“We want to be sure that we’re responsive to the needs of our community.”
Tam Q. Dinh, Ph.D., LICSW, is an associate professor and program director of the social work program at Saint Martin’s University. Her teaching and research interests are in the areas of diversity and cross-cultural mental health, military social work, and religion/spirituality. Dinh recently discussed her background, her education, how she came to Saint Martin's, and what she loves about social work.
Tam Dinh, Ph.D., LICSW, associate professor and program director of Saint Martin’s social work program, was born in Vietnam and left the country as a refugee when she was seven years old. Dinh and her sisters have a thought experiment, centered on that early experience, that she feels provides insight into her character and the shape of her career.
“When my family decided to escape, my grandmother, my mom’s mother, told my parents to leave me behind, because you could die on the journey—you didn’t know what would happen,” Dinh says. “But my dad decided we were all going to go. He told my grandmother, ‘We all live together, or we all die together,’ and so he brought me along.” Dinh’s two sisters were born after the family left Vietnam, and Dinh said that they often talked about what would have happened had the family left her behind. “I wouldn’t have had these opportunities,” Dinh says. “I never would have gotten my bachelor’s, my master’s, my Ph.D. Maybe that’s always been a part of my consciousness. I want to see how far I can go, how much I can accomplish as a Vietnamese female, as a refugee. Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing it for all the people who can’t.”
Dinh has already accomplished a lot in her life. After her family left Vietnam and settled in Boise, Idaho, Dinh attended Bishop Kelly High School and matriculated at the University of Washington, intending to study pharmacy. However, pharmacy didn’t turn out to be such a good fit for Dinh. In the latter half of her second year, Dinh had to take some general education classes, and one of the subjects she picked was social work. “I just fell in love with it,” she says. “Everything made so much more sense.”
Dinh earned her master’s degree in social work at the University of Washington as well and worked at SafeFutures Youth Center in Seattle after graduating. There, she worked with young people who were members of Vietnamese and Cambodian gangs. “Social work is natural to me,” she says. “I wanted to be able to contribute something that I felt I was in a special position to provide. I spoke Vietnamese, I had the education, and there weren’t many Vietnamese social workers.”
When her father became ill, Dinh returned to Idaho, to serve as the first director of the cultural center at Boise State University. Later, she moved to Southern California to do clinical work with Vietnamese people living with schizophrenia. At this time Dinh realized she’d been creating much of her own therapeutic style and processes to be more culturally relevant to the Vietnamese community, since much of what she’d learned at the University of Washington had been about social work in mainstream communities. She wanted to acquire more knowledge and skills to serve her community, so she decided to apply for Ph.D. programs and was admitted to the University of Southern California’s (USC) doctoral program in social work.
“I originally thought a Ph.D. was just a higher level of clinical work, but USC was definitely a research program,” Dinh says. “I learned to see research as a social justice tool. Oftentimes, people don’t listen to me because I’m female or because I’m Vietnamese. But data is objective, so it takes me and my role out of it and it accurately represents a community. So I fell in love with research because of the ability it gave me to advocate for my community.”
After USC, Dinh moved back to Washington and she worked for the City of Seattle Human Services Department, where she helped create programming and contracting standards and policies. A few years later, a position opened at Saint Martin’s University, and Dinh was attracted by the opportunity to teach at a Catholic school and help build the social work program.
“It’s been amazing,” Dinh says. “I loved building up this program and being able to put my thumbprint on it. It’s beautiful because Katya Shkurkin [former Saint Martin’s professor of social work] and I shared the same social worker’s heart. We both had the same idea of what it means to be a social worker. And it was easy to build a social work program here because the field naturally aligns with the Benedictine values of hospitality and respect for persons.”
The social work program at Saint Martin’s is gaining a reputation for its excellence and was ranked among the top undergraduate programs in the nation last year. Recent graduates, including several veterans, have mentioned Dinh and Shkurkin as factors in their decisions to pursue social work. Dinh explains that the program is intended to serve the needs of the immediate community and to address the service gaps that exist here in the South Puget Sound region. “We want to be sure that we’re responsive to the needs of our community so that we are an integral part of this community,” she says. “Saint’s Martin’s existence is one part of the larger community, and I want this to be a place that people can turn to.”
Dinh’s vision for the program includes plans to launch a number of new programs related to the study of chemical dependency: a concentration for current bachelor’s candidates, a minor for students who are not majoring in social work, and a certificate that will be offered to professionals who wish to attain certification. “There is an opioid crisis in our community, and there is a need for an educated, trained workforce,” she says.
Preparing graduates for the future is one of Dinh’s main goals for the program, which is why she has set aside scheduled time for each student to explore graduate school options and investigate the application process.
“I’ve gone through all those applications, so I know what people are looking for,” she says. “That helps, because one of the barriers that keeps first-generation students or students of color from applying is that they don’t have that mentorship. We want to give students insight into the process and demystify grad school.” According to Dinh, in the last few years about 40% of social work graduates have chosen to apply directly to grad school from Saint Martin’s.
That desire to give back and help others is one of the things that drives Dinh, even outside of her work at Saint Martin’s. She delivers lectures and workshops about mental health and related topics for Vietnamese communities in the Puget Sound area. She also serves as a volunteer member on the boards of a number of Vietnamese organizations and helps with grant-writing and research for grants.
Dinh explained that her academic and professional work are intertwined with her personal volunteer work. “And I don’t think about that as work, really,” she says, smiling. “Wherever I’m at, if I’m able to be of service and I have a certain skill, then I raise my hand and say, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’”