Assistant Teaching Professor Ronnie San Nicolas's lived experience guides his hands-on approach to teaching as well as his work with the Simon Family Endowment and AAPI THRIVE.
Social work is more than just a profession for Ronald “Ronnie” San Nicolas. “I know what it’s like to be both the practitioner and the client,” he said. “I’ve been on both sides of the table.”
San Nicolas moved from Hawaii to Washington to find services for his youngest son. “He was diagnosed autistic in 2006,” said San Nicolas. “We came here because our physician recommended that we check out services in Olympia.”
Turns out those services the doctor mentioned were in Tacoma, not Olympia, at the campus’s UW Autism Center. “They got the geography all wrong,” said San Nicolas.
A Turn Toward Social Work
San Nicolas was born and raised in Guam, an island territory of the United States in the Pacific Ocean. He lived on the island off-and-on until his thirties. “I didn’t have the resources to travel off-island, to be an off-island college student like a lot of my contemporaries,” he said. “Still, I was grateful to get my four-year education at the University of Guam.”
A first-generation student, San Nicolas graduated from the University of Guam with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology. “I thought I was going to go into the psychology field,” he said. “I never thought I was going to be a social worker.”
San Nicolas’ career change started when a friend told him about a job opening. “It was a social work position in mental health,” he said. “I really needed a job and decided to give it a try.”
San Nicolas never looked back. “I fell in love with social work,” he said. Always eager to learn, San Nicolas decided to return to college. He completed his master’s in social work at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa and later earned a Ph.D. in social welfare from the same institution.
San Nicolas used his doctoral training to help others on Guam, first as a therapist and then as the clinical director for a federally funded children’s mental health initiative at the island’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. In 2004, San Nicolas, his wife and their three sons left Guam for Hawaii.
San Nicolas may have been provided some questionable geography from the family doctor in Hawaii, but he found what he needed. Not long after moving to Washington, San Nicolas started working at UW Tacoma. “I actually started here as a part-time instructor in the social work program (now the School of Social Work & Criminal Justice),” he said. “I’ve been here full time since 2017.”
Now an assistant teaching professor, San Nicolas has become an integral part of campus life, in more ways than one. He teaches courses in the bachelor’s and master’s social work program. “My objective for every class in every quarter is to connect theory to something tangible or hands-on,” he said. “That would be something like case studies or through experiences of working with clients or even discussing my own lived experience.”
This relationship is important to what it means to be a social worker. “I’ve had the privilege of being able to practice as a social worker,” said San Nicolas. “This is a practice-oriented profession, and that work begins in the classroom.”
San Nicolas plays a key role in training future social workers. He is also a vital component of the Simon Family Endowment. The endowment, according to a description on its website, was “established at UW Tacoma in order to support adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or developmental disabilities in response to the ever-growing need in the South Puget Sound region.”
The endowment includes a fellowship for social work students at the master’s level who choose to do their practicum in an area that serves adults with ASD or developmental disabilities. “The intent of this fellowship is to create a workforce of social work graduate students that, when they graduate, are able to go out and serve an underserved population of our society,” said San Nicolas. “We have almost 10 alumni and they’re all gainfully employed and are doing lots of wonderful things to support autistic adults.”
Outside of teaching classes and assisting with the Simon Family Endowment, San Nicolas is also the mental health coordinator for the AAPI THRIVE Project. The program is the result of a $2 millon grant from the U.S. Department of Education that will expand supports and services for Asian American, Pacific Islander and low-income students at UW Tacoma. “In this capacity, I will help coordinate, facilitate and engage our community by providing information about mental health to Asian American Pacific Islander students at UW Tacoma,” said San Nicolas. “The hope is that we will be able to reduce the stigma around mental health.”
Passing the Baton
San Nicolas has been an educator for most of his life. He is also a student. San Nicolas’s first experience at UW Tacoma was as a concerned parent in need of assistance. He found that through the Autism Center. “I would watch the social workers there and how they cared for my son, and it was a privilege to learn from them,” he said. “My understanding of autism has really been transformed by my son and his experience.”
As someone who has been on “both sides of the table,” San Nicolas understands the impact a social worker can have. It’s more than a profession. “I’m using my education to care for my family and my son but I’m also using it to pass the baton to future generations of social workers who will then be able to go out and help others,” he said.
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