Luis Zayas

UT President William Powers Jr. met with McAllen ISD Superintendent James Ponce to announce a partnership between both educational institutions last Thursday. 

The partnership, which involves sending UT social work students to South Texas to assist McAllen ISD students with personal and scholastic challenges, marks the first time UT has partnered with a school district in the Rio Grande Valley. 

UT spokesman Gary Susswein said this partnership is intended to benefit both UT students and South Texas residents.

“It’s intended to help the students and the families in the Valley who deal with unique sets of issues,” Susswein said. “There are many students who specifically want to work with Spanish-speaking populations, immigrant populations.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 93 percent of the Valley’s population is Hispanic or Latino. 

Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work, said the unique culture that exists in this region of Texas, which Mexican culture heavily influences, can provide a new kind of learning experience for UT students as opposed to staying in Austin.

“We see this as an opportunity for our students to learn an awful lot,” Zayas said. “It’s a community that’s different from Austin; it’s on the border; it has a very different cultural environment. It’s very fluid between Mexico and Texas. That would be different for a student coming from Dallas or even San Antonio.”

The two social work students chosen to work with McAllen ISD students this year are seniors Karina Ramos and Marta Morataya. The program plans to increase the number of social work students in the partnership each year, Zayas said. The students will work closely with after-school children and families who are at risk because of educational or financial challenges. 

Ponce, who focused on potential benefits of the UT-McAllen ISD alliance at a press conference Thursday, said the nature of partnerships requires teamwork.

“We recognize in order to meet the needs of all students and families — that we need to have partnerships,” Ponce said. “It’s win-win to partner with other institutions of higher education.”

If McAllen ISD students are exposed more often to UT students, barriers of educational accessibility might start to break down, Zayas said.

“Our students can influence kids in the Valley who will follow and come to UT Austin. It’s a way for us to have them feel that UT is more accessible to them,” Zayas said.

UT’s School of Social Work appointed Luis Zayas to serve as its new dean beginning next semester.

Zayas was chosen as the new dean of the School of Social Work because of his national prominence in the field and because he has all of the strong personal characteristics the University wants and needs, said Provost Steven Leslie.

“He’s a very distinguished scholar and a nationally prominent leader in social work,” Leslie said.

Zayas began his career as a practicing social worker in inner city communities in New York but eventually started going back and forth between community practice and academia.

“One of the most enriching aspects of my career was to move between practicing through community help centers and educating students,” Zayas said.

Zayas is also founding member and director of the Center for Latino Family Research at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, said Andrea Campetella, program manager for the center.

“He is very dedicated to producing research to meet the needs of Latino families and in training scholars interested in Latino issues,” Campetella said.

The goals at the Center for Latino Family Research include working with Latino families to research economic, social and health problems they face and how to approach fixing them, according to its website.

Zayas’s desire to continue contributing to students’ education led him to accept the offer of the dean’s position for the School of Social Work at UT.

“The School of Social Work is a great school at a great university, surrounded by very successful and forward-thinking colleagues, and to be a part of that winning team was one of those opportunities that you couldn’t walk away from,” Zayas said.

He said he wants to continue to build up the School of Social Work’s already great legacy and to help the school continue to grow in stature and research.

“I first want to learn the culture of the school and of the people and look at ways we can take the school further,” he said. “And then I want to maintain, if not enhance, the national prestige of the school.”

While Zayas’ focus will be on the School of Social Work, he also hopes to make as many links as he can within Austin and Central Texas communities in need and work through social work institutions to help them.

“My expertise on families of low-economic status has developed over the years, and I want to continue developing and researching,” Zayas said.

Zayas said he has always kept an open door for students and faculty and tries to interact with students as much as possible.

“They bring the most dynamism to the school,” Zayas said. “Students should know they can call my office or visit me in person. Getting to know the students’ perspective is very important.”

Printed on Thursday, September 29, 2011 as: 'Distinguished Scholar' named dean of social work