This article is part of a series featuring some of this year’s outstanding graduating students, nominated by their academic school or college or another University program in which they participated.
When Brunilda Ferraj attended a recent public hearing on a bill that would allow immigrants to obtain a driver’s license regardless of their legal status, she was stunned at the turnout. Hundreds of people filled the room, an overwhelming majority of them immigrants attending their first civic forum.
“They were all there speaking out, telling their personal stories, making the case for public safety, making the case for human rights. It was amazing,” says Ferraj ’13 MSW.
Ferraj knows all too well the feelings of isolation and other challenges immigrants face. Her family emigrated from Albania to the U.S. as political refugees when she was a young girl. Growing up in rural eastern Connecticut, she says, there were few support services for immigrants who didn’t speak English and even fewer local advocates to help families assimilate.
Over time, Ferraj turned her struggles into strengths. The experiences of her childhood are now part of what has driven her pursuit of a master’s degree in social work. She has specialized in policy practice with a focus on international issues, and her professional goal is to address structural and systemic inequities through advocacy, policy analysis, and program development.
In her two years at the School of Social Work, Ferraj helped develop a long-term strategic plan for the school’s nationally-renowned Center for International Social Work Studies. She was a member of the campus’ UConn Reads sub-committee, and is the student representative for the school’s educational policy committee. She also served as an intern with the Connecticut Commission on Health Equity.
But it is her work with the Hartford Public Library Immigrant Civic Engagement Project that has her most excited at the moment. As a research assistant on the project’s evaluation team, Ferraj is reviewing the program’s strengths and challenges in order to develop a model that other communities can replicate. She especially enjoys organizing and supporting the project’s “community dialogues” involving diverse immigrant groups.
“Being part of a project that helps immigrants adjust to their new-found life is pretty inspiring,” she says. “The community dialogues are particularly exciting because it is a moment when people come together, talk about issues, and develop action plans on how they themselves can address those issues. It’s amazing to see that happen before your eyes.”
Ferraj was drawn to UConn by the School of Social Work’s reputation for international social work and global research. Once here, she found an academic community that quickly became extended family.
“The school has been tremendously supportive,” she says. “Although some may see the West Hartford campus as a commuter school, it really is like family. It’s amazing the network of support that exists here.”
With an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Rhode Island, Ferraj has always had a keen interest in policy. She wants to use her social work training to bridge the gaps that can exist between research and policy.
“I knew what I was interested in studying when I arrived here, but UConn encouraged me to open up new doors for exploration,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work with this particular population, but I never considered the research side of things until I came here. Now I understand how research leads to informed policy.”
Ferraj has been getting plenty of hands-on experience navigating the public policy labyrinth as a field worker for Connecticut State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, and House Chair of the legislature’s powerful Appropriations Committee. Walker is a kindred spirit. She holds a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University.
“Toni Walker is amazing,” Ferraj says. “I’ve learned so much being there with her. Because she is chair of Appropriations, she touches the lives of every single resident of Connecticut, not just those living in her district. So when she makes decisions, she says she makes decisions for Connecticut, not just her New Haven constituents.”
Walker says she is pleased with Ferraj’s work.
“Brunilda has an incredibly kind spirit and despite her quiet voice, she has a lot to say,” she says. “She understands the importance of policy and social workers’ involvement in the political process, especially at the decision-making level. Social workers are not prominent in the legislature and many people do not understand the need for us here, but Brunilda has been able to see firsthand why exactly I am here and why we [social workers] need to continue fighting for our place at the table.”
Working at the state Capitol has also taught Ferraj how to handle challenges and work with individuals who may not share her point of view.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Why do you want to be around people who don’t value what you value?’” Ferraj says. “But I tell them I’d much rather be at the table with those people and have a say and provide a voice for disadvantaged populations than not be at the table at all and let others make all the decisions. I’d rather be there working slowly toward progress than be on the sidelines. It may be tough, but it’s worth it. Educating people is half of what social workers do. It takes a lot of patience and understanding, but that is what advocates are for.”
May 6, 2013
By: Colin Poitras