Dean Gautam Yadama shares what guides his work leading the Boston College School of Social Work at a time when society needs compassionate people to serve and support the world’s most vulnerable communities.
It once had a place on his father’s desk. Today, Dean Gautam Yadama has it on his.
Standing barely three inches tall and carved from heavy stone, his father’s Buddha represents family and doctrine, the very foundation that keeps Yadama grounded and balanced in a chaotic world. It serves as a daily reminder of his commitment to the Boston College School of Social Work (BCSSW)—and its purpose within the global community. “There are two teachings that Buddha talks about that are very important to me,” he says. “First is that suffering is an element of human life. And second is that compassion is the way for us to be free from suffering.”
The roots of Yadama’s understanding of people and their need for resources and rights were seeded by his father, who worked for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In his role, Yadama’s father tackled the complex issues between changes to Asia-Pacific forests and the populations dependent on those forests to provide the economic, social, and cultural resources needed to thrive.
In many ways, Yadama—who studies social and environmental challenges of the rural poor—has followed in his father’s footsteps. After a childhood in Hyderabad and New Delhi, India, and time in Rome, Italy, Yadama moved to the United States to study—he earned his undergraduate degree from Wilkes University in Pennsylvania and graduate degrees in social policy and administration from Case Western Reserve University. Throughout college, professors recognized Yadama’s interests in studying people and their environments and encouraged him to continue to pursue what he loved. That led him to work in India with poor communities and more than 14 years training young social welfare and social work professionals in Asia.
Our faculty are not here accidentally. They are here because they want to deliver on the promise of a school of social work and to address in fundamental ways the lives of people and improve human condition.”
Although it’s been decades since he earned his degrees, he will always remember the conversations he had with his professors—and the connection they shared for the work. “I understand the power of faculty influence and now I’m giving back what I experienced,” he says. “That’s why I never say no when a student wants to meet with me.”
Today Yadama supports the BCSSW faculty in much the same way, by greenlighting the projects they believe in. However, research, development, and retention of top faculty require regular funding streams, Yadama emphasizes. “We always need resources to support this kind of translational research—research that leads to social impact and change. The school would not have the kind of impact it has had on communities here and around the world without it.” In addition, he says, “our faculty are not here accidentally. They are here because they want to deliver on the promise of a school of social work and to address in fundamental ways the lives of people and improve human condition.”
Students want to study with BCSSW faculty to become instruments of change, Yadama adds. “Increasingly, undergraduates find that our research projects operationalize their major in environment, philosophy, or economics and anchor them in the lives people live. They come to the school to engage in research and intervention projects that give them a front-row seat to the world’s complex social challenges,” he says. “Graduate students come to get trained, to become licensed professionals, to deliver mental health services, and to deliver trauma-informed services in humanitarian settings throughout the country and around the world. This is not easy work. They understand they’re not going to be paid six-figure salaries, yet they have decided to deeply discount their lifetime earnings because they are mission-driven and want to make an impact on the world.”
Financial aid for master’s students, as well as scholarships and fellowships for undergraduates, are also critical needs facing the school. “If we want top-notch, committed young people in our society, we cannot leave it to chance that some will remain so focused on addressing societal ills and challenges,” Yadama says. “We have to be very proactive in raising resources to subsidize their education so they don’t have the drag of student loans.”
Relieving the suffering of people—and helping them achieve their dreams and aspirations—is at the center of social work. Social workers seek to improve the lives and respond to the needs of those who are excluded and/or impoverished. BCSSW students are dispersed around the globe, with nearly half addressing the needs of refugees and migrants. Being on site in agencies is the best way to integrate learning from the classroom into practice, argues Yadama. “We don’t want to do anything superficially here. What we have embarked on, and what we need resources for, is to support our students and faculty and accomplish what we set out to do as a school.”
That’s the conviction that leads his daily work.
“I’m not here because I want this title,” he adds. “I’m here to accomplish something with colleagues in the school and my colleagues in the University so that we realize the mission of Boston College and do what a school of social work needs to be doing in the next century.
“Buddha taught that ego clouds our judgment and keeps us from seeing with clarity,” Yadama concludes. “There is much to do to secure our communities and fragile lives.”
Dean Gautam Yadama keeps several items that bring him joy within arm’s reach.
A MAN FOR OTHERS
For 14 years, in collaboration with the Open Society Foundation, Yadama was instrumental in training young social welfare and social work professionals from Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and the Republic of Georgia. This glass paperweight from Baku, Azerbaijan, is a gift from a former student.
As a young student in India’s Jesuit schools, Yadama was taught penmanship. Practice paid off—as seen in his beautiful handwriting. The fountain pen and the bottles of blue and black ink on his desk are used on a regular basis to compose correspondence to colleagues and associates. If he’s not near his writing set, he uses his second favorite writing implement—a Sharpie.
WORDS TO DEAN BY
These postcards remind him to keep explanations short and sweet. “If I cannot tell the story, or identify the problem clearly and succinctly, then solutions are always elusive.
When he looks at this Buddha statue, he thinks about his parents, who named him after Buddha—a.k.a. Siddhartha Gautama. His father, who passed away in 1993, kept this same piece on his desk. “This reminds me of who I am and who I need to be on a daily basis.”
FROM THE HEART
A treasured birthday message from his children, written in 2020 when the global pandemic separated them physically.
BCSSW Beyond the Classroom
The stress that comes from navigating scarcity and broken systems is known to damage mental health—especially in children. “In the US, for example, we have increasingly unequal access to housing, good paying jobs, healthcare, education—the basics things that people need to thrive,” Yadama says. “Then you intersect that with our Latinx and Black communities that tend to bear the disproportionate burden of those disparities. And then you overlay the pandemic on top of that and you get a very complicated set of conditions that people are trying to negotiate.” But the mental health crisis cannot be addressed by just clinicians, he adds. “What is needed are professionals who also understand the environment and context of that person—the community, the family dynamics,” he says. “We’re doing that in Boston. We’re doing that in Chelsea and Lynn.”
To help MSW students understand the full context of the particular stressors that Latinx and Black communities in cities face, BCSSW has established the nationally recognized Latinx Leadership Initiative directed by Professor Rocio Calvo, the newly developed and designed Black Leadership Initiative, and the Trauma Integration Initiative.
Around the world, BCSSW is working to improve the lives of crisis migrants. According to Yadama, more than 100 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to natural disasters, war, political turmoil, social and religious oppression. Many remain displaced for years. Nearly a quarter of BCSSW faculty are researching and designing interventions to help those most affected. Highlights include:
Salem Professor in Global Practice Theresa Betancourt works to improve family functioning in migrant communities in New England.
Christopher Salas-Wright, MA’09, PhD’12, professor and assistant dean of the doctoral program, focuses on mental health and substance use among migrants from Puerto Rico who fled after hurricanes ravaged their homes and destroyed their natural resources.
Assistant Professor Maria Piñeros-Leaño and her colleagues are piloting solutions to improve the mental health and well-being of Venezuelan migrants displaced due to political upheaval.
Tom Crea, professor, chair of global practice, and assistant dean of global programs, is designing special education programs for refugee youth.
Associate Professor Praveen Kumar and others are looking into clean cooking systems in refugee camps in Rwanda.