Q&A with Sabri Williams

Sabri Williams, who graduated from the Bachelor of Arts in Social Work program in May of 2020, is currently working with AmeriCorps in the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) program. AmeriCorps NCCC is a full-time service program that covers lodging and travel expenses, allowing young adults to serve on a team and make an impact in communities across the country while gaining valuable leadership skills.

Read her Q&A below to learn more about her and her journey with AmeriCorps.

What made you want to pursue a career in social work?

I always knew that I wanted to help people. Beyond that, I wanted to have a career where I could become, fight for, and witness change in people, communities, and policies.

Why did you choose the University of Kentucky CoSW to purse that career?

I originally chose to attend UK because it was close to home and family, and the most cost efficient with financial aid. As a first generation student, it was important to me to attend college and set an example for my family, but college was still scary and unknown. I began undergrad as a nursing student, but quickly discovered that wasn’t for me. Social work was what I tried next, and loved it! Most of all, I loved the CoSW. It was small and personable; all my professors and classmates knew me and invested in my learning. I got to later grow into a student ambassador and peer mentor, and contribute to the same environment that had first drawn me in. UK CoSW is home.

How did you find out about AmeriCorps?

Some of my practicum supervisors and mentors were AmeriCorps alums, and suggested I look into becoming a member. I was interested in completing a service year, so I took their advice and began looking at job openings in the program.

What made you want to join AmeriCorps?

I graduated in May, almost a year ago, and at that time I knew I wasn’t ready for graduate school, especially as many programs were still adapting to COVID-19. I wanted to gain more social service experience, travel, and explore my passions. Additionally, I wanted to expand my idea of what service encompasses – what it could be, what it looks like, who it can help, how to help, etc. AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) provided me with an opportunity to do just that

What do you do at AmeriCorps?

I serve with an AmeriCorps program called the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). Typically, NCCC teams are comprised of 7-12 members, aged 18-26 years old. Teams travel the United States working on projects that include urban and rural development, environmental stewardship, natural and other disasters, infrastructure improvement, and energy conservation. My team is comprised of 8 members, and we are working throughout the pacific region. We will have 3 total project rounds during our service term (October to July). I am in the middle of my second project round, in Longview, Washington. We focus on housing construction, winterizing homes for elderly individuals or low-income families, commodity packing and drives, and Meals on Wheels food deliveries. My first project round was in Groveland, California and we focused on disaster recovery and mitigation. We spent most of our time building and maintaining trails, clearing invasive species, increasing defensible land, moving debris and snags, and building fire lines. The work is diverse and changes round to round!

Additionally, all corps members are required to complete volunteer hours that are independent from our service. We can obtain hours at any non-profit agency, doing short-term forms of service. We have been able to participate in a variety of online opportunities. Lastly, within our team we have opportunities for leadership and specialty roles. These include Assistant Team Leader, Service-Learning Initiator, Life After AmeriCorp Representative, Recruiter, Health and Wellness Coordinator, Media Representative, and Vehicle/Tools/Safety Coordinator. I serve as the Life After AmeriCorps representative where I help my teammates with resume building, goal setting, developing professional strengths and skills, and anything else related to their plans following the service term. 

What is the most rewarding thing about your work?

The people and communities I work with has been the most rewarding part of AmeriCorps. I cherish the relationships I have built with my teammates, supervisors, and the people we serve. I love that I have had the opportunity to partner with community members, and work alongside a team to effect change. A great example of this happened a few weeks ago when my team and I were doing winterizing on an elderly couple’s home.

The couple qualified for a housing program through the Community Action Plan where my team and I are currently serving. The couple was so grateful for our work and couldn’t express their gratitude enough. They even invited out the local newspaper to do a story because they were so impressed! Upon completing the work, and seeing how much it meant to them, I remember thinking that their reaction alone was enough to fuel me to this work.  I don’t know if I can change the whole world, but I can change an individual’s world and that makes all the difference.

