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Alumni Outside the Box: Austin Oswald

Posted by Kathy MacFarlane on February 19, 2019 in News, Alumni & Friends

Austin Oswald

Upon completion of the Health and Human Services diploma at NSCC, Austin Oswald (BScRec’11) wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He learned that Dal would transfer some credits to a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation and quickly realized that this program was the perfect place for him.  He dreamed of working at one of the many mental health programs at the IWK Children’s Hospital. “I was really interested in using recreation and leisure as interventions to support a healthy and meaningful life for children and youth living with psychiatric illnesses,” he says.

At Dal, he was awarded a national-level millennium scholarship and a seed was planted to continue his education. It allowed him to see himself as a scholar with the potential to make real world change.  Although the program did not offer an honours option for students, he was able to work closely with retired professor Dr. Susan Tirone in a yearlong independent study about the recreation and leisure needs of marginalized youth in rural Nova Scotia. This was an intensive undertaking that involved review by the Research Ethics Board, recruiting and interviewing youth, coding and analyzing data, writing up the results, and sharing the findings with local scholars, organizers, and policymakers. Dr. Tirone mentored him throughout the process and, “I discovered that research could be used as a platform to elevate marginalized voices. I also learned that research should be applied to policies and practices that improve the lives of individuals and groups. In fact, it was Dr. Tirone who encouraged me to pursue more education and build from my research training at Dal,” says Austin.

He went on to attend graduate school at Brock University where his master’s thesis explored how youth involved with child welfare used leisure activities to cope with being removed from their families and placed in group homes. He then decided to move to New York City and work in a hospital setting as a certified therapeutic recreation specialist. He was hired by the New York Presbyterian Hospital and provided individual and group counseling to patients on an acute in-patient geriatric psychiatry unit for three years. Austin recalls during his interview saying that the geriatric population was his least favorite population of the 12 specialized psychiatric units at the hospital. He accepted the position and, as it turns out, he loves working with older adults and is now building a career improving the lives of underserved and underrepresented elders.

Currently, Austin is a doctoral fellow at Silberman Aging which is one of five Hartford Centers of Excellence in Geriatric Social Work. The faculty and students specialize in community-based research, training, and policy development that advance the human rights and dignity of diverse elders. As a doctoral fellow, he assists Dr. Nancy Giunta with a national program evaluation on the efficacy of trainings that sensitize aging service providers to the needs and experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) elders. This project works with leaders in the field of aging from across the United States to create a workforce that is culturally competent and responsive to the rapidly aging LGBT population. Last year alone, they trained over 10,000 service providers in LGBT cultural sensitivity. Austin’s responsibilities include developing survey instruments, managing the national dataset, and analyzing pre-test and post-test data for changes in knowledge and attitudes on LGBT aging.  He also writes technical reports that are shared with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which are used to build a case for the federal government investing in policies and procedures that improve the lives of LGBT older adults.

“Healthy aging is a collective effort, and the onus cannot be placed strictly on individuals to meet their unique needs. I have recently become passionate about the World Health Organization’s call to create a global network of age-friendly communities, a movement that began in 2006. When a community is aging-friendly, supportive infrastructure exist to ensure that people stay healthy and active, regardless of their age. Moreover, people of all ages are treated with respect and actively participate in community activities. In fact, Halifax and Guysborough were two of the few communities that participated in this movement from the very beginning. I cannot help but think that faculty members from Dal were involved in this process from the start,” he says.

As a Social Welfare PhD student at the City University of New York, his work applies a social justice lens to understand and improve health disparities among multicultural older adults. “I work with community-based organizations in East Harlem to provide targeted services and supports for diverse elders in the area. I also work with national leaders in the field of aging to advance policies and practices that close the gaps in healthcare inequality for LGBT older individuals.”

Austin hopes to finish his PhD and return to Canada as a professor at one of the many excellent universities throughout the country. “Ultimately I would like to establish a community-based participatory research institute that works with local communities and governments to advance policies and procedures that support all aspects of individuals civil, political, economic, and social rights. Complex questions about society’s most pressing social issues cannot be answered alone. I envision using research to amplify the voices of marginalized individuals and foster fruitful dialogue between community members, scholars, and decision makers.”

What is your greatest memory of your time at Dal?
“A funny memory that sticks out in my mind was a social event at the Sexton Campus Tea Room for recreation students. The promotional flyer for the event encouraged students to dress in athletic wear. Apparently, me and three of my closest friends were the only ones who took the flyer seriously. We dress up in full triathlon gear, complete with spandex bodysuits, swimsuits, and biking shoes. We showed up to the bar and it was filled with students dressed in casual clothes. The person working the door was shocked by our attire. Having no idea what to make of us, he awkwardly greeted us by stating “Wow, you guys must really like running!” We spent the whole night dancing in our spandex, laughing at ourselves, and creating memories that will last a lifetime.”