Professor honored for dedication in social work

Conrad Fuentes, a clinical assistant professor in field education at the USC School of Social Work, received the 2012 Outstanding Service and Community Inspiration Award for his commitment to working with gang-involved youth in Orange County.

Outreach · Conrad Fuentes works with Orange County youth. - Courtesy of Conrad Fuentes

Outreach · Conrad Fuentes works with Orange County youth. – Courtesy of Conrad Fuentes

The award, presented by the Orange County Department of Education and USC’s field department in Irvine, recognizes Fuentes’ unwavering determination to improve the community. Fuentes received his master’s degree in social work from USC in 2000.

Fuentes said opportunity is the greatest motivator. He has made it his life’s work to ensure that no shortage of the greatest form of motivation meets those who have fallen on hard times.

Fuentes’ mother, who is also a social worker, worked on behalf of immigrant rights. She started the first Spanish-speaking church services in Anaheim, Calif. His inclination toward civic outreach goes deeper than just a desire to foster a safer, more prosperous community. Initially, Fuentes thought he would become a therapist or psychologist.

Fuentes said personal obstacles in his childhood informed his desire to enter in to social work.

“Both my dad and stepdad were gang members,” Fuentes said. “Growing up, there were incidents that were difficult as a child, and I was fortunate enough to make good choices and pursue my education. That’s a privilege that many of my friends did not have access to.”

Fuentes’ first brush with gang intervention came in 1993, when he began working at Orange County Juvenile Hall. There, he began programs to deter substance abuse and counseled teenagers who’d gotten in trouble with the law. Despite the programs and services offered, Fuentes remained concerned over the lack of opportunities available to youths who wanted to turn their lives around.

“I was taken aback by the fact that some simply did not have the opportunity to change,” Fuentes said.

The bleak circumstances, however, did not deter Fuentes. Instead, he viewed the lack of resources available to delinquent teens as an opportunity to improve and restructure the system. Currently, he works for the Lives Worth Saving Gang Intervention program, helping keep violence off the streets and ensuring that gang members have the resources available to make different life decisions.

In addition to working with the outreach program, Fuentes returned to USC as an assistant professor at the USC School of Social Work.

“USC is the pinnacle of social work education,” Fuentes said. “My goal, from the day of graduation [from the School of Social Work] was to eventually come back and teach. I’m glad to carry on the Trojan legacy both out in the world and back at the university.”

Fuentes hopes to continue in collaboration with other civic leaders in solving the gang problem and eventually publish a book on his experience and findings.

“Ultimately, I hope to have a lasting impact and to truly make a difference,” Fuentes said.