www.usc.edu/dept/socialwork/ Volume 3, Issue 4 | October 2007
In Their Shoes
Students Become the Clients They Will Serve

By Geoff Rynex

Stephanie Moss entered a Ralph’s supermarket, sans makeup and with a backpack on. She had to make employees believe she was Virginia, a 17-year-old runaway. Virginia needed a job if she was to survive on her own. She and her friend would be evicted at the end of the month if they couldn’t come up with the rent. She didn’t even know her social security number.

Moss, one of a record 325 incoming graduate students at

In one role-playing exercise, students shop for groceries on a limited budget.
the USC School of Social Work this fall, was pretending to be Virginia for a role-playing activity during a community immersion experience all Master of Social Work candidates participate in as part of the school’s orientation week. The activity was one of three vignettes written by faculty for the North Hollywood immersion group and designed to put students into the shoes of their clients.

Moss, one of a record 325 incoming graduate students at the USC School of Social Work this fall, was pretending to be Virginia for a role-playing activity during a community immersion experience all Master of Social Work candidates participate in as part of the school’s orientation week. The activity was one of three vignettes written by faculty for the North Hollywood immersion group and designed to put students into the shoes of their clients.

The community immersion program teaches students the significance of the diversity and different problems of communities and the impact that such factors have on people. The 11-community program teaches students the importance of getting to know the communities they work in to best serve their clients. Steve Hydon, clinical associate professor for field education, led the North Hollywood immersion group.

“We want to look at the community from a ‘strengths’ perspective – to look at the resources, the riches, the culture, the libraries, the museums – and understand how all those things come together as part of a community structure,” said Hydon.

Day 1: Beyond Glitz and Glamour, Seeing a Different Side of Hollywood

On the first of the two-day immersion, Moss and the 25 other students of the North Hollywood group met their faculty leaders, Hydon and lecturer Eva Reina, on the southeast corner of Burbank and Whitsett in the Valley Village section of the neighborhood. They received work folders with a quote by Margaret Meade on them.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

They broke up into subgroups and explored a two-mile radius bordered by Burbank, Laurel, Magnolia and Whitsett Avenues. They were told to take in everything they could: schools, pharmacies, temples, public transit, signs, markets, gas prices, banks, post offices – anything that might be useful for a social worker.

The neighborhood lacked big chain stores or well-known restaurants. There were a lot of Jewish establishments, as well as some Armenian and Iranian-owned businesses. The area was diverse, with a high concentration of Jewish, Hispanic and African-American populations. There was an African-American boxing center, where the owner had hung flags representing different cultures and countries. He said he felt it was important to show off and take pride in the different cultural aspects of the area because he had felt so welcome there.

At the end of the first day, Hydon gave the students a quiz covering some of what they had seen. He hadn’t told them what to look for, but he was pleasantly surprised by the results.

“They were really astute. They paid attention. They remembered. They were looking out as if to say, ‘Okay if I had to refer a client to a hair salon or bus stop or grocery mart…’ They were ready,” said Hydon.

Day 2: Yes, Virginia, Life is Hard

Moss’ group began the second day of the immersion reading the vignette of Virginia, a social teen lacking self-esteem. She had an appointment coming up with an admissions director at a community college and a world of adult problems to deal with.

Moss got a cold introduction to the life of Virginia when she walked into the Ralph’s supermarket, and the manager swatted her away to an old computer to fill out an application. Virginia the runaway apparently wasn’t worthy of the manager’s time or attention. Moss tried to talk to him to get some additional information and was greeted with an impatient, “Yeah? Whaddayawant?”

“I knew what to do, but I’m thinking, if I’m 17, I probably don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Moss.

The manager didn’t so much as look her in the eye when he finally lumbered down to the customer service desk to answer Virginia’s questions. Shuffling papers and barking orders to employees, he seemed offended by Virginia’s meek reception to the news that she would start out as a bagger.

“What’d you think – you were going to start out as the manager?”

The pay was 10 cents above minimum wage.

“What are we even trying to teach 17-year-olds in school in terms of job skills? Here, somebody is not even respectful when I’m trying to use these job skills like shaking their hand, looking in their eyes and being respectful,” Moss thought.