What has it been like working with AmeriCorps during the pandemic?

In AmeriCorps, the safety of our team, our partnering agencies, and the community members is always a priority. My teammates and I live together, in a bubble, to simulate a family unit. We follow all the CDC guidelines including wearing cloth or N-95 masks, using gloves, using hand sanitizer and sanitizing surfaces, maintaining social distancing, avoiding public outings or large crowds, taking daily temperature and COVID-19 screening, and protocols on quarantining. Additionally, when we all arrived to campus we were isolated and tested multiple times to ensure clearance before departing to any project location.

Like the rest of society, AmeriCorps has been impacted and is adapting to the pandemic. For example, each corps member is required to complete service/volunteer hours that are separate from work. However, due to COVID-19, many of the agencies and service opportunities are now virtual. Fortunately, for AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) COVID-19 has not stopped work, but has encouraged precautions and considerations when traveling. Overall, I feel grateful to be doing this work, although I recognize ways the pandemic has changed how our work is done.

What advice do you have for other social work students?

Social Work is a growing, diverse and critical field of work. My advice is to explore and expand! Don’t limit the places a social worker can be, or your idea of the type of work a social worker can do.

Q&A with Sabri Williams

Sabri Williams, who graduated from the Bachelor of Arts in Social Work program in May of 2020, is currently working with AmeriCorps in the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) program. AmeriCorps NCCC is a full-time service program that covers lodging and travel expenses, allowing young adults to serve on a team and make an impact in communities across the country while gaining valuable leadership skills.

Read her Q&A below to learn more about her and her journey with AmeriCorps.

What made you want to pursue a career in social work?

I always knew that I wanted to help people. Beyond that, I wanted to have a career where I could become, fight for, and witness change in people, communities, and policies.

Why did you choose the University of Kentucky CoSW to purse that career?

I originally chose to attend UK because it was close to home and family, and the most cost efficient with financial aid. As a first generation student, it was important to me to attend college and set an example for my family, but college was still scary and unknown. I began undergrad as a nursing student, but quickly discovered that wasn’t for me. Social work was what I tried next, and loved it! Most of all, I loved the CoSW. It was small and personable; all my professors and classmates knew me and invested in my learning. I got to later grow into a student ambassador and peer mentor, and contribute to the same environment that had first drawn me in. UK CoSW is home.

How did you find out about AmeriCorps?

Some of my practicum supervisors and mentors were AmeriCorps alums, and suggested I look into becoming a member. I was interested in completing a service year, so I took their advice and began looking at job openings in the program.

What made you want to join AmeriCorps?

I graduated in May, almost a year ago, and at that time I knew I wasn’t ready for graduate school, especially as many programs were still adapting to COVID-19. I wanted to gain more social service experience, travel, and explore my passions. Additionally, I wanted to expand my idea of what service encompasses – what it could be, what it looks like, who it can help, how to help, etc. AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) provided me with an opportunity to do just that

What do you do at AmeriCorps?

I serve with an AmeriCorps program called the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). Typically, NCCC teams are comprised of 7-12 members, aged 18-26 years old. Teams travel the United States working on projects that include urban and rural development, environmental stewardship, natural and other disasters, infrastructure improvement, and energy conservation. My team is comprised of 8 members, and we are working throughout the pacific region. We will have 3 total project rounds during our service term (October to July). I am in the middle of my second project round, in Longview, Washington. We focus on housing construction, winterizing homes for elderly individuals or low-income families, commodity packing and drives, and Meals on Wheels food deliveries. My first project round was in Groveland, California and we focused on disaster recovery and mitigation. We spent most of our time building and maintaining trails, clearing invasive species, increasing defensible land, moving debris and snags, and building fire lines. The work is diverse and changes round to round!

