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UNC School of Social Work Expands Research and Learning in Galápagos Islands

June 11, 2019
School of Social Work

The UNC School of Social Work could soon be expanding its reach into Latin America, thanks to a potential partnership with the Galápagos Science Center, a joint effort between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) in Ecuador.

Although historically, the science center has focused primarily on terrestrial and marine ecology and microbiology, the proposed partnership would enable the universities to develop research that considers the overall experiences of the people on the Galápagos Islands, said Gina Chowa, the School of Social Work’s associate dean for global engagement and director of Global Social Development Innovations research center.

“Through this partnership, Carolina will be able to leverage the unique research and practice skills that our faculty have to offer,” Chowa said. “Further, our contribution will be to put the human face to the issues being experienced on the islands.”

Hoping to learn more about these issues, Chowa and colleagues, professor Mimi Chapman and assistant professor Cindy Fraga Rizo, spent nearly a week in the Galápagos Islands in March 2019. The trip included visits to Isabella, San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz and involved interviews with nearly three dozen government, economic, public health and community representatives.

“This really was a fact-finding mission—the first phase of a participatory process that will be a collaborative effort between UNC social work researchers and stakeholders in the Galápagos,” Chowa said. “The first phase of this process includes working closely with communities to conduct a critical analysis of the social issues that affect them the most.”

Assistant professor Cindy Rizo listens during one of the numerous interviews School faculty conducted during a recent visit to the Galápagos Islands.

Over the next few months, Chowa and her team, along with faculty at the Galápagos Science Center and at USFQ, will review the information and data they gathered to identify the most recurring social issues that community members discussed and to explore how these issues may be interrelated, she said.

“Our goal is to ensure that our [partners in the Galápagos] are involved in this process of inquiry and that their knowledge and capabilities are respected and valued,” Chowa said.

Faculty discuss work at a table
UNC School of Social Work faculty discuss potential work in the Galapagos Islands with the director and staff from the Galapagos Science Center and with the director for social development in Santa Cruz Island.

Long-term, School of Social Work faculty would work with these partners on the best approach for developing inclusive interventions that build on the research and practice strengths within the school, she said.

Both Chapman and Rizo are excited about the opportunity to work in the Galápagos Islands. As a Latinx researcher, Rizo said she is always exploring ways to connect her work to the pressing issues affecting the Latinx community. After so many meetings with various local groups, leaders and community members within the islands, it is clear that the School has a lot to offer and a lot to learn, Chapman added.

Chowa and her team expect to present a plan of action to social work faculty this fall and to gauge further interest in work with the Galápagos Science Center.

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