As an undergrad in the early '90s, Russell Vergara became active in the Los Angeles riots. Though he was on track for PreMed, Vergara says it was difficult to "close your eyes to the activists." As he got more engaged, he became aware of not only campus activism but community opportunities as well. When a social work professor noticed his involvement and told Vergara that what he was doing was "social work," he says his eyes were opened to new opportunities. He applied to the graduate program at UCLA and never looked back.
"I had a particular interest in antipoverty work since one of the reasons my family decided to come to the U.S. was to escape poverty," Vergara says.
Now working at the University of Southern California, Vergara says he never would have pictured himself teaching this early on in his career. But he says he has "found his place" in helping today's youth to find their own "a-ha moment," just the way he did.
Vergara also found a way to merge his interest and background in the medical field with his passion for social work. Through the "Safety Net of the Future" initiative, Vergara aims to not only widen health care access to the underserved but also raise the capacity of health centers to truly serve the needs of racial ethnic minorities.
Vergara also founded CYPHER (Conscious Youth Promoting Health & Environmental Readiness), which is a youth engagement firm aiming to promote health equity and climate resilience innovation. CYPHER works with youth (ages 13 to 24) who are often the least-consulted community members on world issues—particularly human and planetary health. CYPHER helps not only engage them but also show how they have the ability to be future leaders on these matters.
"The super typhoons that hit the Philippines in 2009 is what lead me here," Vergara says. "As a social worker, I couldn't sit in front of my television, consuming this news but doing nothing. So I used my Facebook account to mobilize donations. That's when something clicked. I was able to take a random request and turn it into something tangible. I figured if I could do that, maybe I could take it to the next level."
Though he strayed from a medical career, Vergara says that as a social worker he feels he has become a "well-rounded playmaker." Not only is he able to take part in climate resilience and sustainability but he can also apply his passion for helping the poor and making a difference in those communities.
"Medicine would not have allowed me to help in the way I wanted to," Vergara says. "It's social work that is the tailor-made profession of solving problems. It's incredibly fulfilling."