Most people seek to avoid conflict in their professional lives. Social worker Christine Douangsouri (’16, MSW) seeks it out.
Every step of her career has seen Douangsouri comfortably in the middle of conflict – between refugees and angry U.S. citizens, between cancer patients and financial obstacles, and now, at the senior living community, Vi at Bentley Village, between senior residents and the acceptance of their own physical and mental changes.
Douangsouri came to Florida Gulf Coast University to earn her Master of Social Work after an eye-opening internship in her hometown of Philadelphia. It was at the same Nationalities Service Center her family passed through when they emigrated from Laos in 1979.
“I assisted refugees in securing employment, and I taught English classes there,” Douangsouri says. “Securing employment and securing that financial stability is really tough, especially with the changing economy. A lot of the jobs that were offered to my family in the past have been outsourced for different reasons, so it’s getting harder and harder for refugee populations to find steady employment that mirrors their current skillset and education.”
Douangsouri’s charges were mainly refugees fleeing ethnic genocide from Egypt, Bhutan, Myanmar, Ethiopia and Eritrea. She saw xenophobia first-hand one day while taking a group of refugees home after a visit to a food pantry.
“We took a bus back home and we were really happy. We had bags of food in our hands, and someone on the bus was upset because someone was taking their seat. The person who took their seat couldn’t really understand what they were saying, and at that point the person just started screaming racial slurs and ‘get out of this country,’” Douangsouri says.
Douangsouri remembers calming the group down, getting them back home, then crying in her office.
“I was so surprised by what I had seen,” she says. “It made me want to work even harder for vulnerable populations – at the time I was just so shocked that I didn’t do anything. It drives me to do what I do on a daily basis.”
Now in Southwest Florida, Douangsouri says she sees some of those same negative attitudes toward immigrants.
“The feeling of not being welcomed, I think that impacts their psyche in terms of being able to assimilate, being able to settle,” Douangsouri says. “Shifting mentality is what’s really going to help this population, because when we are more willing to listen to their stories, we are going to be more willing to help.”
Helping students of all ages keep an open mind was part of her role when she worked in FGCU’s Office of Community Outreach during her graduate studies. Douangsouri helped bring in speakers on topics such as the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement to shed light on social issues. She also gave university tours to students from low-income areas, such as Immokalee.
Now she puts her skills to use with a part-time job at NCH Healthcare System, where she is earning clinical hours to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and a full-time job at Vi at Bentley Village.
In both jobs, Douangsouri says that listening is key to supporting patients and residents.
“When working in the hospital setting, you see the very worst situations, but you also see resilience and you see the strength of people,” she says. “Just being able to listen to their stories and provide them with that emotional support, I think that’s a component that needs to be addressed more in the healthcare industry.”
Kelley Sullivan, director of nursing at Vi at Bentley Village, first met Douangsouri at NCH and now works with her at Vi at Bentley Village.
“In all my dealings with Christine at the hospital, she was always the most professional, most friendly, person,” Sullivan says. “It can be very crazy and challenging, but she just handles things with such dignity and grace.”
That professionalism is what Douangsouri says she uses in conversations with residents of Vi at Bentley Village about their physical or cognitive changes. Douangsouri says these conversations can be difficult for residents who have always been self-sufficient.
“The idea of needing help is not always welcome,” Douangsouri says. “My goal is to treat every person with dignity and respect. What that looks like is having a frank conversation with them, but with compassion and kindness and helping them navigate those waters.”
Part of Douangsouri’s role also includes sensitivity training for new hires, and training on how to have productive difficult conversations.
“It’s really a mentality shift,” Douangsouri says. “When we think about difficult conversations we think of our anxiety, we think of feeling uncomfortable, but really we need to see that as an opportunity to listen to what the other person has to say.”
Doungasouri’s advice to students who want to work in her field is to “stay curious. Don’t be complacent. Always seek to learn more about your community.”
That curiosity fuels Douangsouri, even in her free time. She plans to launch an Etsy shop called @ChristineBrinkertArt to sell her paintings, shortly before her October wedding to Jim Brinkert. Together they have two cats, Nala and Gronk, short for former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots reference is for Jim, and not for the Philadelphia native, Douangsouri adds. “I’m a big Eagles fan.”