Social Work Educator: Jayashree Nimmagadda

Radhika Kowtha-Rao
August 17, 2015
Jayashree social work

How many of us know an Indian woman who took a nontraditional career path? Makes you think for a minute right? Well, how about twenty five years ago? Unthinkable!  During the time when there were engineers and doctors flocking to the United States for their higher education , there was one woman who came here to study social work (yes it is a real profession!). We only hear about a social worker in the news when they are famous or when are protesting for a cause.

Here you have a person who is silently making a difference a several families every single day.

Meet Jayashree Nimmagadda:

A researcher and the Chair of the master’s program in School of  Social work at Rhode Island College, Providence. She is a mother of two teenagers, a veena player,an amazing chef and I have known her all my life, she is the coolest aunt ever 🙂  She has been a de-addiction counselor, mental health clinician for Centre for South East Asians (CSEA) , author of a children’s magazine and also a member of the board of trustees at her son’s school.

She and her colleague Dr. Melinda Gushwa recently received a half million grant from the Federal government for their project to train MSW students in trauma-informed care to help youth who are aging out of the child welfare system in the State of Rhode island.


Jayashree Social Work Educator


How did you get into social work?

I was born in Chennai , a brahmin girl who studied in a catholic school. Being a national athlete I was offered a sports scholarship by Stella Maris College to do a bachelors degree in Mathematics and Physics. But luck had it that my sports schedule did not gel well with the classes and the only course I could do with my hectic athletic schedule was BA Sociology. Following that,  I went on to do a Masters in Social Work in the same college the reason being we lost our trophy the previous year and wanted to retain the same team.

 That is when I realised this was my path. The first semester I did a project in the fisherman’s slum. I was amazed to see how the womenfolk of this community were so hopeful each day. They had drunk, abusive husbands and were not even sure of their next meal, yet their hope that their children will have a better future and the work they did towards it was very inspiring. I also realised how much mental health was a taboo and hush-hush in our society.

After that I read about National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) a prestigious institute for mental health in Bangalore. They take in only 12 students per year and I surprised myself by getting into it. As people say, rest was history.


You mentioned about how mental health is a taboo and hush-hush. How did your family feel about you being in this field?

It is interesting, the first job I got was at an Alcohol de-addiction centre. They were not exactly thrilled with the idea of their daughter meeting alcoholics everyday. My mom found it unacceptable for a smart, intelligent “brahmin” girl to be working with alcoholics and so they wanted me to write bank exams and get a bank job or any government job using my athletic quota. They did try convincing me many times.  But I had decided my career path and had no intention to do something else.


First job in a de-addiction centre! How did you feel about it?

It was a revelation for me. We would always associate any addiction like alcohol or drugs to lower income groups. I was born at a time when the enormity of caste was high in India. But I realized that alcohol levels people. Caste, gender, income levels, everything get thrown out when they entered our centre. It made me extremely compassionate towards people. It was immense joy when you knew you are making a difference in someone’s life – not just an individual but their family and community as well. There are times when people relapse but regardless I had hope every single time.


Whoa..that must have been intense. So tell us about your journey to the US. How did that happen?

Again, it was serendipitous. Two professors from US had come to our centre to give a talk. I engaged in a conversation with them after that. When I was about to leave one of the professors called me back and asked if I was interested in doing a doctoral program at his university. I did not know what to say. He gave me an application packet (it was still the non-internet days) and said he was leaving to Delhi that night and staying there for three days and if i was interested in applying I could fill the application and send it to him via overnight mail and he would take it back with him.


An application to be filled in 48 hours?? With personal statement etc..

Yes! Something unimaginable for students now right. But I did do it. I did not even have a passport at that time. I filled the application, wrote my personal statement and sent it over to him in Delhi.  I applied only to University of Illinois , Urbana Champaign and received an acceptance letter for the doctoral program with full financial assistance.


Wow! You must have been soaring ..

Yes I was. I was in my 20s, the “marriageable age” in India and my parents could not find any “match”. Every time someone asks about me, their initial questions would include my job. A female social worker , that too who works in a de-addiction clinic was not appealing. I was reaching my breaking point and this was the best out I could get to find my own life. It still exists. Social workers in India are considered as people who do volunteer work. People find it very hard to wrap the fact around their head that this is a career. Even after coming to the United States , all my fellow Indian students were engineers. When I said I was doing social work they would be like “What? “ and I would have to explain to them what I do.


Okay.. let me ask you the same question. What is social work and what do you do?

Social work is a profession that strives for social justice and uses a person-in-environment perspective.  As a clinical social worker, I listen to the presenting struggles of the individual in front of me, but also examine all other systems that this person intersects with; these systems can be family history, work environment, community environment and policies that impact them. Thus, any help/intervention will involve addressing the many systems that are identified. Social workers can work with individuals, families, groups, communities, organizations and also be policy advocates.

