How had they made ends meet? And how had they managed to remain mentally strong after the catastrophic storm had upended their lives? 

Garcia is analyzing the results of this study, too, and using the findings to write short reports in lay terms that UNICEF USA can share with policymakers. 

School of Social Work faculty portrait of Christopher Salas-Wright inside and outside McGuinn Hall

Professor Christopher Salas-Wright. Photo by Peter Julian.

She’s learning how to translate her findings into clear, easy-to-understand language in bi-weekly meetings with Day Leong and Salas-Wright, her two mentors. “I’ve been working with Mafe around creating briefs that distill her work down to something that’s short, easy to read, and communicable for policymakers and the general public,” said Day Leong, using Maria Fernanda Garcia’s nickname. “The other component of that is being able to respond to questions quickly because, while peer review in research may take years, policymakers never have years to get their work done.”

Garcia said the fellowship has prepared her for a career in research, noting that she would love to continue working in academia at a top-tier university. As she put it: “Being able to run the analysis, conduct the research, and write has been very helpful.”

Yadama said Garcia will continue her study of crisis migrants for a second year through funding from BCSSW’s Center for Social Innovation, which supports novel solutions to complex social challenges. But the partnership between BCSSW and UNICEF USA will not end there. Both the dean and Day Leong envision a long-term collaboration—one that builds a bridge between evidence-based research and policy to prioritize the lives of migrants—and plan to fund another postdoctoral researcher in 2024. 

“This is not only a one-off to build up skills in Mafe,” said Day Leong, “but a way to create a pipeline of researchers who can speak the language of policy so that work doesn’t get locked up in an ivory tower.”

Salas-Wright echoed Leong. “I’m grateful to UNICEF USA for this really innovative opportunity,” he said. “It’s a really forward-looking partnership in the sense of bringing together a research intensive university with an organization like UNICEF USA that is dedicated to making direct change.”