Additionally, all corps members are required to complete volunteer hours that are independent from our service. We can obtain hours at any non-profit agency, doing short-term forms of service. We have been able to participate in a variety of online opportunities. Lastly, within our team we have opportunities for leadership and specialty roles. These include Assistant Team Leader, Service-Learning Initiator, Life After AmeriCorp Representative, Recruiter, Health and Wellness Coordinator, Media Representative, and Vehicle/Tools/Safety Coordinator. I serve as the Life After AmeriCorps representative where I help my teammates with resume building, goal setting, developing professional strengths and skills, and anything else related to their plans following the service term. 

What is the most rewarding thing about your work?

The people and communities I work with has been the most rewarding part of AmeriCorps. I cherish the relationships I have built with my teammates, supervisors, and the people we serve. I love that I have had the opportunity to partner with community members, and work alongside a team to effect change. A great example of this happened a few weeks ago when my team and I were doing winterizing on an elderly couple’s home.

The couple qualified for a housing program through the Community Action Plan where my team and I are currently serving. The couple was so grateful for our work and couldn’t express their gratitude enough. They even invited out the local newspaper to do a story because they were so impressed! Upon completing the work, and seeing how much it meant to them, I remember thinking that their reaction alone was enough to fuel me to this work.  I don’t know if I can change the whole world, but I can change an individual’s world and that makes all the difference.

What has it been like working with AmeriCorps during the pandemic?

In AmeriCorps, the safety of our team, our partnering agencies, and the community members is always a priority. My teammates and I live together, in a bubble, to simulate a family unit. We follow all the CDC guidelines including wearing cloth or N-95 masks, using gloves, using hand sanitizer and sanitizing surfaces, maintaining social distancing, avoiding public outings or large crowds, taking daily temperature and COVID-19 screening, and protocols on quarantining. Additionally, when we all arrived to campus we were isolated and tested multiple times to ensure clearance before departing to any project location.

Like the rest of society, AmeriCorps has been impacted and is adapting to the pandemic. For example, each corps member is required to complete service/volunteer hours that are separate from work. However, due to COVID-19, many of the agencies and service opportunities are now virtual. Fortunately, for AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) COVID-19 has not stopped work, but has encouraged precautions and considerations when traveling. Overall, I feel grateful to be doing this work, although I recognize ways the pandemic has changed how our work is done.

What advice do you have for other social work students?

Social Work is a growing, diverse and critical field of work. My advice is to explore and expand! Don’t limit the places a social worker can be, or your idea of the type of work a social worker can do.

CoSW Receives Funding from UK CURE COVID-19 Pilot Program

It is no surprise that COVID-19 has been associated with an increase in stress and anxiety. With a lack of social support, financial hardships and other challenging factors, there is understandably concern that suicide rates might increase.

In response, researchers at the College of Social Work (CoSW) are looking at how, for some people, the experience of living through a suicide attempt, isolation and struggle might lead to more resilience in the face of COVID-19 than for people who have not had these prior experiences.

The study, Mental Health & Suicide Attempt Survivors in the Time of COVID-19, will survey 1,650 people with a history of suicide attempt, depression or anxiety and compare them to 500 people without.

Dr. Julie Cerel, Director of the Suicide Prevention & Exposure Lab (SPEL) at the CoSW, and lead investigator for the project said the results will expand researchers’ understanding of resiliency for suicide attempt survivors and uncover strategies to decrease suicide risk for the population overall.

 “I’ve heard people say, ‘this is really hard but I’ve been though much harder times than this,’” said Cerel, “It really made me think that we need to be talking to suicide attempt survivors to learn how their experiences make them more resilient in the face of really hard times like COVID-19 social restrictions.”

The research project is part of a series of studies funded to examine social and behavioral issues related to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic. The Center for Clinical and Translational Science at the University of Kentucky, in collaboration with the UK CURE Alliance team, has launched a pilot funding program for research projects. Research for the UK CURE COVID-19 program falls into three Cure Core areas: Health and Biomedical Science, Materials and Methods, and Social Sciences. Cerel serves as the Core Leader for Cure Core 3 Social Science.


