Focus on Faculty

Y. Joon Choi

Y. Joon Choi (Photo by Chad Osburn/UGA)

Joon Choi, an associate professor in the School of Social Work, conducts research that addresses issues such as substance abuse and intimate partner violence while also educating future social work professionals and researchers.

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?

I earned my bachelor’s degree in sociology from Ewha Womans University in South Korea, the world’s largest female educational institute. After college, I came to the U.S. and earned my master’s degree in international relations from the City College of New York. I was always passionate about women’s issues, so I worked for an intimate partner program for Asian immigrant women in New York City for a couple of years. This experience prompted me to pursue further education in social work to be a better advocate for survivors of intimate partner violence, so I went on to obtain my master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan. Upon graduation, I co-founded an intimate partner violence program and oversaw the design, implementation and evaluation of a CDC-funded and prevention-focused coordinated community response to intimate partner violence in Asian communities in Michigan for five years before I went back to school to earn my Ph.D. degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. I have been working as the coordinator for the UGA Master of Social Work-Emory Master of Divinity dual degree program and this fall started as the School of Social Work Ph.D. program director.

When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?

I came to UGA in 2011 upon graduation from VCU. When I was looking for faculty positions, I had several criteria: a Research I university with a strong research culture and support; balance of research and teaching; and location. UGA met these criteria, and I was especially attracted to UGA because it has the Owens Institute for Behavioral Research, which supports social and behavioral researchers and provides space for networking and mentorship. I loved Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I lived for six years, and when I came to Athens for my campus interview, it reminded me so much of Ann Arbor—although with better music and food! I knew this was a place where I wanted to raise my family and be involved in the community.

What are your favorite courses and why?

I enjoy teaching all my courses—research methods, community organization and clinical courses—but above all, I enjoy teaching a graduate course I developed, “Women and Addiction.” The course is designed to increase students’ understanding of the influence of gender roles and biological sex in vulnerability to substance abuse and related problems, such as violence and trauma, among women and girls. Another course is “Theory and Practice with Organizations and Communities,” which is a required course in our graduate program. This course aims to increase students’ understanding of organizational and community structures, human relations, power relations and culture to promote positive change. In this course, students analyze social problems, examine organizations that address these problems, and develop relevant interventions. It is a tough course to teach because most social work students choose clinical social work over macro social work and therefore their interest in taking this course is usually low initially. However, by the end of the semester students learn the importance of understanding organizations and communities even when working with individuals, which gives me immense pleasure.

What are some highlights of your career at UGA?

One highlight was helping to secure a three-year, $830,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration with colleagues from the School of Public and International Affairs, the College of Pharmacy, and the clinical psychology program. The resulting UGA SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment) Interprofessional Training Program aims to increase the capacity to address substance use issues in medical, pharmacy and community settings throughout Georgia by implementing a comprehensive SBIRT training curriculum for health professions students (social work, pharmacy and clinical psychology) and implementing SBIRT into students’ didactic curricula and clinical practice sites. I also find it very rewarding to educate future social work professionals and researchers who address social problems through practice and research using a social justice lens.

How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?

My practice and scholarship have been in the areas of women’s issues, with emphases on intimate partner violence and substance abuse among immigrant and minority women. In particular, my research explores how intersectionality of women such as race, immigration status, religion, culture and disability status affects their experiences of intimate partner violence and substance abuse. My current research agenda of designing, implementing and evaluating socio-culturally relevant prevention and intervention strategies to reduce intimate partner violence in immigrant communities stems from the recognition of additional barriers in help seeking unique to immigrant victims of intimate partner violence, as well as the acknowledgement of religious institutions and leaders as potential allies to implement prevention activities to change social norms, model healthy relationships, provide support and access to resources, and ultimately prevent intimate partner violence. I believe my research has a real-world impact on immigrant survivors of intimate partner violence who encounter many barriers to services.

How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?

My two major areas of research are intimate partner violence and substance abuse, which makes it exciting for me to teach the course on women and addiction because it combines my two areas of research. My practice and research inspired me to develop this course and inform what I teach and how I teach this course tremendously.

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?

I hope students see passion in my teaching and the way I approach social problems. Social work is a challenging yet immensely rewarding profession. Without being passionate about certain issues or populations and addressing injustices in our society, it’s easy to feel burned out or defeated. Also, I teach both micro and macro classes and always work hard to integrate both micro and macro perspectives into classroom instruction, so I hope students gain both micro and macro perspectives, which they will apply to their practice in the future.

Describe your ideal student.

My ideal student is someone who is passionate about social issues, actively engaged in learning, prepared to be challenged and challenge others in class, and considerate of others.

Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…

My building is right next to Oconee River and there is a deck overlooking the river. This is my favorite place to be on campus. It is usually quiet, and I close my eyes surrounded by the sound of water flowing down the river. It just makes you serene and appreciate the nature.

Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…

Go to see movies at Ciné. I love the fact that I can watch independent and/or foreign movies right here in town. I also like to go to Sandy Creek Park with our dog and take hikes in the northeast Georgia mountains with my son and husband.

Community/civic involvement includes…

I currently serve as a board member with the Korean Women’s International Network (KOWIN) Atlanta. KOWIN is a network of women leaders of Korean descent around the world with the purpose of networking and facilitating discussion of issues concerning Korean women. KOWIN Atlanta provides leadership seminars to mentor and nurture the next generation of Korean-American women professionals, education on environmental issues and promotes women’s health issues.

Favorite book/movie (and why)?

My favorite book is Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” As a young girl growing up in South Korea, where traditional gender norms and constraints were pervasive, it was refreshing to see these women’s inner strength and vitality. I especially identified with Jo, who is strong and independent and charts her life making “her” decisions, and I was determined to be like her. The movie that I can watch over and over again and from anywhere in the movie is “Dead Poets Society.” I identified with the students who were pressured by their parents to be successful and longed for a teacher like Mr. Keating who inspired his students through his teaching. I guess it’s not a coincidence that I became a teacher and want to inspire students.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…

I will never forget the Commencement ceremony of my first students. I was so proud of their accomplishments and felt so emotional being their teacher sending them out to the world to advocate for those who are the least unfortunate in our society.

Originally published Aug. 25, 2017