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Alumni Spotlight // Public Service

EVERYDAY HERO

Social worker Michael Tong `14 helps families discover a path to a better quality of life
Michael Tong
Social worker Michael Tong `14

Real-life heroes don't wear capes. Sometimes, they walk through the door with a clipboard and a smile, ready and able to help people through tough situations. With every phone call, home visit and school meeting, social workers like Michael Tong `14 provide a lifeline of information and guidance to families in need who often feel isolated from their community.

As a service coordinator at the Tri-Counties Regional Center, Tong provides consultation, advocacy and information for parents raising children with developmental disabilities in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties. The non-profit organization – one of 21 regional centers in California -- serves more than 12,800 individuals with developmental disabilities throughout the Central Coast.

Tong’s first jobs as a student worker at UC Santa Barbara hinged on building community relationships and outreach. He worked as a marketing coordinator for the Health & Wellness department and as a resident assistant at the Santa Catalina North Tower Residence Hall. "Michael's mentorship and friendship shaped some of my best memories and experiences at UCSB," said Mick Castro `16, one of Tong's former student residents. "If it wasn't for Michael, I wouldn't have known about or explored all the really cool nature spots around IV!"

Tong also served as a campus action liaison for the external vice-president of statewide affairs at UCSB’s Associated Students and taught Polynesian dance to elementary school students as an after school program coordinator for Iaorana Te Otea. After graduating with a double major in political science and art history, Tong worked at PathPoint as a direct support professional helping empower individuals with disabilities with life skills before he accepted his current position at TCRC.

In this Alumni Q&A, Tong talks about his many mentors at UCSB, his core values and what it takes to pursue a career in social work - and how good friends and great mentors at UCSB changed his life.

What drew you to study at UC Santa Barbara?

I checked out quite a few different colleges and universities before deciding to attend UCSB. I was not invested in any particular program or dedicated to any particular field of study, so the campus environment and cultural experience turned out to be the key factor that weighed in my decision. UCSB was the last school I visited – I wasn’t expecting too much. As someone from southern California, UCSB seemed too close to home and I didn’t know about any of its merits, academically, sports-related or anything.

Upon my visit, I wasn’t blown away immediately. I didn’t feel that this was a particularly big campus, let alone a regal one and I felt pretty neutral. It was only after a few hours of walking around that it hit me: people were saying “hello.”

This felt profound and I hadn’t thought about it until 3 or 4 people whom I passed by had smiled, waved and greeted me. I was not used to this, and I had not seen it on any other university campus -- most if not all the students I had seen when visiting always seemed to be in a rush and certainly didn’t have time to enjoy themselves, let alone interact with a stranger.

This small and seemingly insignificant display became something memorable that gave me a great impression of the UCSB campus and its local culture, and I am proud to say that it ultimately influenced my decision to become a Gaucho.

What made you decide on your major?

Unlike many of my friends and other classmates who either began their undergraduate career as undeclared or knew exactly what they wanted to do, my decision was rather serendipitous -- it began by browsing through a catalogue. UCSB had sent me a listing of their different coursework, and at the time all I knew was that I was motivated by great story telling and wanted to stay engaged with the world around me.

My mother and I looked through the degree catalogue, batting different ideas around and thought “Hey, I enjoyed history and social sciences, so maybe I’d have fun learning about politics and local government!” So I went with that and entered UCSB as a pre-political science major with the intent to pursue the public service emphasis after completing the prerequisites -- but this specific curriculum was dissolved after my first quarter at UCSB. This wasn’t that big a deal however, as my entire first year I didn’t take a single political science course. Instead I took classes in religious studies, earth science, and even a course on dinosaurs.

For each quarter over my first year, I also ended up completing 4 different art history courses which were all relatively different and a few thoughts went through my head as follows: 1) I like these classes because 2) they feel like story time to me, and 3) I did really well.

So on top of my Political Science studies, I decided to add art history as my double major. My collegiate curriculum took its own course based on what classes kept my interest, kept me challenged, and yet I still did well in; it seemed pretty organic. This isn’t to say that it had no bearing on my career and that I can’t apply my coursework lessons today. Not just my coursework from my art history and political science degrees, but each course I took at UCSB built the foundation for my cultural understanding that is continually exposing me to diverse perspectives and expanding my ability to critically think.

Who were some of your key mentors at UC Santa Barbara?

I am very lucky to have surrounded myself with good friends and mentors. At UCSB, I was able to make personal connections with many student leaders and staff members who were heavily involved with the campus and local community. Out of the many individuals who may or may not know how much of a positive impact they had in my overall development at UCSB, I attribute the quality of my undergraduate experience and current success to the following four individuals:

Nadim Houssain and Ahmed Mostafa, UCSB’s previous Associated Students External Vice Presidents of Statewide Affairs, were my peer mentors at UCSB. I met them both on my first day at school moving into my residence hall, and we all became fast friends. Both of them were slightly older than me and I was able to watch them, observe their navigation through their college experiences and exploring post-graduation opportunities, and I became heavily involved with different communities they were a part of. Most importantly, they were and continue to be my go-to people for any personal and professional advice.

