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Finding Their Calling
By Jamie Sokolik
When developing the social work major at Fontbonne University, Sharon Jackson, assistant professor and director of human services and social work, was struck by how aligned the values and beliefs of the university were with the social work code of ethics. As the preamble of the code states, “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human wellbeing and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty.” In other words, social workers serve the dear neighbor, the very heart of the mission of Fontbonne’s founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
"Social work fits in so naturally with the campus culture,” said Jackson.
“Many times, the students who come here already live this mantra,” added Dr. Kate Mennes, field education director. “Offering this major is beneficial for both the university and the students.” Jackson got the go-ahead for the program three years ago and began the accreditation process. She and Mennes have created a comprehensive curriculum that allows students to gain experience and learn the latest methods, theories and information available in the field.
“This work has an effect on your life,” Jackson said. “It’s imperative that the students know this is their calling.”
The program requires that all students considering the major take an introduction to social work course where they can explore the broad field and find out if it’s right for them.
When they’ve gone further into the degree, the students participate in extensive practicum experiences, both required and voluntary, in addition to their courses. The combination ensures each student graduates with ample hands-on experience that guides them into their next step — establishing a career.
In terms of finding a job, taking that next step might be easier for those entering social work than many other professions. According to US News and World Report, social work is one of the top six careers to watch in 2012.
Although the introductory courses are important, many students come to Fontbonne and enroll in the social work major because they are already certain this is the right path. Many even know exactly what segment of the field they want to enter, like Fontbonne junior Emily Bueker, who has been working with Burmese refugees through a program at her church, The Crossing, for the past two years. When a friend decided to get a master’s in social work, Bueker realized it might be the right path for her, too.
“I loved the idea of having a career in which I could continue my work with the refugees,” she said. “To so many, these people are invisible. I want to make the invisible visible.”
She’s already made huge strides toward that end. When a few of the Burmese women she worked with presented her with a hand-woven scarf as a thank you present, Bueker had an idea. “We take the accessories they make to the Tower Grove Farmer’s Market and to craft fairs around St. Louis,” she said.“It’s great supplemental income for the ladies. Work can be hard to come by when your language skills are limited.”
Bueker set up and now manages a Facebook page for the group where she lets all of their fans know where they will be next and posts pictures of new items that are available for sale.
Bueker couldn’t be happier with her choice to get her degree at Fontbonne. “Sharon and Kate have a ton of hands-on experience, and they apply it in the classroom,” she said. “It makes me feel confident about entering this field.”
Junior Alyse Theisen agrees.
“Sharon has been amazing,” she said. “When I came to the open house, she made me excited to come to Fontbonne – even with everything I was going through.”
Theisen attended a Fontbonne open house in the fall of 2011 during a difficult time in her life. She realized she wanted to be a social worker while caring for her mother who had Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, or IPF, a terminal disease that causes the lungs to scar and stiffen and makes it increasingly difficult to breathe. For Theisen’s mother, Elaine, the diagnosis would lead to years of dependence on oxygen, visits to various specialists, a double lung transplant and the eventual rejection of the lungs. She passed away on Oct. 17, 2011.
Through the transplant process, Theisen found that not having anyone to relate to was difficult.
“It’s hard to find someone who understands what you’re going through,” she said. “IPF is so rare. So are lung transplants and everything else that comes with it. It’s hard.”
Fortunately, the Barnes-Jewish Hospital pulmonary rehabilitation team, which provides respiratory therapy for pre- and post-transplant patients, supported Theisen and her family throughout the transplant process and beyond. Theisen wants to provide that much-needed support for others, and with a degree in social work, she can offer the foresight that she craved. She can also raise awareness about the benefits of organ donation.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about donating an organ,” she said. “But, in the end, you can save a life.”
After she graduates, Theisen would like to get her master’s degree. She and other Fontbonne students who choose this path may take advantage of partnerships with the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis or with the Saint Louis University School of Social Work.
With Fontbonne’s help, Bueker, Theisen and the other dedicated students in the program can make their dream jobs a reality. It takes commitment and passion.
“It’s rare that we come around when life is going well,” Jackson said. “We come in when a person is in crisis, and we get them back on track. We want them to be autonomous and independent. They get the credit for that, and they should. Not us.”
Bueker has learned that a client’s success is the reward social workers seek.
“We make connections, that’s really what it’s about,” Bueker said. “We work hard so that those in need find the people, organizations and resources that can make their lives better. What could be more fulfilling than that?”
Learn more about studying social work at Fontbonne University.