Flaherty Releases New Textbook and Webinar

Disability studies and human service professions aim to address persistent and emerging issues. To begin addressing those issues, Associate Professor in the University of Kentucky College of Social Work Chris Flaherty, Ph.D., and his co-author, Debra A. Harley, Ph.D., CRC, LPC, have recently published the only introduction to disability book with an interdisciplinary perspective that offers cross-disability and intersectionality coverage.

Purchase a copy here.

“Disability Studies for Human Services: An Interdisciplinary and Intersectionality Approach,” is a comprehensive and reader-friendly textbook, offering current, evidence-based knowledge on the key principles and practice of disability, while addressing advocacy, the disability rights movement, disability legislation, public policy, and law.

Focusing on significant trends, the new text provides coverage on persistent and emerging avenues in disability studies that are anticipated to impact a growing proportion of individuals in need of disability services. Woven throughout is an emphasis on psychosocial adaptation to disability supported by case studies and field-based experiential exercises.

Additionally, the text addresses the roles and functions of disability service providers. It also examines ethics in service delivery, credentialing, career paths, cultural competency, poverty, infectious diseases, and family and lifespan perspectives.

In anticipation of the textbook’s release, a special one-hour webinar was held on January 21, 2021. A recording of this webinar has been made available to the public, which features Flaherty, Harley, and Anthony Dotson, MSA, MMAS, Lieutenant Colonel (retired). You can watch the webinar here or at the bottom of the page.

The webinar, “Interdisciplinary and Intersectionality in Disability and Human Services in a Time of Challenge,” will explore the interdisciplinary and integrative approach to addressing timely topics such as infectious diseases; military culture, trauma and mental health of veterans; poverty; professional ethics in practice; and offender populations. More than just the “what’s” and “whys”, attendees will learn the “how’s” of intersectional strategies to service delivery.

For those who wish to purchase a copy of the new textbook, they can use the code HarleyFlaherty25 for 25% off the list price which includes free ground shipping in the domestic US. This offer is valid for the next six months. Purchase includes digital access for use on most mobile devices or computers. Faculty support includes PowerPoints, model syllabi, test bank, and instructor manual.

About the Authors:

Debra A. Harley, Ph.D., CRC, LPC

Provost Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Early Childhood at the University of Kentucky

Debra A. Harley, Ph.D., CRC, LPC, is a Provost Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Counselor Education at the University of Kentucky. She is co-coordinator of the doctoral program in Counselor Education. Dr. Harley’s research interests include disability issues, cultural diversity, substance use disorder, gender issues, LGBTQ, and ethics. She has published books entitled Disability Studies for Human Services: An Interdisciplinary and Intersectionality Approach; Cultural Diversity in Mental Health and Disability Counseling for Marginalized Groups; Disability and Vocational Rehabilitation in Rural Setting; Handbook of LGBT Elders: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Principles, Practices, and Policies; and Contemporary Mental Health Issues Among African Americans.

Chris Flaherty, Ph.D., MSW

Associate Professor in the University of College of Social Work

Chris Flaherty, Ph.D., MSW, is an Associate Professor in the University of College of Social Work. He is director of the College’s Military Behavioral Health (MBH) Research Laboratory, as well as the Graduate Certificate in MBH. He serves as a primary investigator for the US Army/UK Master of Social Work Education Collaborative. Dr. Flaherty’s research focus is in the area of behavioral health interventions for military and veteran populations. He currently serves as co-Investigator for the Department of Defense sponsored research to improve suicide postvention services within military settings.

Additionally, Dr. Janet Ford, Dr. Blake Jones, and Anthony Dotson, MSA, MMAS, Lieutenant Colonel (retired), served as contributing authors for the textbook.