Since the 1990s I have primarily been an educator in the MSW program.  I love the classroom and enjoy teaching graduate students.  To be an effective educator, I believe that I have to be an active practitioner.  Since 2000, I have been a clinician/consultant at the Center for Southeast Asians, located in Providence, RI.

For research, one of the areas that I have focused on is to examine the “goodness of fit” of evidence-based models in social work practice with the Southeast Asian populations that I work with.  Most of these models are recognized as “evidence-based” on data collected from mainstream Caucasians.  I review interventions and look for ways to “indigenize” the intervention using my cultural background and local knowledge from my Southeast Asian colleagues.   For the past five years, I have also developed an interest and passion for inter-professional education.  This project is to bring students from different health professions (medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and social work) and teach them how to work collaboratively as a team. The educational system teaches each of these professions in silos, yet, when they are in a health care setting they have to work together.

In fact, just this past week, our team (faculty from Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College) have been awarded a federal grant to bring our students together to learn about assessment and brief intervention with substance abusers.


You mentioned that when you started out you realized mental health was taboo. Has it changed now? Do you feel the asian community has become more open to it?

Sadly no. I find the majority still in denial. I have been called in by various school districts around the state to address mental health and even called to explain to individual parents. They refuse to seek counselling or help when they find their child has Aspergers or anxiety and the like. I once was called to explain to a parent about panic attack by a doctor because the child was brought to the ER and the parents firmly believed the child was choking.


What do you in these situations?

I try my level best to translate it to the parents and leave it open for them to decide what to do. It is a continuous process and we can only hope for changes.


How do you make sure you keep yourself motivated after such incidents?

The idea that I can get up everyday and make a difference in somebody’s life itself keeps me motivated. Be it my students, colleagues, is an honor to work with so many families.

Jay Nimmagadda Social Work


That is inspiring! Coming to your latest achievement, You have received a half million grant for your latest project. Could you tell me about it?

Sure. The grant is for a pilot program that trains MSW students in trauma-informed care to work with youth who are aging out of the child welfare system in Rhode Island.  Youth who are in the custody of the State age out of the system when they turn 18 years as they are considered adults and capable of taking care of themselves.  These children have experienced immense trauma and it is essential that we provide services that are trauma-informed.


Where do they go when they turn 18?

They are homeless. They either live in homeless shelters, relatives or maybe go back to an abusive parent. They rarely would have passed high school and even rare to have got into college. Some do find a job and try to live on their own. The majority have been traumatized and have no clue about their life.


So what do you do?

Through this project we have set up a certificate program in child and adolescent trauma wherein we train interested MSW students in knowledge and skills related to assessing and intervening with youth who have experienced trauma.  Concurrently, these students are then placed in agencies where youth who are aging out of the foster care system go for help.  Here our students can engage these kids in trauma assessment and treatment.  This is a win-win situation for all.  Students gain skills through their experience in working in the real world, and youth who desperately need services have an opportunity to access the same.  Social service agencies that serve these youth are grateful for our student help as they are often understaffed and unable to meet all the needs of this vulnerable population.


What is the future goal for this project?

The goal is to create new internship opportunities for our students, develop a workforce that is trained in assessment and intervention of childhood/adolescent trauma, and thereby impact the lives of youth who are aging out of the child welfare system.


Good Luck with the project, it sounds brilliant! What advice would you give any young woman out there who is toying with the idea of Social work as a career path?

You have to be really bold and passionate to enter into a non-traditional major. So I would say go for it if that is want you really want. Social work in the US is a regulated, licensed career like any other profession. The programs are structured in such a way that the students who graduate are knowledgeable and well-trained. That being said, you also have to account the fact that the monetary compensation is not at par with the other mainstream professions.


What kind of personality would best be suited for the kind of work social work entails?

Patience, innate empathy for others, willingness to look at the context of other peoples lives and being nonjudgemental. These are the basic qualities you need to think of social work as a profession.


I do have a final question for you. I noticed that your office door has a sign that says “ Social workers are nosy people who can’t mind their own business” – Theju, 8 yrs.

Hahaha! Yes.. that’s my son. He is 14 now. Everyone who notices that is amused. I guess he is right in a way. He used to observe me ask a lot of questions and that got him to write and post it on my door. Social workers ask a lot of questions, we seek answers before we go about our job. We are nosy but in a good way 🙂

Jayashree social work

Jayashree can be contacted for further discussions or questions regarding her work over email. 


This guest post is by Janani of Jan Doodles, who has done an excellent job of speaking, writing up and authoring this piece on a trailblazer. Thanks Janani! 🙂