Friday Faculty Focus: Peter Szto

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July 21st, 2017

Dr. Szto instructs a class. (photo courtesy of East China Normal University)

This week on Friday Faculty Focus KVNO reporter Brandon McDermott speaks with Dr. Peter Szto, associate professor at the Grace Abbott School of Social Work at The University of Nebraska at Omaha.


Brandon McDermott: Dr Peter Szto, thank you for coming on the show.

Dr. Peter Szto: Thank you for having me here.

Brandon: I noticed one of your interests is the use of photography in social work research. Can you elaborate on that?

Dr. Szto: It started really when I was younger. I got my first camera in junior high school or middle school and I found myself wanting the camera because in the house my dad had Life magazine, Look magazine these periodicals. I found myself wondering how they took that picture and trying to figure out whether I could do that. So, when I got my first camera it’s really been about experimenting and learning different techniques and exploring the world of the camera which I’ve done all my life.

I consider maybe everyone a photographer, just some people have cameras and others do not. Because we’re all looking and we like to look at the world and I’ve done this all my life — look at the world trying to handle the camera master the camera. So, that’s like one side of me. When I came here to Omaha in 2004, I thought maybe this is the time to integrate my scholarly interests with my avocation, photography.

Brandon: What piques your interest when it comes to social welfare policy analysis?

Dr. Szto:  Social welfare means the well-being of society and so it’s important for us to have measures and have an understanding, have a framework to how we can really understand if a society — whether it’s local, national, federal or global — how healthy we are.

So, social welfare policy provides a lens if you will on seeing the world and seeing how we can make it better. But, you can’t fix something you can’t try to address something unless you see it or understand it well. Social policy analysis is about looking at the world and trying to figure out what’s wrong and how to make it better.

Brandon: I see you’re also focused on social development in China, can you talk about that.

Dr. Szto: Well I am Chinese. I was born in New York but my parents are from China and so I’ve always had this Chinese experience in the house with food and language and cultural habits. I made my first trip to China in 1982 with my father and sister and brother. It was just a real eye opening experience — what I saw there, what people were doing there. Since then I’ve made many trips to China — over 30 — and I’ve been interested in Chinese history and then how China has been developing over time and so that’s what I do now.

Brandon: Bringing that up you also have a travel course in China. What does that offer students? I know you just came back from one.

Dr. Szto: Right. Well actually that kind of puts all the pieces together in one package. The name of that course is “Documenting Social Change.” So, I teach the students that go — mostly social work students –how to use photography as a tool of social research. They go over there with a theme about China, family life, architecture, food and they learn how to use the camera to document that and then to use images as a source of evidence and also for further reflection on how we can understand China better than how they can help us and how we can help them. That’s the travel course — it integrates these elements about my scholarship that I’ve been talking about.

Brandon: Do you see the students change from before the trip — maybe they’re learning about going to travel to China — but learning about traveling somewhere actually going through the process, I’m sure is a little different. But so you see these students change from beginning to end?

Dr. Szto: All of them. I tell them that before they go I say “this will be life changing.” It will be life changing because for some it’s the first time on an airplane, for some it’s the first time out of the country and then (for) all of them is first time in China. So just going to another country, going to a country with a different political agenda forces them to be out of their box and stretches them as far as how to survive and putting their social work skills into practice. It is life changing and then the fun thing about this course is they use photography to bring back memories, bring back memories of what they saw and it lasts a lifetime those images.

Brandon: Dr. Peter Szto, thank you for coming on the show.

Dr. Szto: You’re welcome.

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