My passion for working with students in high-needs communities has stemmed from experiences working within classrooms on the west side of Detroit. I had the privilege to obtain an education that was filled with financial resources, and opportunities to be encouraged and heard by my teachers and administration. I loved to learn, and felt like I could escape the outside world when I was at school. I could see that same feeling in the faces of many students that I worked with in Detroit. However, there were glaring differences in our situations. There was an alarming lack of resources such as toilet paper, pencils, and backpacks for many of the students coming into the building every day. The students rarely had the opportunity to go on a field trip to enrich their learning, or even have the chance to learn about things that were relevant to them. Instead, teachers were trying to meet state standards for testing, maintain control of overcrowded classrooms, and support their students throughout the traumas that occurred in their community — all on a salary that had not changed in the last five years.
The differences I saw between my own academic experiences and those of my students showed me first hand the inequity that is occurring in schools throughout the country, based simply on geography. These issues are not being addressed efficiently by federal and state lawmakers. Leadership in this area will need to be combined with many other parties, such as social workers, policy makers, community leaders and members, and trained administrators, in order to begin to change the deep cycle of discrimination and oppression of vulnerable groups in our society. My aspirations in the social work field are to work with children and families in urban areas, providing direct service to clients as well as the community. I believe that social workers cannot provide support to clients without addressing the community around them as well, and I am passionate about working with others to address and work towards positive social and structural change.
It’s for these reasons that I decided to center my final project around perspectives on education at the School of Social Work. I am extremely interested in the concept of equifinality at the School of Social Work. Equifinality is the idea that different early systems can lead to the same outcome. For example: the backgrounds and educational experiences that students at the SSW hold throughout their childhood and adolescence vary greatly depending on the type of environment they grew up in, the support systems they had, the quality of education they received, etc. At the same time, there is something that brought each of us here, to the University of Michigan School of Social Work, in 2017. Our backgrounds may be very different, but we are all in a similar location and field today. How did this come to be? What factors, particularly when it comes to education, created these different experiences for each of us? How can we make sense of these and be more cognizant of these differences as we all work together to become competent social workers?
My project originally began as a photovoice project, intended to understand the experiences of 5 individuals in the program from different backgrounds to look at their journeys to the SSW. However, as I began to receive responses for the project, I realized that I wanted a larger sample size to look at the diversity of experiences that are present in the school. I received 5 in-depth responses from individuals in their first-year at the School of Social Work, in which I asked questions about their race and social class, experiences with education, and asked them to submit up to 5 photos of images that represent their education to them. These photos could have been taken in the past or in the present, and in the vein of the photovoice method, I asked the individuals to write a few sentences about how this represents their education.
The 5 individuals that I polled were not from as diverse backgrounds as I ideally would have liked, but I asked them to participate because I was hoping to receive some strong and reflective answers from them to think about their education. Below are a few examples of the responses I received:
Caption: I felt unprepared furthering my education because my high school had many issues; over crowded classrooms, old books, no money, which created space for violence, gangs, and thus did not prepare us well. Through my activist with the DREAM ACT, I literally had to fight for my right to an education.
Caption: I was the only person that I knew at my high school to get free lunches. My parents were ashamed that they couldn’t pay for my lunch, and I think I became ashamed too. Sometimes I just wouldn’t eat anything and try to get my friends to share with me so I wouldn’t have to type my student number in the lunch line. My guidance counselor found out and convinced me that I had to eat. She showed that she actually cared about me, and I’m so grateful for her.
Caption: Growing up, I was well-supported by my family members. My family offered grounding love, support, and protection, providing my future foundation to bloom. Throughout childhood and adolescence, I was exposed to a variety of experiences that provided opportunities to discover so many passions galore. In a literal sense, this photo displays a piece of pottery I created amidst my 22 years of ceramics, an artistic medium that became a very important part of my life since youth. Metaphorically, the overlapping geometric glazes represent the many parts of myself that I have grown to be proud of; though I recognize and acknowledge my privilege to these life-long opportunities and experiences. Photo Credit: Katie Schwartz
Caption: This photo is of my Peruvian abuelitos. I went to Peru for a semester in college as part of my education, yet these two people taught me so much more than academia could ever possibly teach me. Contrary to popular American narrative of individual success, these two queridos taught me absolutely everything about family, community, and caring for one another.
