Dr. Christopher Salas-Wright, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, specializes in research on substance use and health-risk behavior among adolescents in the United States and Central America. His research has been spotted in several national publications, including USA TODAY, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.
We caught up with him to learn more about his experiences volunteering at a substance use treatment center in El Salvador, where he devoted much of his time working with young men—many of whom were about his age at the time—who were struggling with serious drug problems. Read on to learn more about his experiences abroad, and how he found his calling in the field of social work.
The gentle art of listening…At the substance use treatment center, Salas-Wright spent months getting to know the young men who were living in one of San Salvador’s most violent neighborhoods. Though the experience was heartbreaking and oftentimes overwhelming, he said it was a privilege to learn about their lives and how they became entangled in drug and alcohol addiction. “Listening in this way impacted me profoundly – the struggles of the young men moved me and inspired me to try to learn more about substance use prevention and treatment. And so, I have spent much of the last decade pursuing clinical and research training that can help me make an impact in the lives of young people who struggle with substance use disorders.”
Music—the great connector… Salas-Wright connected with the young men through one-on-one guitar lessons. “We would sit outside in the shade and strum simple songs for hours on end. It was so wonderful to see these guys, many of whom had a very tough exterior, light up like delighted little boys as we were able to make music together. For a moment, all of the struggles that they faced were carried away by the fun of feeling like a rock star. I always got carried away too. It was always a profoundly human moment and the joy of that particular form of fellowship has always stuck with me.”
Considering the big picture… His experience in El Salvador taught him that context really matters, meaning social workers must think about helping from a person-in-environment perspective. “Trying to make an impact in the lives of the young men in the substance use treatment center made little sense without thinking about the broader family, community, and social and economic systems that impact health and well-being. This kind of thinking is very natural to social work and it made the profession very attractive to me. One of the most enjoyable things about being a professor in the School of Social Work is the opportunity to work with students in a way that prioritizes thinking about how context influences our wellbeing and life course trajectories.”
Why UT? “UT Austin has one of the nation’s top social work programs and has a great reputation. Austin is also a great city and one that really is wonderful for families raising small children (I have to two small children at home). When the opportunity to come and be part of the faculty in the School of Social Work presented itself, I was very excited and it was an easy decision.”