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Your Story is our Story: Alumni Profiles

Harold Gazan, MSW ’61

Harold Gazan and his younger sister each were born with physical challenges. His awareness of social work began as he watched his mother become a strong advocate for children and live out a Christian faith. Referencing a Biblical phrase requiring faithful people to “love mercy,” Gazan says he thinks of mercy as “‘unconditional grace and compassion.’ It’s that grace and compassion that we’re to have for the marginalized people of our society.”

Growing through both personal and professional experiences, Gazan’s initial compassion led him to become an earnest supporter of better child care systems, for which he received the Michigan Public Servant of the Year Award in 1989. He first focused his desire to help delinquent children after spending time in the 1950s counseling men at an inner-city Chicago mission. In the surrounding neighborhood, kids were on the streets late at night because their prostitute mothers sent them out so that business could take place at home.

To work in the field in the 1960s, a master’s degree was necessary. Gazan specialized in group work at the U-M School of Social Work. Over the next few years, he worked for the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) as supervisor and director of camps for youth.

Gazan tells stories of now-successful men whose lives as teenagers once seemed impossible tangles. “You never know what it is that will bring about the motivation for change,” he says regarding the School’s tag line, “reach out—raise hope—change society.” “Don’t be afraid to give of yourself. That’s what social work is all about—providing the key for people to be self-motivated to make the next steps that need to be made to turn their lives around.”

After spending 12 years working in residential care, Gazan moved into child welfare and child care licensing at DHS. “Good regulation is really a must if we’re going to maintain a threshold of safety in care and rehabilitation,” he says. In 1976 he helped to found the organization that became the National Association of Regulatory Administration. He later directed various offices within DHS before retiring in 1996.

Gazan hasn’t retired his drive to improve child welfare, however. In 2008–09 he worked on the state Child Welfare Improvement Task Force and is serving a three-year term on the Child Welfare Advisory Board. He also returned to the School as an adjunct professor from 1997 to 2002 and taught courses on social welfare policy. Were he still teaching, Gazan says he would encourage students not to worry about political turmoil and to focus instead on clients and their undiscovered potential—“I think that’s where our hope is,” he says.

—Hillary Whitcomb Jesse is a freelance editor and writer living in Ypsilanti.

John Spores, MSW ’65, PhD ’76

The paper that ultimately sent John Spores across the globe wasn’t a plane ticket. It was a flier on a bulletin board at the University of Oregon in the early 1960s.

“Everything kind of evolved into a pattern over the next 40 years,” says Spores, who spent his career teaching social work, sociology, and Asian studies as well as helping create accreditation standards for social work education. He retired in 2006 from the University of Montana and has been a visiting professor of social work at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, since 2009.

Growing up in Oregon, he watched his schoolteacher mother helping people outside her job. Then he met a sociology professor who introduced him to social work. In his junior year, he saw that flier advertising the University of Michigan’s Joint Doctoral Program in Social Work and Social Science. Off he trekked to the Midwest.

At Michigan, Spores studied sociology and social work and, during his last two years, added Southeast Asian studies. He recognizes then Professors of Social Work Henry Meyer and Rosemary Sarri, as well as then Professor of Sociology Gayl Ness, as his most influential U-M faculty mentors.

After leaving Michigan in 1970, Spores taught at the University of Montana and, from 1972 to 1975, worked at the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) in New York City. He was one of two professional staff in the CSWE standards and accreditation office and says, “I was able to become very involved in assisting the development of undergrad social work education in the U.S., complete with directly assisting in the design and implementation of a formal accreditation process.” From 1986 to 1988 he rejoined the CSWE standards and accreditation staff, now in Washington, D.C. Spores also served on the CSWE board of directors and the Commission on Accreditation.

Spores finished his U-M doctoral dissertation and defense—blending social work, sociology, and Southeast Asian studies—in 1976. In 1983–84, he took his first trip to Malaysia, as a Fulbright professor to the Universiti Sains Malaysia. He calls it “another major career juncture,” and adds, “[It] set into motion continuing work with this university right up to the present, [and] I met, very briefly, the Malay woman, Sharifah Saharbi Syed Ahmad, who would become my wife 16 years later in 2000.”

Regarding the changes in the field of social work, Spores says, “We must be more attentive to our changing world, with its major economic and demographic changes. Aging populations and large numbers of migrants and refugees worldwide demand our attention. We must be more fully responsive to these changes.” 

—Hillary Whitcomb Jesse is a freelance editor and writer living in Ypsilanti. 

Jon Matsuoka, PhD ’85 

Jon Matsuoka was raised in South Los Angeles in the 1960s, “a good place to grow up in terms of political sensibilities,” he says. His grandparents, small-business owners, immigrated to the United States from Japan around the turn of 20th century and were sent to internment camps during World War II. He believes that the civil rights progress made by his own generation shaped his interests in social work and social justice.