Thrasher, Tose to Recieve Lyman T. Johnson Torch of Excellence Awards

The College of Social Work (CoSW) is thrilled to announce two students who will be receiving the Lyman T. Johnson Torch of Excellence Awards.

Shawndaya Thrasher and 1st Lt. Shaniek Tose will be representing the CoSW during the 30th annual Lyman T. Johnson Torch Bearer and Torch of Excellence awards via Facebook Live at noon Monday, February. 1. The program honors and celebrates African American students and alumni from each college who epitomize the ideals of Lyman T. Johnson.

The UK Alumni Association Lyman T. Johnson African American Alumni Group, in partnership with the University for Kentucky Office for Institutional Diversity, host the event each year. This year, however, will look a little different due to the pandemic and will see the presenting of the awards in a virtual space.

UK’s academic colleges select African-American alumni whose faith, hard work, and determination have positively affected the lives of people on the UK campus, the city, state, or nation. These individuals receive the Lyman T. Johnson Torch of Excellence Award. These colleges also choose African-American students within their respective college whose academic achievement and ability to impact the lives of others would warrant them to receive the Lyman T. Johnson Torch Bearer Award.

To watch this year’s awards presentation, tune into the UK Alumni Association’s Facebook page at noon Monday, Feb. 1.

Shawndaya Thrasher
Torch Bearer
Shawndaya Thrasher is a doctoral candidate in the UK College of Social Work (CoSW) and holds a master’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in criminology. Her research centers on understanding causes, contributing factors, and short- and long-term outcomes of child and adolescent bullying to inform policy, programming, prevention, and intervention efforts, with an emphasis on racial/ethnic differences. Her dissertation investigates racial/ethnic differences in adolescent health risk behaviors given earlier exposure of frequent bullying victimization.

Thrasher works as a research assistant with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Division of Analytics, where she primarily
focuses on policy and research related to child welfare, family permanency, and family preservation services. With over eight years of direct practice experience with children and families, she has previously worked as a youth behavioral specialist. On-campus, she serves as a student representative for the CoSW Doctoral Program Committee, is a co-founder and officer of the CoSW Student Community Organization, was the advocacy chairwoman for the Black Graduate Professional Student Association, and recruited students from underrepresented groups.

Shaniek Tose
Torch of Excellence
1st Lt. Shaniek Tose was born in Saint Elizabeth, Jamaica, the eighth of 10 children. When she was six years old, her family immigrated to the United States and settled in Boston. She graduated from East Boston High School and went to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she completed her undergraduate degree in 2010. While a student at Hampshire College, Tose completed an internship at Baycove Day Habilitation Center, which sparked her interest in social work and disability rights. She completed a multidisciplinary thesis in which she explored society’s treatment of individuals with disabilities and proposed a more holistic medical treatment model.

In March 2011, she enlisted in the U.S. Army as a combat medic and later became an electronic warfare specialist. In June 2018, Tose was selected to attend the U.S. Army/UK Master of Social Work program and received a commission in the Medical Service Corps. She is currently stationed in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, as a clinical social work intern in the Family Advocacy Clinic. She is a member of a participatory action research group, which is developing publications based on topics such as sexual assault in academia and social work leadership.

MSW Student Earns Degree from Spain

Earning your Master of Social Work degree (MSW) from the College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky (UK) is obtainable regardless of your location. With the 100% online format, students from around the world have access to a world-class education – including the experience and benefits that come with the in-person format.

While many students in the CoSW hail from Kentucky and other locations throughout the United States, one student, Tasha Kozak, is earning her MSW while living in Spain.

Tasha moved to Spain in 2017 to work for a cultural exchange education program within the public school system. Knowing that she wanted to advance her social work career, Tasha found the UK online MSW program. Finding a program that was both accredited in the U.S. and whose credentials could transfer over for any potential work in Europe was a great advantage.

“From the admissions process to my coursework, the UK staff and professors have been an invaluable source of support,” Tasha said.

