November 2020

UNT HPS instructor named Social Worker of the Year

Hadidja Nyiransekuye, an assistant professor of social work in the University of North Texas College of Health and Public Service, has won the prestigious Social Worker of the Year Award from the National Association of Social Workers that honors a member of the organization that exemplifies top-tier values and achievements.

Nyiransekuye, a refugee from Rwanda and a survivor of genocide along with her four children, specializes in policy advocacy focusing on the refugee crisis that affects communities across the globe.

“I know what it feels like to not have a home,” she said. “There are people who have helped me and opened their homes to me, for that I am grateful. I owe it to humanity to do what I can to help others.”

Nyiransekuye’s research demonstrates the problems faced by refugees that are global issues, including acts of violence and loss of freedom.

“If we don’t address these human rights violations, they will only continue,” she said. “Ninety percent of these refugees have suffered from trauma and need the opportunity to heal and rebuild.”

Nyiransekuye moved to Texas to work with refugees directly and provides her students at UNT a unique learning opportunity to acquire real-world experience in the field of social work such as working hands-on with applicable cases within their interest.

“I continue to hear from my former students about how this work has impacted their lives,” she said. “I learn as much from them as they do from me and I am honored and humbled to have received this award.”

In her next project, Nyiransekuye will work with survivors of genocide to document their experiences and produce a repository of their survival stories. She says that when trauma survivors are provided the opportunity to share their stories, it is a way for them to reconcile their experiences and begin to heal. The repository will also provide a resource for continued research and document survivors’ experiences for future generations.

“I want people to be aware that genocide, acts of violence, enslavement and terror continue to be inflicted on human beings here in the United States and around the world,” she said. “We must tell the stories of these victims, validate their experiences and tirelessly advocate for the rights of all human beings.”

Nyiransekuye’s publications include a memoir: The Lances were Looking Down: One Woman's Path Through the Rwandan Genocide to Life in the States. She is a member of the Council on Global Social Issues, a subcommittee of the Council on Social Work Education, and a member of the Refugee Congress, a standalone nonprofit by refugees for refugees and with refugees.

Nyiransekuye has also provided research and conducted interviews for the documentary film Seeking a Safe Haven: DFW Refugee Stories The film was directed by the UNT Department of Media Arts Associate Professor Jacqueline Vickery and funded by the Council of Social Work Education and the UNT Division of Institutional Equity & Diversity.

COVID-19 protocols during hurricane evacuations at the center of NSF research grant

DENTON (UNT), Texas — University of North Texas Emergency Management and Disaster Science associate professor Tristan Wu is studying evacuees and the emergency response from Hurricane Laura to create new protocols for emergency managers facing mass evacuations in the time of COVID-19.

Wu said he and his colleagues had the idea to study mass evacuations and COVID-19 in March, but funding wasn’t available. After Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana and Texas in August, they resubmitted the idea to the National Science Foundation and were awarded a Rapid Grant.

“During hurricane events, households usually evacuate together. Their evacuation behavior was solely due to the risk perception of the hurricanes,” Wu said. “This time around it’s very different with the COVID pandemic. They might not want to evacuate or  they might evacuate separately because of COVID concerns. If they evacuated, they might be less likely to go to a hotel or an evacuation shelter. We also suspect people might spend less time in their evacuation destination and try to go back home sooner.”

The research will be primarily conducted through paper surveys and phone interviews with 4,800 households and several emergency managers in Galveston and Jefferson counties in Texas and Calcasieu and Vermilion parishes in Louisiana.

The household surveys ask about risk perception and decision-making in connection to Hurricane Laura, COVID-19 and Hurricane Delta, which hit Louisiana in October. Questions for emergency managers relate to how they set up shelters for social distancing, how messaging was sent, what COVID-19 protocols were followed and other questions about their processes and results.

They hope to receive enough responses by late 2020 to start analyzing the data for trends.

“One important thing is we will be able to compare what emergency managers and households have in mind during this evacuation,” Wu said. “This pandemic is still novel and we’ve never had this type of experience before, so we want to know how people actually respond to that. In the future, if a mass evacuation happens during a pandemic or even just an outbreak or flu season, we can use this to provide guidelines for emergency managers – maybe as soon as next year.”

Wu is the principal investigator on the project, working with Alex Greer from SUNY Albany, Lauren Clay from D’Youville College, Haley Murphy from Oklahoma State University and UNT EMDS master student Cassidy Boyle.