Michael “Maka” Takahara and Jesús Catalán are conversely the adult mentor figures who took me under their wing at UCSB. Both were alumni when I met them -- Maka is a health educator for UCSB’s Health and Wellness Program and Jesús is the school psychologist at Isla Vista Elementary. I got to know both of them in a business sense through my involvement in campus organizations, and they played a big part in nurturing my professional development, understanding my own motivations, and becoming a more relatable and self-confident adult. It is also thanks to the both of them that I was able to pursue a career in Santa Barbara. They wrote my letters of recommendation, reviewed my résumé and job applications, informed me of job opportunities in town and continue to be my consult when I need career advice.

Describe your path to your “dream job.” How did you work toward reaching your professional position today?

Throughout college, it was my extracurriculars and volunteering that shaped my current career path. I was always involved with youth development, afterschool programs and helping different nonprofit organizations that focused on informal education in social settings. Even the recreational clubs I participated in had similar volunteering opportunities, and it reinforced my passion to provide mentorship and guidance to others in our community, specifically our at-risk youth population. Since graduating, I have spent the past several years working with the special education/developmental disabilities population as a social worker. I have provided direct support for seniors, independent living skills coaching for adults, and have continued to volunteer for several different organizations providing mentorship and creative activity opportunities for underprivileged students.

Though this seems like an altruistic story, I was inspired to take my current job initially for the better salary and benefits. There was very little controversy in this decision as public service opportunities typically provide very little opportunity to match the cost of living, especially in Santa Barbara. Luckily even with that attitude, I was hired as a service coordinator at Tri-Counties Regional Center, implementing program planning and oversight for children with developmental disabilities throughout South Santa Barbara County as a part of the State Department of Developmental Services.

I am happy to say that I have become more inspired and motivated since taking on my current role. I continually realize that this is a fantastic community to be a part of, to serve, and especially to learn with. The culture surrounding developmental diversity is constantly growing, and we are learning how to better support, empathize with and even empower each individual with adaptive needs. However, many people and their families who could benefit from our services are unaware that there is help out there. It is my role to link the information, resources and people who can best support each individual together. It takes a team effort, but it is very rewarding when we are able to connect each person with the right service that fosters a successful relationship.

For students looking to follow your career path, what skills and personality traits should they strive to develop? What is one piece of advice you would like to share with them?

Michael Tong
Michael Tong `14 during his student days
at UC Santa Barbara

Working in any capacity with people is constantly changing and is often very sensitive for the people you’re serving. In my specific role, I work with a lot of families who are constantly at their wits end dealing with many different outsiders -- doctors, pharmacies, therapists, and too many government agencies that they are asked to expose their most personal information and experiences with (including myself). Our work hinges on responding to the needs of the people we serve which change drastically from day to day, just like the people themselves.

With that in mind, I would advocate for the following skills and mindset for anybody considering entering the social work field:

Active listening. Listening carefully, asking relevant questions and retaining the pertinent information is essential to the counseling aspect of social work. Without building trust and a positive rapport, it is nearly impossible to dig into the deeper details in people’s lives that often help us understanding and being able to better support someone’s unique circumstances.

Organization Skills. Each day always brings something new and involves different people, and being able to successfully manage time and information can help maximize the services that are provided to each person.

Setting Boundaries. This field requires navigating around some very personal and sensitive information. It is very emotionally taxing for everyone, especially since the work is never truly done. Creating benchmarks and helping make concrete expectations will net attainable outcomes and prevent those involved in the process from burning out and giving up.

I also have a piece of advice for any working professional, and that is to always close the loop of communication. In any environment that should encourage cooperation and collaborating with many different people, it is imperative that every stakeholder is acknowledged, included and able to contribute. Even if it’s telling someone “I don’t know” or “let me get back to you on that,” forward progress is contingent upon everybody being on the same page.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by many different things, but it is my connection to other people and the quality of those relationships that is at the core of my values and keeps me going. To me, being of service to others and helping them succeed is what makes me feel the most successful -- it’s about leaving a legacy. I find meaning and purpose when I’m contributing to a team driven by the same values, and that in turn encourages me to want to foster the success in others. I am very fortunate to have many inspirational friends and mentors in my life, and I strive to be that positive role model for others.

How important is it for alumni share their experiences with current UCSB students?

The transition out of undergrad is extremely fast and is often overwhelming for any young professional, and that was definitely the case for me. I was lucky enough to have made the right connections and built a good rapport with alumni who were more settled in their careers. They were able to link me with the right people and the right information when I needed it. The guidance and experience shared by alumni is invaluable for current students, and I believe that any student is at a disadvantage without their insight.

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