And she continues to receive that same support throughout the program.

An essential component of the curriculum of UK’s MSW is the Field Education Program, which prepares students to engage with different communities as they develop proficiency within the social work core competencies while gaining professional practice.

Students work closely with program coordinators to identify and secure internship opportunities that provide supportive and positive learning environments. As a result, students will procure valuable, real-world experience to bolster their career options as they enter the field upon graduation.

For Tasha, that meant working with her field advisors in coordinating a practicum placement with the Red Cross of Spain, which she said is sure to expand both her learning and opportunities within the international social work sphere.

“I look forward to the doors it will open as I complete my MSW and move on to pursue my LCSW working with vulnerable populations,” she said.

CoSW Launches New Learning Management System for Continuing Education and Training

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way we interact. As a result, the demand for intuitive online and virtual training and support has never been higher.

The College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky has responded to this demand in a unique way.

On July 1, 2020, Missy Segress, Director of Centers and Labs, announced that CoSW had launched an innovative new Learning Management System (LMS). This system is designed to revolutionize the way knowledge and skill acquisition are approached across all aspects of the CoSW. The LMS will provide a comprehensive learning and support apparatus for users from multiple areas of need and interest without limitations associated with a physical location. Acting as a hub for high-impact training, learning, and support opportunities, the LMS will empower users to control their own learning paths from anywhere, at any time.

“This new approach to training will allow participants increased functionality associated with accessing a wide array of continuing education options, tracking training histories, and reporting to licensing and regulatory boards,” said Segress.

The CoSW LMS will house training platforms for continuing education, student internships, and field practica, and foster/adoptive parent training and support initiatives, among others. The LMS offers fully online training opportunities, live (virtual) training sessions, and web events. At present, the CoSW LMS offers more than seventy training, education, and support opportunities. Development for additional offerings is currently underway.

“We recognize that people need accessible, efficient, and effective continuing education and training opportunities,” said Segress. “The CoSW LMS is all about a customized user experience that streamlines the process for obtaining high-quality training and support.”

To learn more about the CoSW LMS, visit the website.

Success Against All Odds: From Aging Out of Foster Care to Social Work Grad

Can you recall a time when you felt the odds were stacked against you?

It’s a common phrase you’ve most likely used in casual conversation.

For Tamara Vest, “the odds were stacked against me” isn’t just a simple sentence to sum up an unfortunate situation. The 23-year-old has rarely been given a fair chance at succeeding.

And behind every success, she has a story filled with struggle.

“My childhood was rough, to say the least.”

As children, most of us believe in fairy tales. But Vest didn’t have a storybook upbringing. At 9 years old, reality set in when her father lost his fight with cancer.

“I had to be carried out of the funeral home, because I refused to leave. It’s always something I struggle with,” Vest said. “It hurt me when I was a child. But I never really completely understood the loss until I was older.”

The loss was immense, since he was the primary caregiver. Meanwhile, Vest’s mother was facing a battle of her own. Unable to escape the relentless grip of substance misuse, she couldn’t care for Vest.

Lengthy and tiring court proceedings ensued.

Eventually, her older brother was awarded custody. Due to the tumultuous nature of his household, Vest found herself wishing she had been placed anywhere but there.

“It was the most traumatic experience of my life. Going through just about every kind of abuse you could imagine as a young child and teenager was extremely hard,” she said. “Even though they were my kin, I felt unwanted and unwelcome. I hated to go home, and school was an escape.”

But with the ring of every afternoon bell, Vest was transported back to reality.

“I was scared to speak up in fear that it might make the situation worse, or that I would end up in foster care — ironically.”

*****

Eventually, Vest began to confide in school counselors about the ongoing mental and physical abuse. Around the same time, she returned home from school one afternoon to be nonchalantly told to pack her bags.

“I was 16, and my brother decided he didn’t want to take care of me anymore, so he took me to a homeless shelter.”

