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College of Social Work

Alumni Spotlight: Aaron Guest, MPH, MSW ‘15

Oct. 16, 2018
By Chris Woodley,

Aaron Guest earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a dual degree Master of Social Work/Master of Public Health from the University of South Carolina. He also received certificates of graduate studies in gerontology and health communications. His academic and field education experience at the College of Social Work helped prepare him for his current studies at the University of Kentucky, where he is a Ph.D. candidate for his Doctor of Philosophy in Gerontology.

Why did you decide to study at the USC College of Social Work?

At the start of my senior year of undergraduate I was unsure exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I had some general ideas, such as a Ph.D. in Anthropology, but nothing too concrete. While completing my cultural anthropology senior thesis on gay male leadership in LGBTQ organizations, I was astounded at how often health played a role in the development and direction of LGBTQ organizations. It was from this point that I started to look at opportunities to research the impact of health on individuals more and to identify ways to improve health disparities.

My searching led me about three buildings down from Hamilton College (where anthropology was housed at the time) to De Saussure (where the College of Social Work was housed). I met with then-program director Carl Maas to discuss my career objectives, and he agreed that the program would be an excellent fit. He encouraged me to sit in on some of the classes to see how I felt about them and to get to know some of the current dual degree students to learn about their experiences. The opportunity to have in-class and field experience while combining an interest in developing policy to improve health was too good of an offer to pass up. The program was exactly what I was looking for and allowed me the flexibility to focus on my own interest.

What is your favorite memory of the College of Social Work?

One of my favorite memories occurred in December 2013 when we welcomed the Korean MSW cohort to campus for graduation. It was great to get to know our fellow Korean MSW Students. The Social Work Student Association created special gift bags for each of the graduating Korean students, filled with UofSC gifts to welcome them to the gamecock family. During the pre-graduation dinner, the graduating cohort also presented the college with some beautiful artwork that now hangs in Hamilton College.

An MSW student and I were lucky enough to attend their hooding the next day. It was especially moving because this was the first time many of the students had seen their professors since they went to Korea to teach, and it was wonderful to see how the college came together.

What was your favorite class and professor at the College of Social Work?

It would be impossible to name one favorite class or professor! I had what I still consider some of the best professors and instructors in the field of social work. I was very lucky to be exposed to the brilliant minds of people like Melissa Reitmeier, Aidyn Iachini, Teri Browne, Naomi Farber, Maryah Fram and Ron Pitner.

Why did you decide to pursue a dual degree in social work and public health? 

The MSW and MPH degrees are excellent programs, but for me, they were both missing something individually. I wanted to find a degree program that would give me the skills, knowledge and experience to improve health disparities across multiple levels and populations. While an MSW would assist me in understanding how to navigate and work within political, organizational and community settings, it was lacking the health component. The MPH provided me the skills and knowledge to understand health disparities, design programs to alter and improve health, and the underlying theory of public health, but it was missing much of the organizational and community skills found in the MSW. The two degrees complemented each other. I completed my undergraduate in three years, so I was okay with the idea of three more years in graduate school.

What advice would you give someone enrolled in the College of Social Work’s dual-degree program or considering earning a dual-degree?

To students already in the program, I would say make the most of every opportunity you have! As a dual-degree student, you have the unique privilege of being part of two well-respected and resourced colleges, the College of Social Work and Arnold School of Public Health. Do not limit yourself by only engaging in one. Find professors and advisors and attend activities within both. You did not decide to get a dual degree to only be in public health or social work. Find ways to bridge the gaps.

To students thinking about a dual degree, I would encourage them to really think long and hard about what they want to accomplish. As I mentioned before, both the MSW and MPH are excellent individual degrees. Think hard about how the degrees can complement one another in the work you want to accomplish, but also consider the trade-offs to a dual degree, such as more classes and more time studying. You might also find yourself trying to reconcile some of the fundamental philosophies behind each field. Social work is focused on the individual and their surroundings, whereas public health is focused on population level changes.

What interested you most to specialize in Gerontology?

It was during the first year of the MSW program that I first became interested in the aging population. I worked with Dr. Darcy Freedman on an exciting project known as Right Choice, Fresh Start (RCFS) Farmers Market. Through this project, I was able to get a glimpse at how older adults are impacted by health inequality and how the development of programs such as RCFS could assist. The second major factor was the amazing experience of being the field student at the Community Empowerment Center (CEC), a research project of Dr. Ron Pitner and Dr. Darcy Freedman. The CEC focused on improving the health, well-being and quality of life among the residents of Gonzales Gardens (in Columbia) by allowing the community to identify their challenges and opportunities to develop solutions. I was astounded at not only how the community came together but how older individuals within the community were often not heard or acknowledged. These two experiences are what primarily set me down the path of researching the aging experience.

What are your plans once your Ph.D. coursework is complete?

I hope to continue my research around improving the health equity of rural older adults through the development of social network informed interventions. Ideally, I am looking forward to finding a position at a research university or in the private research sector.

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