Social work graduates put their faith into action by helping the hurting and underserved of the world
by Sean Patterson
They arrive on campus with the gift of compassion and a desire to serve. They may be unsure of how to tackle the world’s daunting social problems, but they eagerly sign on as social work majors to prepare.
Four years later as graduates, about 15 each year, they fan out into the world – whether to the jungles of Honduras or to the scorching heat of Africa – to address the most critical of human needs.
“The social work program provides students context to find hope in situations of often overwhelming proportions,” says Susan Newell, assistant professor of social work. “They grow wise and able to address very complicated situations because of their courage to stop and become involved.”
The social work majors also gain practical wisdom about policies, budgets, patterns of injustice, the healthy development of people, and the impact of trauma of many kinds to body, mind and spirit, Newell says.
After graduating, they typically land international and domestic jobs in health care, child welfare, education, community organizations, ministry, criminal justice and other fields. “Many of our students articulate profound feelings of ‘this is where I belong’ in a profession committed to stopping along the road to help someone in need,” Newell says.
One recent grad is in her third year of working for Food for the Hungry in Ethiopia. Another is assisting international travelers at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Still another is a teacher in Germany.
Here are some of their stories.
Julie (Wilson) Salwasser (’05)
Case manager for Ethiopia adoptions, All God’s Children International
I majored in social work because: It was the best avenue to be involved in international work. I always desired to work with an organization that either did adoptions or development internationally. This stemmed from my experience as a young child in the Philippines, where I was really changed by the people and children I spent time with.
Why I do it: This job puts me in a position not only to advocate for children whom I am able to place in loving homes, but also to talk with people about what is going on all over the world. I have traveled to Vietnam, Nepal and Ethiopia and spent time with many beautiful children.
Best day on this job: My favorite aspect of this job is calling a family to tell them that I have a child to talk with them about. Many people say that it must be like a delivery room doctor. I actually think this is better because these children already have such a history to share with their soon-to-be parents. It’s a wonderful introduction to make.
Worst day: A day when I have to call a family and share the news of either a significant delay in their adoption or that a child passed away during the process.
How I’m growing personally: I have grown not only in my knowledge of foreign government and working cross-culturally, but also in my own faith. There are certain things in life that I don’t understand – why a child passes away whom we have been fighting for, or why there are some children that live in such extreme poverty. I really have grown to understand, though, that these children are so loved by God and that we cannot completely comprehend all the reasons that allow children to live like this.
How George Fox prepared me to work in this role: George Fox really equipped me to work with people. I was so blessed in all that I was involved with at Fox, not only in the social work program but residence life and the Ambassadors. I really grew spiritually, and it made me capable to work with people from all walks of life.
I’ll probably never get used to: Waking up early for work. Also, I will never get used to long-distance travel. Long plane rides are no fun!
Favorite escape: Either go for a walk, go to a coffee shop and just sit and talk with friends, or read a good book
If I wasn’t in social work, I would be: In marketing. I am really fascinated about how to present something to people that makes them want to be a part of it.
Kristen Damron (’03)
Zeway (Ethiopia) child development project advisor, Food for the Hungry
I majored in social work because: I wanted to change lives and make a difference in a tangible way.
What I do: I help coordinate Bridges of Grace, our child-headed household program, which assists children who do not have any guardians, parents, relatives or anyone over the age of 18 that they are living with. I also teach my project’s social workers. I love being able to build their professional capacity and change the way they work with people in our community.
Why I do it: I was called by God to go out of my “world” and into another. I believe I have a great skill set for working in other cultures. Simply put, I love it and feel alive because I am living according to my God-given purpose.
Best day on this job: The day we started our program for children living in child-headed households. I’ve had the opportunity to go into each of their homes, talk with them and become a part of their lives.
How I’m growing personally: Through my everyday experiences with people in my community, my co-workers and myself, I have to look into myself and examine my prejudices, thought patterns, and reactions to circumstances. Life on the field brings out the worst and the best in people.
Where I’d like to be in five years: I would like to complete my master’s in social work and be back on the field, working in program development for an NGO somewhere in the world.
What I love most: I love my friends in my community. They are my source of life and companionship. They are patient with me as I communicate in Amharic and love me so much.
How George Fox prepared me to work in this role: My social work teachers were spectacular in helping us students think critically about spiritual aspects of social work and how they meld together.
I’ll probably never get used to: Eating injera every day. Injera is a sour pancake-type bread that is made from a local grain called teff. Stews made of oil, onions and spices are poured on top of injera and you use the injera to eat the stew.
Favorite escape: Riding my bicycle. I ride out into the countryside. I come back having had a good conversation with God and feeling refreshed.
Favorite author: Jane Austen
If I wasn’t in social work, I would be: A veterinarian. I always wanted to be a vet and didn’t realize until I was older that you can help people through helping their animals.
Stephanie (Reedal) Welbourn (‘05)
Resource room teacher, Black Forest Academy, Germany
I majored in social work because: I wanted to work with people and wanted to be better equipped to do so in whatever environment I found myself in after graduation. I wanted to harness my compassion in productive and useful ways.
