Discovering Social Welfare — En Español Field Education faculty create UCLA Luskin’s first Spanish language course

“Creo que una clase de este tipo es importante por que muchas veces pensamos en los problemas de la comunidad Latina pero no los enfrentamos en español, es decir no le hablamos a la comunidad Latina en español por eso tenemos este curso.”

Social Welfare master’s student Adrian Cotta was answering a question about why he was enrolled in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs’ inaugural Spanish language course. In English, Cotta’s answer would have been: “I think a class like this is important since oftentimes we think of issues that the Latino community face but we don’t address them in Spanish, which is the language of this course.”

In a community where Latinos are about 50 percent of the population, Spanish skill is invaluable for social welfare students. Luskin Social Welfare Field Education faculty members Sergio Serna and Hector Palencia MSW ’08  are doing more than teaching Luskin students the language, however. They are implementing a Spanish course geared specifically toward communication in the social welfare field.

Prior to the start of spring quarter, Serna and Palencia interviewed a pool of applicants in order to ensure that students could understand and converse in Spanish. Their goal was to create a class where students could learn and practice Spanish in the context of social welfare.

“This is a seminar for our Social Welfare students who are at the intermediate or advanced level of Spanish,” Serna said. “There are nuances to the language and culture that we’re trying to transfer to students with this class.”

Having worked in the social welfare field for more than 10 years, Serna and Palencia designed the structure and content of the course with their own experiences in mind. The course emphasizes development of practical knowledge — teaching the words and phrases most applicable to social work, as well as training students to overcome communication challenges that Serna and Palencia experienced firsthand.

“We’ve had our boots on the ground, working in social welfare,” said Serna. “We’re clinical faculty, so a lot of material comes out of the knowledge we gained in the field.”

Cotta applied for this course in order to learn Spanish social welfare terminology that he could apply to his internship at LAMP Community, a Skid Row-based nonprofit.

“I saw at my internship in the Social Welfare program that there are many language barriers,” Cotta said. “There are a lot of Spanish-speaking people there. I want to be more comfortable using social welfare terms in Spanish.”

Each week, guest instructors come in to teach and discuss their areas of expertise with the class of 18 students.

“Social welfare is a large field with many different avenues, so the technical part about it can vary,” Palencia said. “We brought people specializing in different areas to lead discussions with students using the language.”

Rather than following a traditional lecture format, the class uses an intimate roundtable setting to encourage conversation and discussion between students and the instructors.

“This class is more of a conversation, which eases the stress and anxiety of being in a new, awkward situation when practicing language.” Palencia said.

In the future Serna and Palencia hope to expand the diversity of the course content by including students and instructors from Public Policy and Urban Planning.

Luskin students who are interested in applying for the course can contact Serna at

1 reply
  1. Tara Auclair Henriquez
    Tara Auclair Henriquez says:

    This is terrífic! When I did the MSW program at UCLA 2000-02, my main reason was to be better prepared to serve the needs of the Spanish speaking community! Fifteen years later I’ve seen my Spanish speaking abilities as invaluable. And, understanding nuances of the cultures as well. I felt the program did not do as much as it could to prepare students for the 50% Latino reality. So, it’s great to see it taking this step. I think if they haven’t already, as many students as can should learn Spanish. I’m not a native speaker, but am now fluent. It is possible! Now I work as an Associate at Laura Valles & Associates, a consulting firm serving the nonprofit, government, and philanthropy community. We are very well positioned because we are a fully bilingual firm!


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