Stunned, she walked over to the computer to fill out the job application and answer a series of awkward psychological questions. She noticed she could not complete the application without a social security number. So, she typed, “1 2 3- 4 5- 6 7 8 9.” They asked the same questions multiple times, re-worded to trip up applicants. It was a Thursday, but she was told the application wouldn’t be reviewed until two Tuesdays from then. Stephanie Moss could wait, but Virginia had rent to make.

Moss’ next stop was the clinic. Virginia needed a tuberculosis test for school. She waited an hour for someone to come give her a shot that should have taken less than 10 seconds.

“There are all of these waiting periods. We all know that, but it’s so prevalent with the poor. At a doctor’s office, people get antsy if they have to wait for 10 minutes. People say, ‘why don’t [poor people] just get a job?’ If you have to wait in line all day just to get a bag of groceries or get your kids’ shots for school, when do you have time to work?”

After the clinic, Moss’ group needed to launder Virginia’s clothes, buy toiletries for the apartment and obtain a mailbox where Virginia’s employers could contact her. Though time- consuming, the laundry could get done. The toiletries were affordable thanks to a benevolent owner at the 99-cent store. The mailbox, however, was a different story. The post office needed $20 up front for a box. Virginia had $17. The group decided to forgo the mailbox. She needed that $17. How would she eat?

Wrap-Up: Officer Recalls Urban Battlefield

At the conclusion of the immersion experience, Community Relations Officer John Caprarelli from the North Hollywood Police Department spoke with students about the city’s infamous 1997 bank robbery and shootout – a day, he says, still evokes powerful images of heroism and horror. Caprarelli, one of the officers who battled two heavily armed robbers clad in bulletproof vests, recalled looking down the barrel of an AK-47 pointed directly at him. When the robber fired, the gun jammed, sparing Caprarelli’s life.

Officer John Caprarelli speaks to students about the North Hollywood shootout.

While Caprarelli’s courage earned him the Medal of Valor, he said he was frustrated at not being able to get the psychological help he needed following the shootout and for being pressured to return to work. A number of the officers involved in the shootout have since committed suicide.

He used the metaphor of a gas tank, explaining that every human being has a threshold. The tank is filled with mounting, difficult experiences. Police are close to tragedy and horror every day, but most of them never have a means of unburdening themselves. After the shootout, Caprarelli said his tank was full. The emotional burden began to take a toll on all facets of his life. He was depressed and suffering from post-traumatic stress. He began to drink heavily to cover up his feelings and forget about his day. It put a strain on his relationships with his wife and children.
“As social workers, we engaged with him about what he would have liked to have seen happen and how social workers could facilitate that process,” said Hydon. Hydon is quick to point out the success of the program is the result of an immense effort by multiple faculty members.

“It really is a team approach. Each site has a team that works with the students on campus and out in the communities,” said Hydon.

The program is headed by Clinical Associate Professor Esther Gillies. Adjunct Professor Margaret Fetting coordinates a writing workshop beforehand to help students adequately convey their experiences, which are culminated in a final web project following the immersion.

Though students may not be aware of the importance of the immersion exercise while they are participating, Hydon thinks they come to realize its benefit further down the road.
"It's when they're in a community next year or the year after that they'll especially appreciate this experience."
Rising Stars
Jennifer Battaglia
Almease Davis
Gretchen Heidemann
Frances Nedjat-Haiem
Gregory Pleasants
Ann Reyes Robbins

Awards & Recognition
Leo Cabassa
Center for Work & Family Life
Annalisa Enrile
Kristin Ferguson
Carmen Frierson
Dianne Golden
Karen Lincoln
Paul Maiden
Ferol Mennen
Jacquelyn McCroskey
Michalle Mor Barak
Valerie Richards
Michal Sela-Amit
Cherry Short
Penny Trickett
Marlene Wagner
Gary Wood
Ann Marie Yamada

In the Media

Alumni Notes

Published & Presented

Gift Opportunity PDF

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Did You Know?
A USC School of Social Work survey found 94% of our 2007 MSW graduates were employed within three months of graduation at an average starting salary of $48,000.

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