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This summer, the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) debuted a 12-week social work program for Galapagos locals to study and earn a certificate in community development and social work. The first community-building session ran from June to September, with over two dozen participants. 

Topics covered in the program included mental health and how to take a social work approach to the subject, navigate common concerns and safety issues, and reduce stigma around mental health topics; gender development and gender violence; sexual and reproductive health and human rights for adolescents, including reducing high rates of teen pregnancy; and participatory methods to engage communities with social issues. 

Andrés Pazmiño lectures in front of a projector screen displaying the USFQ school logo. Carlos Mena watches from the right.
This social work certificate program not only provides support and opportunity for the local community but also showcases the years of collaboration between UNC and USFQ in the Galapagos. Pictured here are Andrés Pazmiño, USFQ, and Carlos Mena, GSC, during a presentation.

Reflecting on the immense collaborative effort involved in creating this certification program, Gina Chowa, associate dean for global engagement at UNC School of Social Work and one of the program’s organizers, said, “This program was a true testament of what transformational partnerships look like. UNC and USFQ worked together to respond to the needs of the community in Galapagos and we believe that this effort already has and will continue to have a positive impact on the lives of Galapagueños.”

“This has been an enormous effort on all parties involved – UNC, USFQ, and GSC – which is proof of our partnership as well as our commitment to the community of Galapagos,” added Gabriela Bautista, research coordinator for the Galapagos Science Center (GSC).  

Andrés Pazmiño (left) poses with five program participants, who are holding up their program certificates, in front of a USFQ-branded banner.
Participants in the first round of the social work certificate program included USFQ, GSC, and local community members.

Since the program’s focus is equipping local Galapaganians to address social issues on the islands, participants were tasked with developing original projects to address a social issue in their local community. Participants pitched projects on topics ranging from the socio-economic consequences of population growth to conserving Galapagos’ cultural history. 

One Galapagos local, Ilenya Robalino, decided to address the issue that Galapagos’ anthropological history, such as records and myths, is being lost due to a lack of means and centralized system for proper record-keeping. Robalino shared how this fading history directly impacts a sense of local identity for Galapaganians. To address this issue using the resources Galapagos already has, Robalino’s project proposed hosting workshops to bring community members together to preserve the history of the people of Galapagos through writing memoirs and children’s books. 

After completing the social work certification program, Robalino said, “It was very motivating to share with my workshop colleagues because we are a group that works on different topics and in different areas, but we share a commitment to and love for our community.”  

Siliva Zavala (left) and Pablo Alcívar hold up certificates from the program in front of a USFQ-branded banner.
Silvia Zavala (left) and Pablo Alcívar, staff from GSC and USFQ, proudly display their certificates upon completing the 12-week program.

Another participant, Pablo Alcívar, proposed a project to address the way that “poorly controlled” immigration is overwhelming local institutions and creating a complex web of social, environmental, and economic issues for the Galapagos community. Like Robalino’s, Alcívar’s project also involved bringing together community members to increase their participation in public decision-making as well as increasing the capacity of local institutions to support the needs of both those immigrating to the islands and those already living there. 

Alcívar commented that the program has provided him with new ways to think about not only the islands’ social issues but also life in general. 

“Having had the opportunity to generate empathy with others and with nature makes us grow as human beings and, therefore, as a society,” Alvícar said. “The tools taught in each class left me with valuable teachings, methodologies, and materials that I will be able to use in different personal areas and occupations.”

Bautista praised the “comprehensive curriculum and hands-on experiences” that helped her develop enhanced communications, assessment and problem-solving, ethical decision-making, self-care, and advocacy skills. 

“This social work training has provided me with a deep foundation of skills and knowledge… [that] not only enhance my professional competence but also contribute significantly to the well-being of the individuals and communities I support,” Bautista said.

23 program participants hold up certificates from the program, a USFQ-branded banner behind the group.
With a successful pilot program completed, the team from UNC School of Social Work and USFQ can begin to hone and expand the program.

Now that the USFQ and UNC team have successfully completed the first session of this social work certification program, they can consider their future goals for this project. 

The team would like to duplicate this program in other areas of Ecuador, including the Amazon and Coastline regions. They would also like to eventually elevate the certificate to a federally recognized 2-year technical degree, which is equivalent to an Associate’s degree in the United States. 

“I’m just mesmerized at the impact of the certificate,” said Chowa. “I am energized to forge ahead and looking forward to meeting the accreditation team at USFQ in two weeks to begin planning for the associate degree.”

By Andy Little ‘24, Center for Galapagos Studies Student Worker

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