Area:Management of Human Services
Yi Sun received her MSW from our school in the fall of 2018, with a concentration in Interpersonal Practice and a minor in Management of Human Services. She is currently enrolled in the social work doctoral program at Columbia University in New York City.
Sun grew up in a mountainous rural area of Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, in Sichuan Province in southern China. Many children and families there suffer from HIV/AIDS. Child trafficking, drug trafficking and drug abuse, and extreme poverty plague the area. “Social work was my career and life goal since I was in high school,” Sun told us from her current home on New York’s Roosevelt Island. “I was motivated to do social work because, growing up, these adverse conditions were normalized by people in my hometown. Many people tried to solve these problems and failed. I wanted to find the answers to solve these problems. I saw parents incarcerated due to drugs, and I wondered how to help their kids have a stable life. I needed to find a profession that would teach me to tackle those problems and empower my community. My passion for social work is deeply rooted in where I come from and what my positionalities and identities are.”
Sun earned a bachelor’s degree in social work at Shandong University in Jinan, Shandong Province, then returned to Liangshan and took a job as a school social worker. She soon found there were issues around children and families — her main area of interest — that she was unequipped to tackle. “I needed to hone my social work skills, and so I started looking at MSW programs,” she recalls. Yi found that Chinese schools did not offer many choices, so she turned to U.S. schools. A cousin had graduated from the MBA program at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and when Yi looked at the website for our School of Social Work, she saw professors doing work with child trauma and adversity, and with poverty. She thought Michigan would be a good place to learn and to have her questions answered. With a smile she adds, “It was known as the number one school of social work in the U.S., so my parents were impressed!” More seriously, she concludes, “I feel very honored and happy that I got in.”
Sun had not been to the U.S. before, but she took to Ann Arbor immediately. “I loved Ann Arbor!” she says. “I fell in love the first morning. I felt as though I were back in my hometown.” Once she started the program, however, there was some culture shock. “I had been learning English since I was five years old,” she says, “but the first day of classes I realized I could not understand a word the instructor said! I could not participate in the discussions or get the jokes. I asked myself, do I really know English or not? It took me a long time to get used to the language and to fit in with my classmates.” Sun’s field placement with Ann Arbor’s Peace Neighborhood Center presented a variation on this challenge. The Center serves many African American children and adolescents. “I was not familiar with their culture,” Sun says, “so it took me time to practice social work in culturally appropriate ways. I had not been educated about racism or white supremacy or white privilege, so when I started learning it at school and working with the African American community, I wasn’t yet aware of the effects of racism and white supremacy, especially on children and adolescents. It took me a while to develop sensitivity and competence.”
Developing cultural competence worked both ways. “I came to Ann Arbor to find solutions to problems in China,” Yi says, “but few of my professors knew much about China or the problems there. So we learned together. I talked to them and I received tremendous support in researching topics I was interested in and in doing papers related to my interests.” Sun recalls in particular: learning policy analysis with Associate Professor Kristin Seefeldt; Clinical Associate Professor Beth Sherman’s teachings on childhood trauma, which inspired Sun to look at trauma-informed interventions for children in China; and discussions with Professor Rich Tolman about diversity and marginalization issues and on what her future research interests might be. After graduation, Sun worked on a research project with Assistant Professor Xiaoling Xiang. “I began to understand research,” Sun says. “That helped me to pursue a PhD. It helped me know what I wanted to do. I feel spoiled by the U-M School of Social Work, because of the nurturing and inclusive environment.”
Now Sun is pursuing that PhD and working on her dissertation. Her current research focuses on understanding childhood adversity and trauma in cross-cultural contexts and on examining factors that contribute to resilience among ethnic minority children and youth in rural China. She is particularly interested in building trauma-informed interventions for schools and organizations. A New Yorker now, she says, “I miss Michigan! I am not a city girl. Sometimes I still take the wrong train!” (Without going into detail, the trip from Roosevelt Island to Columbia University is what New Yorkers call “a schlep.”)
After she receives her PhD, Yi plans to stay in the U.S. for post-doctoral study or to serve as university faculty. “I love the research environment here,” she says, “and I have lots of academic connections.” She also wants to make connections that will enable her to do multicultural research with Chinese scholars and communities. Would she herself return to China long term? Yes, eventually, she says, “because that is why I came to the U.S. in the first place. After some time researching and working here I will go back and use what I learned to build trauma informed systems, especially in rural schools. I would also conduct research on how to build child protection systems in China. So yes, I do see myself returning.