Vest spent the next two months at Arbor Youth Services, a shelter for children and teens, before being placed in a foster home. 

At the time of her placement, a social worker told Vest there was only one home in Lexington fostering teenagers — bringing into focus an issue that is rarely addressed. “It seemed there was a lack of wanting to foster children over a certain age.”

Vest stayed in the foster home just shy of one year.

“Regardless of age, you never outgrow the need for someone to care about you, for someone to love you and for a family,” she continued. “I felt like I would never have a family of my own. I felt like I would never be accepted for who I was, and I certainly felt like my existence was a dollar sign.”

Vest was tired of being used.

So, at 17, she decided to take part in a program that provided an apartment. By definition, Vest was still a child, but she learned to embrace a new lifestyle — one that required confidence and independence.

Vest received assistance with paying rent and was given a grocery stipend. The only caveat — she either had to be in school full time, working full time or be part time for both. 

“It was hard, because I didn’t have any support. I literally had to teach myself how to cook. I also was never able to obtain my permit or driver’s license,” Vest continued. “I faced challenges in being able to advocate for my needs and meet my needs.”

Once she turned 18, Vest had the option of leaving foster care or recommitting until she was 21. Fed up with “being in the system,” she decided to embark on a new journey.

Determined to better her future, Vest began her college career at Bluegrass Community and Technical College — pursuing a degree in political science. However, she soon realized the passion just wasn’t there.

“During my time off, I reflected. I thought about the people who brought about positive change in my life — they were social workers. So, I decided to start there.”

*****

Vest returned to BCTC and earned her associate’s degree with a focus in social work.

In 2018, she transferred to the College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky — shattering every statistic that told her she would be unable to pursue higher education.

Vest felt more prepared than ever to earn a bachelor’s degree. But continuing her education wasn’t without challenges.

“The staff in the college were extremely supportive,” she said. “It was finally an environment where I felt worthy and accepted.”

Vest credits faculty members Kalea Benner and Diane Loeffler and Dean Jay Miller for being incredible resources. “I believe the flexibility and support of these individuals helped me recognize the strengths within myself to succeed in my undergraduate journey.”

“Tamara’s perseverance is a testimony to her grit and determination to ensure she can help others create positive change,” Benner said. “Using the very factors that challenged her as motivation to make sure others are positioned to succeed, truly reflects the values of the social work profession. Tamara manifests the Wildcat spirit in all that she does.”

And in that spirit, Vest wondered how she could help others achieve success.

During her time at UK, she was introduced to Voices of the Commonwealth (VOC) — an organization that advocates for foster youth. Vest was asked if she would be interested in telling her story and, emphatically, said yes.

But her work with VOC became more than just telling her story. Vest soon found herself doing work she at one time swore she would never get involved in — foster care and child welfare.

“I learned very quickly that my experience is vital to creating change for that population.”

*****

As Vest prepares to graduate, 2020 has been a painful reminder that life doesn’t always go according to plan.

“As a former foster youth with no support, I relied on my income to support myself. However, my job closed during the first months of the pandemic and unemployment resources were hardly enough to cover food — let alone my rent,” she said. “I still fear that everything I’ve worked for could be taken away from me in a matter of seconds.”

But Vest also knows the power of perseverance.

Less than 10% of foster youth graduate from college, and she will be one of them. Additionally, Vest was chosen as the December Commencement student speaker.

“There were times in my life when I didn’t believe that I would even reach the age of 18. So here I am at age 23, receiving a bachelor’s degree, and it is beyond surreal.”

But Vest’s journey at UK is far from over. This spring, she will be pursuing a master’s degree, while working at a private foster care agency.

Vest values her education, but she is also eager to channel her passion into purpose by helping foster teens who feel overlooked and underestimated beat the odds.

“I’m an example of someone who came from nothing and made everything for myself. It is a long process, it is a hard process, but the results are so worth it. Investing in yourself and your future is never something you will regret.”