As an undergraduate at Humboldt State University in northern California, Matsuoka first majored in wildlife biology. He soon got “caught up in the times,” switched to social work, and through involvement with various student associations “helped create a lot of awareness on campus.” Later, Matsuoka earned a master’s in social work from the University of Washington in Seattle. 

He continued on to the University of Michigan, earning an MA in psychology and a PhD in social work and psychology. “My interests ran the gamut from micro to macro,” Matsuoka says. Thus, he found himself doing clinical practice while writing a dissertation on settlement and adaptation of Southeast Asian refugees in the United States. 

When Matsuoka was offered a position at the University of Hawai’i right out of his doctoral program, faculty at U-M SSW, such as Richard English, helped him recognize that the opportunity was a great starting point for his work. Matsuoka has been in Hawai’i ever since.

In his 25 years at the University of Hawai’i, Matsuoka specialized in studying the social impact of development on native Hawaiians. This work led to his current position as president and CEO of Consuelo Foundation, an organization with which he formed a close association during his tenure as dean at the university. The foundation’s stated goal is “to eliminate abuse, neglect, and exploitation of children, women, and families in the Philippines and Hawai’i.” 

His two main interests at the foundation are program sustainability and reproductive health. He has recently been promoting aquaponics as a means of feeding homeless children. Aquaponics combines the sustainable production of both fish and vegetables. “If you can’t feed people, if you can’t address rates of population growth,” Matsuoka says, “nothing else will make much of a difference.” 

When asked about the future of social work, Matsuoka says, “Students of society have to be global citizens.” He also mentions the importance of developing culturebased theoretical and conceptual skills at the same time, “things you derive from a PhD at the University of Michigan and that stay with you through your career.” 

—Jane Martin is a freelance writer living in Montréal.

Marvella Ford, MSW ’87, PhD '92

For Marvella Ford, growing up in a rural, tightly knit area on Lake Champlain in upstate New York afforded her a clear view of the importance of community. Her first introduction to social work came when she saw the community issues that impacted the lives of her friends and tried to address them. 

Health disparities also interested her for personal reasons; both sets of her grandparents had died by the time she was born, and when she asked what they had died from, nobody seemed to know. "I wanted to do research to help improve the lives of other people so that other families could have their members for a longer time," Ford says. Ever since, community outreach has played an integral role in the health disparities research that Ford has done.

Ford began her academic career at Cornell University, where she earned her undergraduate degree. She noticed that many of the articles she read regarding health disparities, her field of interest, were written by University of Michigan researchers. So Ford came to the U-M, where she enrolled in the joint doctoral program, earning master's degrees in social work and social psychology and a dual doctoral degree in social work and psychology. She then participated in a National Institutes of Health-sponsored postdoctoral fellowship in public health and aging. At U-M Ford was intrigued to learn how to build social work principles such as community empowerment and community engagement into her research.

As a researcher at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit from 1994 to 2002, Ford engaged in studies involving the participation of African American men in prostate, lung, and colorectal cancer screening trials. Results of one of Ford’s studies showed that for men with low income, typically the most difficult group to retain in clinical trials, case management helped by providing for these men’s basic needs and thus allowed greater numbers of them to stay in the study.

Currently, Ford is an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina and associate director of cancer disparities at the university’s Hollings Cancer Center. One project in her vibrant research portfolio is a statewide project that educates community members about cancer and prepares them to teach cancer education seminars in their own communities.

“Health disparities I don’t think can be solved with any one field,” Ford says regarding the changes she has seen in social work. “We need a lot of interaction among different fields to adequately address the disparities. We need more of a social/ecological approach, which fits perfectly with a social work approach.”

—Amber Michele Gray is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor. 

Tonya Allen, MSW ’96 

For Tonya Allen, the needs of communities have always been an important issue. When Allen was a child, her grandmother acted as a community organizer, and her mother was involved in tenant groups discussing the state of the Detroit housing where they lived; Allen says that her first exposure to social work was “through my eyes looking at them.”

Allen’s first experience doing social work in her community came at the age of twelve, when she organized youth development programs for a day camp at her church. “I felt like I had arrived, at that point,” Allen says, “because it was something I was so passionate about.” Originally, Allen had planned to be a doctor, but as a senior in college, she decided to try to assist people on a larger scale.

Allen specialized in administration and community organization while earning a joint master’s degree in social work and public health. She says that her administrative focus in particular prepared her very well for her later work in analyzing, understanding, and making recommendations about such disparate topics as budget data and human resources laws. Allen also had her first child while at the School of Social Work (the day after fall term finals, no less!), and she found the flexibility and supportiveness of professors incredibly helpful as she balanced motherhood, wifehood, work, and schoolwork.

Currently, Allen oversees the distribution of grant money and personnel resources for the Skillman Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of children in the metropolitan Detroit region; Crain’s Detroit Business honored Allen as a 40 Under 40 winner in 2007 because of her work as a community leader in the Detroit area. She also co-teaches a course at the University of Michigan with Professor Barry Checkoway on neighborhood development.

