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Gabriel Robles Alberto Shares His Experience as a New Faculty Member During COVID-19
May 4, 2020

We're checking in with our students, alumni, faculty, staff, and friends on the front lines of social work during this historic time. We hope their stories will provide many lessons for future generations of social workers. If you would like to share your story, please contact our communications team at lzazenski@ssw.rutgers.edu.

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Gabriel Robles Alberto is an assistant professor at the School of Social Work and the Chancellor's Scholar for Inclusive Excellence in Sexual and Gender Minority Health. He is in his first semester as a faculty member at the SSW and shares how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting his teaching and personal life. 

How has your work been impacted by COVID-19?
I am in my first semester as faculty at the School of Social Work. On top of my to-do list was to learn about and visit New Jersey-based social service agencies. In fact, I wanted to learn more about the state in general. Every time a city in New Jersey is in the news, I find myself looking up the location and its relative location to New Brunswick.

Another area that has been impacted by COVID-19 is my ability to work at a desk. When I work in different spaces, I also set location-specific tasks. For example, when I work at the office, I block my time to work on specific things such as responding to student emails, working on a manuscript, and meeting with colleagues. However, some days, I like to work from home or a coffee shop, particularly if I am working on a data analysis project. This type of moving around helps me personally stay energized and reduce fatigue. Now I feel trapped working from home. I have been trying to adjust, but I do long for the day when I can sit down in my desk at Rutgers or even spend a couple hours at a coffee shop working.

How have you handled moving your class(es) online?
I am fortunate in this aspect. I acknowledge that everyone’s home life changed, but I think the fact that both the students and myself had opted in to online instruction for this semester helped tremendously. This semester I’ve been teaching Research Methods in the online program. My students and I were already familiar with having to use the phone, WebEx, and chatrooms for meetings. In my opinion, Rutgers School of Social Work did a good job supporting faculty working from home and providing online-only instruction. The topic of social distancing was discussed with us by the dean and associate deans in January.

Have you noticed any positive things that have come out of the pandemic?
This is my first semester at Rutgers as an assistant professor. I was worried that I was going to miss the opportunities to meet with and form friendships with colleagues. To my surprise, I was invited to a standing weekly Zoom chat. I was also invited to join a text chain in which we send daily check-ins, talk about daily tasks, send cute emojis, and talk about positive ways to stay healthy. I know that my experience is not anomalous. I hear so many stories about people around the world doing something similar. Through this constant communication, I still feel connected to the School of Social Work.

Are you doing anything specific to help you cope?
Like many people near me, I have been physically distancing myself by staying in my small New York apartment. My living room usually serves as a place to hang out and watch TV. But lately, it also serves as a dining room as I cook every meal at home now. It also serves as my office, the conference room, the classroom, and where I have my coffee breaks throughout the day. It has been difficult to leave work at work. I find myself constantly opening my laptop and working while I watch TV, working while I talk to my partner, working while I hang out with the dogs. I have now created a rule for myself that after 8PM I will not work on anything – not even check messages. During the weekends, I extend the non-work hours by not working for 8 hours each day, in which I stop checking my e-mail at about 2PM. During my non-work hours, I do my best to turn off CNN and be present in my home, take my dogs for a walk, and call my family back in California.

How has social work prepared you to handle this crisis?
The very reason that I got into social work was the HIV/AIDS epidemic. For many of us in the field, this pandemic is very familiar. A lot of the science behind mitigation efforts, social distancing, and related mental health effects I had previously learned about throughout my education. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, in her discussions about the science underpinning the various coronavirus tests on the market, mentioned that HIV-service workers, in her opinion, were best equipped to disseminate knowledge on viral testing due to their close experience in HIV testing. I was excited to hear this as, in my case, it is true. I understood basic immunology concepts such as antibodies, viral load, viral shedding, sero-conversion, and virulence. All of this knowledge is due to my work in training and supervising community health workers in the areas of HIV testing and counseling.

What advice would you give to our current students who are dealing with a variety of challenges?
I think it’s important to recognize when one needs to reach out to their professional or social support systems. For example, if you are experiencing challenges with classes being moved online, contact your professor to discuss them. As professors, we are often in communication with each other to learn strategies on how to best support students during this transition. This means that we will understand that students may be experiencing difficulties. Many faculty are experiencing similar situations with the transition to remote learning as well. Importantly, we need to be okay with not being be okay through these times. No one is expecting you or any of us to function as though it’s normal to be cooped up in your apartment.

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