Tina Chen, AM '10

Co-authoring research and helping create a more aging-friendly society in Taiwan

Tina Chen

"My field placement at the Illinois Department on Aging (IDoA) was the best learning year of my life," says Tina (Yi-Ju) Chen, AM '10. She credits Janice A. Cichowlas, a policy analyst, for being a "great field instructor" who involved her in all levels of legislative and other decision-making processes.

Another factor that shaped Chen's development as a social welfare advocate was the fit between coursework and practical experience. "I almost always could apply what I was learning in my SSA classes to my IDoA projects, from political economy to evidence-based research and program evaluation," Chen says.

Chen believes that it was largely because of the quality of her SSA education that she was chosen for a full-time position as a research laboratory specialist at the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Michigan even before she graduated with a concentration in social administration.

Her grandparents had been very important to her throughout her childhood in Taiwan, and her interest in the elderly drew her to Chicago. "When I discovered the SSA/Hartford Older Adult Program, I knew I had to apply. Senior citizens are just like different books in which you can always discover new stories to reflect your life experiences upon," she says.

Chen found one such story from her field placement to be particularly powerful. Her first IDoA assignment was a hospice program at the Dixon Correctional Center that trains inmates to counsel their peers. There she met a man who had hated a certain racial group ever since being violated as a child. As an inmate volunteer, the man was paired with a dying prisoner who was the same race as the perpetrator. Chen recalls being astonished when he told her, "I was angry and confused and did not know what to do. But I chose to forgive this guy and use my skills to help him."

Students truly learn by doing when they are involved in these kinds of situations, according to Cichowlas. Student and mentor processed together how "giving back" can be transformative. Both were both impressed that, despite serving a life sentence, this man has been empowered to be supportive over the phone with family and friends who are facing end-of-life issues.

Internships were the most important of all learning experiences for Cichowlas herself, who began her career as an elementary school teacher and has both a PhD and a law degree. "In turn, I now treat my interns like staff. I throw them into the fire and, to the extent that they are able, allow them to use their skills," she says.

Cichowlas was impressed with both Chen's personal and computer skills: "Even when some survey participants were initially resistant, Chen politely encouraged them until they were willing to share the information she was seeking. Then she generated the survey data in an effective format that the manager could easily review."

Another outcome of Chen's examination of social issues from a macro-level was an article entitled "Volunteer Prisoners Provide Hospice to Dying Inmates" that was published in 2009-10 by the Annals of Health Law. "When Chen started working with me on the prison hospice project, she was the one who began on her own to research the background of prison hospice programs. That's what gave me the idea that we should write an article," Cichowlas says.

In addition to co-authoring what Chen describes as "my very first, but hopefully not my last, publication," some of Chen's other contributions at IDoA were composing legislative proposals on long-term care and capital development, conducting primary data collection and managing financial reports for demonstration projects, and preparing a presentation for an annual Governor's Conference.

Chen says that her ability to look at the big picture and apply meaning behind numbers not only brought her gratification in her field placement but also helped her win SSA's Sonia Bertz Honor Award. The award is given to a graduating master's degree student for outstanding work and promise in the field of aging. One way that Chen hopes to prove deserving of that award, which is given to the graduating master's degree student who demonstrates outstanding work and promise in the field of aging, is by eventually moving back to Taiwan to help create a more aging-friendly society.

"SSA gave me classroom tools and field placement opportunities to synthesize different issues with a systematic approach. This prepared me well to work in the field of aging. My long-term career goal is to ensure policy implementations that will result in quality services. Aging is an inevitable process for everyone, and I want to benefit the current older population and multiple generations to come," Chen says.