Current job: I run a program for students who may or may not be diagnosed with learning disabilities, may have an ESL background, or just need extra guidance in study skills in order to be successful. I also run a club within the school for international justice awareness.
Why I do it: I can’t imagine doing anything for a job that wouldn’t involve interacting with people in meaningful ways. From my previous internship in a high school, I knew I wanted to work with the middle and high school age group. I am compassionate by nature, so this job allows me to put my compassion and understanding for these students to use.
Best day on this job: Every Thursday. I have my full day at work and then my husband (Luke Welbourn ’04) and I substitute as dorm parents in the boys’ dorm. I work with them on their homework, listen to them talk about whatever is on their minds, and get my fill of loud noises with 28 guys around.
Worst day: My worst day is the beginning of the school year when I don’t yet know who needs help, and I haven’t developed rapport with any of my students.
Where I’d like to be in five years: I could see myself still being at Black Forest Academy. I would like to go back to school for further counseling techniques at some point in the next five years.
How George Fox prepared me to work in this role: George Fox gave me a fundamental view of the world and how my role as a Christian and my role in social work intertwine. My courses in social work prepared me for each of the four completely different jobs I’ve had since graduating. My professors provided an interactive learning environment full of wisdom, and I still hear their words and examples in my head when I interact with students.
I’ll probably never get used to: Every single store being closed on Sundays in Germany.
Favorite escape: Running with my dog after a school day.
Paige (Huggler) Olson (’08)
Fourth-grade teacher at bilingual school, Copan Ruinas, Honduras
I majored in social work because: Advocating for the equality of every human is the most important work that I believe I can do.
Current job: I teach math, science, art, reading, writing and English to native Spanish speakers. I am also involved in after-school activities, including counseling.
Why I do it: The Republic of Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Central America. I believe that education is empowering and will allow for Hondurans to rise up out of poverty. I believe that through learning to problem-solve as well as speak English, my students will have the capability to lead their government out of corruption, their poor out of poverty, and improve their own education system.
How I’m growing personally: This year has been full of many bumps and stretches. Living in a culture that I am unfamiliar with is surprisingly humbling, from being limited in my communication skills to foreign blunders that I have unknowingly committed.
Where I’d like to be in five years: In five years, I would like to be working with a Spanish-speaking community.
What I love most: I love seeing the creativity and curiosity that my students have toward learning. I can see that if they continue down this path, they are going to become the problem solvers and community leaders of Copan Ruinas and Honduras.
Favorite escape: There is a nature reserve for birds a kilometer from our school. This is a beautiful place to relax after school and go swimming on hot days in the river.
Most admired public role model: Nora Welches, one of the founders of Escuela Mayatan Bilingue, is one of my most admired public role models in Copan Ruinas. Nora is very wealthy, yet she is very thoughtful about where she invests her money, and how she engages with people that come from poorer communities.
Favorite author: Stan and Jan Bernstein of the Bernstein Bears books are two of my favorite authors at the moment. Their books contain thoughtful issues that are important to elementary students, as well as their teachers.
If I wasn’t in social work, I would be: Getting my hands dirty working in a community garden or managing affordable apartments for low-income families or previously homeless folks.
Amanda Potter (’05)
Social service supervisor, Travelers Aid, O’Hare International Airport, Chicago
I majored in social work because: I’ve always had a strong desire to be in a profession that makes a difference. I was premed, but I don’t like blood. My degree in social work gave me the tools to put my desires to make a difference into action.
Why I do it: It is very interesting – a mix of crisis management, customer service, problem solving and volunteer management. The world is represented at O’Hare, and I love the challenge of communicating across language barriers.
Most impactful experience(s) thus far: Refugees arrive in Chicago daily. They leave the refugee camp, hop on a plane and end up at O’Hare. They are tired, stressed out, anxious about life in a new land. They often don’t speak English and usually don’t know who is meeting them at the airport. I spend a lot of time connecting people, bringing them to the right area to meet their rides or catch their next flights. Helping someone understand their situation, and thus empower them to be more independent, is a huge part of what I do.
Best day on this job: Helping to connect a father and daughter who were reuniting after years of separation due to war. Standing next to the baggage carousel at the airport, I watched their tearful reunion. The look on the father’s face when he finally saw his daughter again is something I will never forget.
Where I’d like to be in five years: Roaming the world, working with an international organization in a developing country.
How George Fox prepared me to work in this role: George Fox gave me so many opportunities. I spent a semester in Mozambique and South Africa. Walking through villages in rural Africa cemented my desire to work internationally. Through different George Fox programs, I also traveled to Costa Rica, Honduras, the UK and India. Seeing the world while being a college student was formative.
I’ll probably never get used to: At my job at O’Hare Airport, I have to go through airport security to get to my office.
Most admired public role model: Mother Teresa
Favorite author: Barbara Kingsolver