LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 28, 2022) — The power of perseverance. We hear this word all the time, but what exactly does it mean?
By textbook definition, it is “persistence despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.”
But the true meaning of perseverance is better understood through a historic group of graduates at the University of Kentucky. Though each has a unique story to share, together, they are breaking barriers at UK, across the Commonwealth and beyond.
“This is an honor — my ancestors prayed and sacrificed their lives for this opportunity.”
Proud doesn’t even begin to describe how Marilyn Sails feels as a member of the inaugural class of graduates from the Doctorate of Social Work program (DSW). She and her fellow classmates are a trailblazing group — the highest number of Black doctors to ever graduate at one time from a single discipline at UK.
A total of 23 of the program’s 72 graduates are Black, with 20 of them being women. “I feel beyond blessed to have achieved this milestone in my life, and at my age — over 50,” Sails said.
There's a critical shortage of social workers across the country — including right here in Kentucky.
In fact, a recent study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found a 16% increase in the need for social workers nationwide since 2016. Of particular demand, are social work practitioners with advanced training and education.
In 2020, the College of Social Work (CoSW) launched the online DSW program to close that gap and meet the need. The first of its kind in the state, the program successfully prepares students for advanced social work practice, clinical research, administrative leadership and executive roles, as well as creatively addresses society’s most complex social issues.
“The clinical track sparked my interest,” Shericka Smith, DSW, said. “I thought this was a great way to enhance my skills and provide me with more credibility to start my own private practice.”
Smith is a mental health coordinator for Fayette County Public Schools, and she understands the growth in child abuse and neglect cases, the devastating opioid epidemic and complex mental health issues are overwhelming social workers with complicated caseloads.
To lessen the burden, the DSW program provides social work practitioners the opportunity to build upon their skills by receiving specialized training in one of three areas: administrative leadership, advanced clinical practice or military behavioral health (MBH).
“Education and change are important, because mental health matters,” Smith said. “I hope to show others that seeking treatment does not have to be intimidating or impossible.”
Graduates of the program will be positioned to advance their careers, become transformational leaders and join the greater conversation about creating a stronger society.
“Through researching the difference between a Ph.D. and DSW, I learned that obtaining a DSW could assist me in obtaining the knowledge and professional background to develop new practice-based programs that can aid in the decline of the prison-to-pipeline statistics and an increase appropriate therapeutic and mentorship alliance,” Brittany Gentry, DSW, said.
“It's an excellent feeling knowing that I am a part of history. As a female, I need to be at 100% all the time. But as a Black female, I must prove myself twice as hard as my white female counterparts and three times more than males,” Angela Williams, DSW, added. “This degree will help me compete with others in this field by spotlighting my professional achievements.”
In a continued effort to make UK programs accessible and attainable, the DSW is fully online and can be completed in two years (full time). There are also part-time options available.
As devoted wives, dedicated mothers and determined working professionals — time is a valuable resource for graduates like Sharrion Brown, DSW.
“Being able to complete my degree online was very important to me. I’m a full-time employee, a wife and a mother,” she said. “I knew coming into the program that I didn’t want to sacrifice time with my family. The DSW allowed me to remain present with my family.”
And in the process, Brown gained another family in the form of faculty, staff and classmates who provided unrelenting support. “There has always been a faculty member willing to help,” she continued. “During the DSW program, I lost a pregnancy and I lost my uncle. My professors were very understanding, and the director of the college was supportive, and I couldn’t be more appreciative.”
Together, the DSW graduates crossed the commencement stage this spring — marking a monumental moment in history.
They dared to dream bigger than the barriers placed in front of them and persevered.
“I’m hopeful that I can influence my children and other Black boys and girls that whatever dreams and aspirations they may have can and are within their reach to be achieved,” Williams said.
“It is seldom that one begins a journey to make history. I’m so proud of my cohort and myself for embarking on this journey. More future Black and Brown social work prospects can feel inspired to believe in themselves and defy the societal adversities that may be placed upon them,” Gentry added. “I hope that one day my kids will look back on this accomplishment and be proud and inspired that their mother was a part of this historic class.”
Now, the graduates hope to use the knowledge they gained at UK to become catalysts for change in their communities. “UK helped by believing in this class and giving so many Black students the opportunity to prove the world wrong, because Black mental health matters,” Smith said.
“In the field of mental health, representation matters. When you see yourself, this breaks down so many walls — allowing an individual to accept treatment,” Sails added. “Now, my focus is to pay it forward through continued advocacy and outreach to others who also, like myself, never dreamed the impossible could be possible.”
The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers." We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.