Caption: I grew up in rural Northern Michigan where the community remains racially homogenous (white) and faces significant income inequality. As a middle-class student, money rarely constrained my ability to benefit from these opportunities. My parents could afford to fund my extracurricular and academic aspirations; this privilege meant I could focus all my energy on gaining knowledge/skills/experience rather than on finances. This photo depicts a banner my classmates and I made for our high school math teacher to celebrate his retirement. To me, this picture represents the sense of community that unified my school. As a relatively small high school we grew close. I was blessed with many amazing teachers who helped shape my life trajectory.
After I collected these photos and started to analyze them, I saw a few key themes. The one that stuck out to me the most was the idea that community and support growing up played a huge role in the way that education was perceived by each individual. When I was creating the project, I was thinking about a systems theory approach that would reinforce the importance of education, and this seems to ring true for those who submitted pictures. Throughout each of the responses that were submitted, regardless of what the photo was, there was an acknowledgement of the community that they came from, and the support that was received from different individuals in their lives.
I also noticed that many of the pictures and descriptions that I received spoke to the privileges that students had when it came to their education. It made me think about who is here at the SSW, and who is meant to be here at the SSW. Are we accessible enough to the individuals who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds? Do our programs and systems support these individuals? Who is social work meant for, and who do we see in this profession?
Even after seeing the photos that were submitted, I found myself wanting a bit more representation from other students in the SSW. I added the final part of my project in an attempt to hear more voices and experiences that could add to my understanding of the different experiences that led students to UM. To do this I created a list of different statements/prompts having to do with education. Then, I sat in the atrium after one of my classes and asked individuals to choose a random statement and fill it out. I did not give any context for the statements, and said they could write as much or as little as they wanted. Below is a gallery of the different hand-written responses that I received from students from all different areas in the SSW:
This part of the project really struck me, because I didn’t necessarily know the backgrounds of the students who were responding to these statements. I had no idea what they would write. So many of the responses were so poignant to me, and spoke to the greater depth of experiences that students in the SSW have. Some people wrote about the opportunities that education has afforded them. Some had fond memories of K-12 schooling, while others didn’t. But all in all, the responses showed me something that I hadn’t realized when I started working on this project: The importance of connection, empathy, and support.
All of the messages that we receive from those around us can help to shape our experiences positively or negatively. Not everyone at the SSW has the same experience, but there is some sort of reason that we are all here today. It’s crucial to recognize these differences as social workers, because these disparities are occurring all around the country. There are entire schools of students whose voices are being silenced, who are not receiving a quality education, and who are being forgotten, when they have so much to offer. I think back to my 9th graders from Detroit and remember watching them playing basketball during gym. These students are so bright and capable, but have grown to feel controlled by systems that don’t take an interest in them as humans — they only see them as numbers in a school system that they have to push through. So many students don’t have consistent networks of support, or the chance to connect with someone who will support them to figure out who they want to become, and not just what they want to become. Those 9th graders can become the next great social workers, the future biomedical scientists, and our country’s presidents, if the systems around them will give them the chance. But until processes change, until the SSW becomes more diverse and transparent in their initiatives, this is likely to be a hurdle for many students around the country.
This project helped me to better understand the complexities of experiences here at the School of Social Work. While we are all in this space, pushing for more equitable and just practices in society, we are approaching this issue from different angles. The diversity that we each bring to the table is invaluable. Each narrative deserves to be told. To practice what we preach here at the SSW, we need to explore the systems that grant us privilege and oppression, and recognize the ways that these play into our ideas of service as social workers.
Thank you for reading. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please leave a comment below. I appreciate your thoughts!