Associate Professor, 1996 – 2013
School of Social Work
Maria Puig was born in Cuba and experienced the political upheavals of the Castro regime as a child. Her father, Dr. Eliseo Puig, was a physician and her mother, Maria I. Puig, was a lawyer. They shared a passion for higher education and a determination to provide both of their children with the opportunity to live in a free country that would allow them to get an education, work hard, and accomplish their personal goals. However, due to their advanced degrees, Maria’s parents initially were barred from leaving the country.
Maria and her older brother, Rick, came to the United States as unaccompanied minors. They later discovered they had been part of much larger project known as The Peter Pan Project, a collaboration between the Catholic Church and the U.S. State Department that helped children leave Cuba. The family had very little time to prepare or say good-bye. At the time, Maria was too young to understand that her parents weren’t coming, until she and her brother were on a Pan American flight watching their parents cry and wave goodbye.
Once the family was fully reunited in the U.S., they lived in Miami with friends while Maria’s father returned to medical school to revalidate his medical agree before passing the medical boards, enabling him to practice medicine in the U.S.
Inspired by her experiences, Maria spent her career helping children involved in the child welfare system, along with refugees and immigrant children, bringing attention to these challenging issues within the social work profession.
Education and Pre-CSU employment
When Maria arrived at Florida State University, she was a pre-med student with dreams of becoming a doctor, like her father and brother. However, as she progressed through her classes, she realized that the prospect of performing surgery left her too squeamish, and her classes in organic chemistry were much too difficult. Instead, Maria graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Foreign Language Education and Cultural Anthropology and applied for an entry level caseworker job with no formal social work education or experience. However, her deep understanding of Cuban culture and fluency in Spanish landed her the job.
During this time, many Cuban refugees in her community were struggling to assimilate to life in the U.S. Maria witnessed Cuban youth ending up in the juvenile justice system and facing court. While finishing her degree, she began meeting area social workers, who shared how badly new Spanish-speaking social work professionals were needed to work with these youth and families. She met with the head of juvenile court to learn more and realized that social work provided an opportunity to help her community.
During her first month as a caseworker, Maria’s supervisor had her shadow a senior caseworker for a month, so that she could explore what it meant to work within the child welfare system. Gradually, Maria received her own case load, and worked her way up to become a unit supervisor, policy analyst, program manager and eventually, the Operations and Management Director for District XI in Miami, for the Department of Children, Youth, and Families.
“If you can be a social worker in a large, urban area, you can be a successful social worker anywhere,” shared Maria. “You see everything and learn how to help in a number of tough situations.”
Miami was an urban, cosmopolitan city and she saw an influx of refugees and immigrants from multiple countries during her time there. In the late 1980s, Maria saw the crack cocaine epidemic hit Miami, which was the first city in the U.S. to create ‘crack baby’ units in the child welfare system. These babies were addicted to crack at birth. She also saw the first wave of the HIV epidemic with children of infected parents needing treatment at an early age.
After her experiences working for the Department of Children, Youth and Families, Maria joined Metro Dade County as the Director of the Juvenile Services Division. In this role, she was the administrative director of a county-operated division that provided services to juveniles in the juvenile justice system, many of whom struggled with mental health and substance use issues.
Maria was passionate about the work she was doing and studied hard to obtain her MSW at Florida International University. Eventually, she joined FIU’s School of Social Work as their Title IV-E MSW Director. She directed a program specifically for social workers who wanted to return to school after gaining years of hands-on-practice experience. Many of the students she worked with came from positions within the child welfare system; from caseworkers, to unit supervisors, and administrators. During this time, the Dean of the School of Social Work encouraged her to work toward her Ph.D. Upon earning her doctorate, Maria began to look for tenure-track positions outside of Florida.
Maria was being recruited to positions across the U.S., but quickly fell in love with Colorado State University. In 1996, Dr. Mona Schatz, School of Social Work professor and director of the Education and Research Institute for Fostering Families, called and invited her to come tour CSU and the School of Social Work. She met School director, Dr. Ben Granger, as well as College Dean, Dr. Nancy Hartley, and everything clicked.
CSU Work History
Maria joined the School of Social Work as an assistant professor and was responsible for teaching social work courses (Generalist and Advanced Generalist Practice) at the BSW and MSW levels, as well as advising students. She also provided field consultation and was an active participant in departmental and university-wide committees including the CSU Commission on Women and Gender Equality, the CHHS Diversity Committee, and Faculty Council. She especially loved the School of Social Work due to the connection and community she felt with her colleagues, including special relationships she built with fellow Legacies Project honoree, Brad Sheafor, Victor Baez, Vicky Buchan, Eleanor Downey, and director, Ben Granger.
She piloted a number of research studies, wrote successful grant applications, and was awarded tenure and promotion to associate professor in 2002. However, her favorite CSU memories came from working with students. She loved teaching and being in the classroom.
“I loved seeing the light bulbs go on for students. They would understand and latch onto these new concepts and ideas,” said Maria. “Physically seeing them get the lessons was the best thing about being in the classroom.”
Maria described her teaching style as strict but extremely supportive. She wanted to challenge her students and wouldn’t let them “wiggle out of stuff,” encouraging them to take on difficult subjects and work hard. Due to her passion for and dedication to teaching, Maria was honored with the Outstanding Teaching Award from the Mortar Board in 1998, and was nominated for the CSU Tenure-Track Faculty Teaching Excellence Award in 2001 and the CSU Alumni Association for Best Teacher Award in 2005.
Over time, Maria expanded her responsibilities in the School of Social Work, becoming Coordinator of the Social Worker Licensure Program. She also served as the first Leadership Fellow in the School of Social Work, where she worked closely with Dr. Deb Valentine on special administrative assignments and projects including the school’s budget, diversity recruitment and scholarship development for minorities’ students, alumni relations, and external funding partnership development with the private sector.
During her tenure, Maria was invited to join a panel of professionals involved with the development of Best Practices Approaches for the Immigration and Child Welfare National Network through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (OPR) and the Refugee Youth and Children’s Services. In 2008, Maria was one of 35 faculty members worldwide to participate and present at a Think Tank policy group at Oxford University.
When Dr. Ben Granger retired as director, Maria was asked by new director, Deb Valentine, if she would serve as assistant director. In this new role, Maria taught less but took on all kinds of new administrative projects. Due to her highly organized personality, she enjoyed this role and was good at seeing the bigger picture. She credits her leadership experience from her government work in Florida for her success in this role.
In 2013, Maria advocated for the start of a part-time Master of Social Work program to give students the opportunity to earn a masters in social work while continuing to work.
What is Maria doing today?
“Until ordinary people in Cuba have equal access to everything – from healthcare, to jobs, to freedom of speech, and related political and personal freedoms, there is still work to be done,” said Maria.
In retirement, Maria has continued to focus on the needs of refugees and immigrants who have come to the U.S. by teaching English reading and writing to groups of Spanish-speaking children and adults. Her fight for human rights has also continued through the evaluation of social justice frameworks. Through a group of friends in Miami, Maria closely follows Cuba’s political and economic changes.