By Samuel Leibowitz-Lord ‘21
As both political leaders and healthcare professionals call on Americans to do their part in stopping the spread of COVID-19 by practicing social distancing, one School of Social Work student’s research on the power of community and networking during times of hardship has become especially relevant.
Laurent Reyes is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers School of Social Work. Much of her work has focused on the aging populations and ensuring the quality of life of older adults. Recently, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health Policy Research Scholars program awarded Reyes $10,000 to carry out her Ph.D. dissertation research, which seeks to build a more accurate picture of civic participation amongst African-American and Latinx older adults. Reyes’ research focus was developed after several years of work on community-based research and program evaluation.
Prior to receiving the RWJF Health Policy Research Scholars award, in her second year of Ph.D. candidacy, Reyes was selected to be a Health Policy Research Scholar, a competitive, national leadership program through RWJF that seeks to assist underrepresented doctoral researchers in advancing equitable public health policies. This grant to fund four years of her Ph.D. has allowed her to continue her research mission of painting a more accurate picture of the lives of ethnic minority older adults, such as African-Americans, Latinx and immigrant communities.
Reyes, who will complete her dissertation during the next academic year, was also recently awarded a Rutgers University & Louis Bevier Dissertation Completion Fellowship from Rutgers School of Graduate Studies. The fellowship is designed to provide support during a doctoral candidate’s final year of dissertation work and recognizes excellence.
A Cuban native who immigrated to New Jersey with her mother in the late 1990s, Reyes was recruited to Rutgers as an undergraduate through the Educational Opportunity Fund, which extends opportunities to under-served communities such as Reyes’ hometown of West New York.
“As a first-generation student, I had little sense of what to expect from going to college,” Reyes said. “Having the support from the EOF program, particularly my EOF counselor Hema Patel, made all the difference. In addition, Douglass Residential College really persuaded my choice to attend Rutgers, because it provided a small campus feel in a large university, not to mention the networks and support afforded through their programs.”
Reyes was introduced to the social work profession after attending a study abroad program in Romania facilitated by the Human Rights House, part of the Global Village. Dr. Rebecca Davis, Associate Professor of Professional Practice and Director of the Office of Global Social Work Programs at the School of Social Work, led Reyes’ group as they worked with local Romani families and met with social work students at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca. It was during this trip that Reyes says the value of social work became apparent to her. Reyes took her first steps in a long and prosperous experience in academic social work.
In her junior year as an undergraduate, Reyes was one of ten students selected to participate in Project L/EARN, an intensive summer research internship funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Working with Dr. Emily Greenfield, Associate Professor at the School of Social Work, Reyes published research in The Journals of Gerontology examining the psycho-social impact of relationships with neighbors amongst mid-life and older adults. Before returning to Rutgers in 2016 to complete a dual Masters and Ph.D., Reyes would spend two years in Mexico City and San Francisco building her resume and assisting in evaluation research of community programs.
During Project L/EARN, Reyes was struck by the lack of non-white representation in a national database of Americans. She quickly realized that much of the research on older adults mostly spoke to the experiences of white Americans, and rarely acknowledged the growing diversity of this population.
“It was clear to me early on that much of the available research had focused on white populations, whose experiences in this country are vastly different from minority groups,” Reyes said. “I started thinking about my own story as an immigrant from Latin America, about growing up in a culture that taught me what it means to live in community. My research aims to highlight the power of close-knit networks, particularly in the context of our lived and historical struggles.”
“Evident in my personal journey is the powerful role of community and networks,” Reyes said. “From my family, friends, and neighbors that provided me the confidence to believe in my ideas and speak my mind, to the professors that inspired me and challenged me to think more critically and strategically, and to the many programs designed to support students like me from disadvantaged backgrounds in an effort to grow and strengthen our future. By coalescing our efforts, there is no doubt that change is possible.”