Joined USJ: 2014
While Jemel Aguilar was growing up in Bronx, New York, the epidemic of crack cocaine and HIV was apparent on the streets. Aguilar recalls hearing the “crackling sounds” of students smoking cocaine in the back of his school library. At the time, he also noticed some people in his neighborhood losing unhealthy amounts of weight. Aguilar remembers many seemingly sick people not getting medical attention and other care. He became part of a volunteer group of teens who provided services to them - such as delivering groceries and medication, or taking them to doctor appointments. What was most apparent to Aguilar, however, was there were notable ”inequities and disparities” in care for people living in affluent communities compared to poorer neighborhoods. Aguilar believes there is a need for newly trained social workers to understand the challenges people face in impoverished communities. He brings that vision to USJ.
As a first generation high school and college graduate, Aguilar felt he was blazing a trail, not only in his education, but also in his work. While volunteering as an HIV educator, he became focused on African Americans and Latinos. He found they were often excluded from receiving social services. They were commonly adults who slept in subway tunnels, were released from jail, or youth living on the streets. “Those groups are the ones I wanted to work with because they had very few people who would reach out to them,” said Aguilar. “They had absolutely no idea of how to get services.” This group is the crux of Aguilar’s ongoing research on how HIV-infected individuals receive medical, social, and mental health services in prison and after their release.
Aguilar’s research finds that for people leaving prison, the average month-long process of receiving social services is confusing. “What’s happening is we’ve built a structure where people fall out of services, struggle through a complicated process to get what they need, and they end up in the streets or back in jail,” says Aguilar. He teaches his introductory social work students that the situations people face are complex. Aguilar wants his students to be skilled advocates in whatever group they work with, but “recognize that being poor and in need of something is not easy. You can’t just say ‘go to therapy.’”
Ph.D., M.S.W., University of Minnesota
B.A., Empire State University