Graduate Spotlight: Marcela Mellinger
Expected Graduation: Spring 2011
Degree Objective: Ph.D. in Social Work
Other Degrees: B.A. in Social Work, Master’s in Social Work
Marcela Mellinger has never doubted her career path.
“Issues of social justice and speaking up for those who are often silenced by our system are an area I have always been interested in, even as a small child,” she said.
Mellinger, who will graduate this spring with a Ph.D. in social work, has pursued social work professionally and academically since witnessing inequalities firsthand in South America.
“Seeing social and economic injustice all around as I was growing up made me want to do something to ‘change the world,’” she said. “Of course, I had no idea what that would look like in my professional life. I just knew I wanted to somehow address the injustices I saw.”
After finishing high school in Venezuela, Mellinger participated in a cultural exchange program that brought her to the United States. Eventually, she moved to Pennsylvania, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work and worked at a nonprofit social service organization in Lancaster County.
As a social work practitioner, Mellinger advocated for disadvantaged people, including homeless and disabled individuals, around the region. She educated judges about child abuse issues, collaborated with government officials, and publicized awareness issues in the community.
“It’s all interconnected,” she said. “We had to maintain communication so that changes were made.”
When Mellinger chose to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia, she wanted to expand her own professional experience by conducting advocacy research.
According to Mellinger, in the past, social service organizations consistently practiced advocacy to spur social change. Recently, nonprofit organizations have dropped advocacy in favor of providing other services.
“Throughout history, advocacy has allowed social work and human service organizations to provide a voice to disadvantaged and disenfranchised populations,” said Mellinger. “However, many questions remain about our current commitment to advocacy.”
Given this situation, Mellinger wanted to study how modern nonprofit social service organizations advocate on behalf of disadvantaged populations. To answer her research questions, she surveyed human service nonprofit organizations across Northeast Georgia. The survey method, Mellinger said, allowed her to capture the presence or absence of advocacy in the region.
Additionally, according to Mellinger, most past advocacy research concerns political officials and legislators. Her dissertation research included other advocacy targets, including government administrators, the community and the court system.
Her results showed that while nonprofit human service agencies self-report performing advocacy on behalf of disadvantaged individuals, these organizations are not always carrying out advocacy activities.
“Organizations say ‘yes,’ we are a voice to the disadvantaged,” she said. “But in actuality, they do very little of it.”
Based on her findings, social service organizations infrequently communicate with government agencies or the judicial system on advocacy issues. According to Mellinger, nonprofits would benefit by working more closely with public administrators and court officials to combat problems within a community.
“A lot of times, government services will fund social service agencies to address problems,” said Mellinger. “Government agencies can’t do it all by themselves.”
Ultimately, Mellinger hopes her research will inspire social work practitioners to bolster their advocacy efforts.
“I hope my research can challenge the profession to address the void in advocacy practice within human service organizations and help future generations of social workers turn their passion for social justice into action,” she said.
After graduation, Mellinger will take a faculty position at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work where she will teach three classes and supervise two field work sections annually.
Story by Ben Benson