Regarding the future of social work, Allen sees social work in its current state as being inclusive of many approaches and believes that the next step is to combine these approaches in a more cohesive way. She also believes that it will be crucial to prepare social workers to become more involved in public policy, to change public- and private-sector practices to be more beneficial to people and communities at large. 

When asked about the School tagline, “reach out— raise hope—change society,” Allen had this to say: “As a profession, we cannot be insular. We have to think bigger and broader than our own particular clients, and as we do that we should be raising expectations about what we can achieve collectively. When we do that, we can change how society operates.”

—Amber Michele Gray is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor. 

Kari Alterman, MSW ’97 

Kari Alterman thinks back to her decision to attend the U-M School of Social Work with bittersweet memories. 

As a U-M undergraduate from the Detroit area, she recalls discussing her interest in law school while visiting with a 17-year-old seriously ill cousin named Evan Shapiro. “My wise young cousin pointed out to me, ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,’” says Alterman. A light went on in Alterman’s head—it was her work helping others as a counselor at Camp Tamarack that caused a loving, warm glow within her. The next step was applying to U-M’s Project STaR program, which combined social work with Jewish communal service, and she was admitted. 

Her passion was tested by the challenge of taking 18-20 credits per semester, yet she graduated with an MSW and a certificate in Jewish Communal Service in 1997. Her third field placement with the Jewish Federation of Detroit subsequently became her fulltime job for eleven years.

For the past three years, Alterman has served as the director of the American Jewish Committee in Detroit, representing the Jewish community to the outside world. “When one minority is threatened, we are all threatened. My social work degree allowed me to find the common ground,” says Alterman.

Alterman continues to flourish from U-M’s Jewish social work curriculum, but now as a lecturer, not a student. “As a guest lecturer in the program’s Wednesday night seminar, I have the opportunity to know students, and I’m amazed at their intellect, passion, and thoughtfulness.” 

The demands on social workers have increased since she was in school, Alterman says. “In community organizing there is more focus on understanding the nuts and bolts of running a business.” To meet job requirements, she observes that there are now more duel-degree graduates—students combining their MSW with an MBA or a JD.

Sadly, Alterman has never been able to share with Evan how he affected her life. Evan died in 1994 at 18 from Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer, just after being admitted to his own dream college, Harvard. But Alterman is philosophical and feels that Evan would be very proud of her social work contributions. 

“It’s all part of tikkun olom—Hebrew for the Jewish directive to ‘heal the world,’” says Alterman. She says that Rabbi Tarfon, a Jewish biblical sage, expressed this best when he said, “It is not your obligation to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it."

—Debbie Eisenberg Merion, MSW ’78, is a writer and writing coach in Ann Arbor

Kevin Hooker, MSW ’05  

Picking up a newspaper on January 1, 2000, changed the course of Kevin Hooker’s life. During his sophomore year in college, he read an article entitled “Where Are the Boys?” and learned that the needs of boys are largely unrecognized. Hooker eventually changed his major from marine biology to political science and sociology.

During his last semester at the U-M School of Social Work, Hooker took an independent studies course on working with men. One area he studied was military populations since over 80 percent of the military population is male. His advisor, Brett Seabury (now associate professor emeritus), who had been a clinical social worker in the U.S. Army, gave him immense guidance and mentorship.

“Although men are not traditionally an oppressed population,” Hooker says, “when we pretend that men don’t have mental health needs, that just furthers the stereotype that men don’t need help. We need more awareness of male issues.” 

After working as a clinical therapist for three years, Hooker applied to be a military social worker and was accepted in February 2008. Before even completing his nine-month residency program, he became mental health flight commander at Buckley Air Force Base in Denver, Colorado, for six months, filling in for a psychologist who went on deployment. Now Hooker is head of the mental health, suicide prevention, and special needs identification programs. “I enjoy it because I run programs and still get to see patients as a mental health provider,” he says. 

Hooker has volunteered for a six-month deployment to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan starting in June. “Having firsthand experiences will make me a better provider,” he says, “but it’s also what I signed up to do—to be there for the war fighters.” 

Hooker has recently earned two awards, Social Worker of the Year for Air Force Space Command (for all Air Force social workers at six bases) and Company Grade Officer of the Year for the Medical Group (for all medical professionals at Buckley Air Force Base). He is also part of the Air Force working group on suicide prevention.

In considering the U-M SSW tagline, “reach out— raise hope—change society,” Hooker says, “I want to ‘reach out’ to those who typically don’t raise their hand and ask for help. . . . Regarding ‘raise hope,’ I want people to know that they can get better…. And for ‘change society,’ I think of being able to change stereotypes regarding mental health. Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. 

“I have found my calling,” Hooker concludes. “It’s the pride of serving those who protect our safety and our freedom.”

—Tanya C. Hart Emley is editor of Ongoing. 


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