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Despard Develops Students’ Analytical Skills

Mathieu (Mat) Despard, Assistant Professor

Mathieu (Mat) Despard, PhD, focuses his social work practice, teaching and research on the well being of low income individuals and families with special attention to accessibility to health care, financial services, social policies and the capacity of nonprofit organizations serving these families.

At U-M, Despard encourages his students to think critically and creatively about new ways to solve community problems.

“I want to help my students develop new and better ideas for leadership,” Despard said. “Leadership comes in many different forms; it is often a shared enterprise, and should be especially valued and supported when coming from marginalized groups and communities.”

In his classroom, Despard helps his students develop the analytical skills needed to understand and solve community problems, and the ability to facilitate change through personal relationships.

“It’s not enough to come up with good ideas. Change doesn’t happen unless we can build positive relationships and work constructively with conflict.”

Drawing on more than 12 years working with nonprofit organizations serving low income individuals and families, Despard is now involved in research aimed at finding ways to help low income households become more financially secure. He’s particularly interested in the financial security of families with children.

“When a family is financially unstable, children bear the brunt,” Despard said. “We see the effects play out in poor health outcomes and school failure. These families are struggling with other sources of stress too, including predatory lending practices, growing credit card debt, and not enough savings to cope with emergencies.”

One project in particular, Refund to Savings (R2S), could make it easier for families to build financial security by encouraging them to save more of their tax refunds when filing taxes online.

Despard analyzes data from the study, which looks at at the effects of behavioral economics on financial decision-making.

“People of all income levels are prone to make financial mistakes, yet low income households have almost no room for error,” Despard said.  “If we provide people with guideposts that nudge them in the direction of saving some of their refund, we hope this makes it easier to cope with financial emergencies and set-backs.”

Prior to U-M, Despard was clinical associate professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Social Work where he taught courses in nonprofit management, community practice and social policy.

Despard joined U-M as assistant professor of social work in September of 2015.

“I’m excited to be teaching and advising students here at U-M,” Despard said. “They’re intelligent, creative, compassionate and committed to social justice. That’s a very powerful combination of skills and abilities.”

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