When Monica Tonga decided to pursue social work as a career, she knew she wanted to help people of color, just like herself. Even more, she wanted to be an advocate for people during some of their most difficult days. 

A $1.2 million dollar grant will enable Tonga to do just that. The grant, funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration, will go toward the Latino and Hmong Behavioral Health Project to help train Fresno State social work students to deliver culturally responsive behavioral health services to the Latino/Hispanic and Hmong populations in the Central Valley region. The goal is to address the shortage of clinical social workers specializing in behavioral health by removing barriers for serving culturally diverse communities. 

“California has an overall shortage of behavioral health professionals, which varies substantially by region,” said Dr. Irán Barrera, professor and chair in the Department of Social Work Education and principal investigator of the project. “The central San Joaquin Valley is especially impacted by the state’s behavioral health professional shortage, with the lowest ratio of clinicians in the state. With this project, we hope to increase the behavioral care workforce here in the region, especially for those serving the Latino/Hispanic and Hmong communities. There is generally a lack of cultural and linguistic knowledge when it comes to these two populations, and our goal is to alleviate the behavioral health care disparities that exist.”

According to the Fresno County Department of Behavioral Health, there is a strong need to expand the number of bilingual and bicultural staff, especially among clinicians, in Fresno County, where 50.3% of the population is Latino/Hispanic and 9.3% is Asian/Pacific Islander. Among that number, Hmong and Spanish languages are the primary languages spoken. 

Barrera said the project will remedy these gaps in services. With this grant, 19 students in the cohort will each receive a $10,000 training stipend during the course of their two-year Master of Social Work program. Upon graduating, trainees are expected to work in underserved communities that have large Latino/Hispanic and Hmong populations, specifically within the behavioral health setting. 

The program curriculum is designed so students take one semester focusing primarily on Latino/Chicano curriculum and the next semester focusing on Hmong curriculum – an effort to better prepare them for a career helping both populations. Of the eight faculty involved in the delivery of the grant, two will teach the curriculum. 

“Clinicians and mental health practitioners that understand cultural needs are significant,” Barrera said. “Our curriculum will allow students to leave the program more aware and culturally sensitive to the population they are serving. Right now, there is a disconnect from the cultural piece to the academic piece, and this curriculum will allow the students to connect both pieces, and really look at the integration of behavioral health and the role of culture in this area.”

The students will also complete one-year field placements throughout the Valley in schools, community health centers, hospitals and behavioral health clinics where the Latino/Hispanic and Hmong populations are most prevalent. 

Tonga, a second-year graduate student in the program, said the stipend and training will greatly benefit her desire to help those from underrepresented communities, particularly for children, youth and transitional age youth. 


“Even though I am not of Latino or Hmong descent, I count myself as one of them,” Tonga said. “We are all the same, and I know it is vital to receive training in order to advocate for this demographic, especially among children with behavioral health issues. I want to serve them and support their growth and development. With this training from Fresno State, I can sufficiently do that.” 

For Elva Fuentes, also in the program, the desire to serve is rooted in her own cultural upbringing. 


“As a Latina raised in a small rural town, I witnessed the cultural norms and biases people were conditioned to learn at a young age that might deter people from receiving help from a behavioral health professional,” Fuentes said. “I know there is a gap in services these two populations are not receiving. I want to be able to make people comfortable by building strong relationships and being their voice.” 

The project, part of a four-year federal grant, is expected to train up to 76 graduate social work students.