See this story in Herald-Leader. Vest’s journey is also mentioned by WTVQ here.

UK Social Work Launching Support Group for Adopted Kentucky Teens

By Lindsey Piercy

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 23, 2020)  In Kentucky there are nearly 10,000 young people in foster care, of which nearly one-third are waiting for their “forever” adoptive home. That’s why the College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky remains committed to supporting adoptive and foster families.

“Having been in out-of-home care myself, I can certainly appreciate the complexities facing foster and adoptive families,” Jay Miller, dean of the CoSW, said. “Our college is focused on actualizing a commitment to those families through cutting-edge programming, and we are able to do so in a way that is innovative, intentional and impactful.”

November marks National Adoption Month — a time to raise awareness about the urgent need for adoptive families. This year’s theme, “Engage Youth: Listen and Learn,” highlights the importance of having productive conversations with teenagers in adoptive/foster care.

In an effort to facilitate dialogue, the CoSW is launching Adoption Support for Kentucky-Teens — a statewide, virtual support group for adopted teens ages 14-17.

“ASK-Teens is a vital first step in engaging youth who have experienced adoption with the purpose of listening to their perspectives, learning from their experiences and offering a platform for constructive peer and professional support,” Melissa Segress, director of the CoSW’s centers and labs, explained.

According to research conducted by the CoSW Training Resource Center, there is a great need for emotional support for adoptive families. Specifically, findings from a statewide assessment underscored the need for services specific to teenagers with lived foster/adoptive experiences. 

Adolescence is a vulnerable time, especially for adopted children. ASK-Teens offers real connections through Adoption Support for Kentucky (ASK). The award-winning peer support program has been serving adoptive, foster and kinship families for more than two decades. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, all ASK support groups and trainings are being offered virtually.

As with all ASK services, ASK-Teens harnesses technology to organize virtual meetings through a secure online platform. Additionally, group sessions will occur twice a month and will be led by an experienced behavioral health clinician.

These discussions offer a safe space to share personal experiences without fear of judgment.

“ASK-Teens is an innovative new program aimed at meeting the unique needs of Kentucky families,” Miller said. “With a program that is rooted in a common purpose, aimed at a common good, it is sure to be impactful for the Commonwealth.” 

For more information about ASK-Teens, you can watch this video, call 859-257-6650 or text ASKKY to 31996.

Irina Osmolovska

With students ranging from Kentucky to New York, Texas to Wisconsin, earning your Master in Social Work (MSW) degree at the College of Social Work (CoSW) is obtainable no matter your distance from Lexington.

In May, the CoSW welcomed its first-ever summer online MSW cohort. Joining the inaugural group was Irina Osmolovska. Born and raised in Belarus, a small country in Central Europe, the roots of pursuing social work began to take hold in her heart at a young age.

“When my grandfather was dying of cancer, I was old enough to understand that in this fight, we, and other people, need not just compassion and medical care, but also understanding on how to navigate through a complex system of laws and resources to make it easier for people in need,” Irina said in her MSW application essay.

Irina first started her higher education journey by earning her first degree, a Doctor of Medicine from Belarusian State Medical University. She spent three years working with Doctors Without Borders (DWB), an independent, global movement that provides medical aid where it’s needed most. DWB works in conflict zones, after natural disasters, during epidemics, in long-term care settings, and more.

Afterward, Irina wanted to pursue a career where she could combine both her medical knowledge, experience, and skills with her passion for helping people. It was clear that social work was the best fit.

She knew she wanted to help others in need, and with a foot in the right direction, Irina started to research where and how she could earn her masters.

“I always wanted to be around people, helping, teaching, or just being a part of somebody’s story. But I was missing systematic knowledge to be successful in what I love to do,” Irina said. “[A] Master’s degree for me is not just a degree, it is a great opportunity to meet new people, explore new possibilities and get to know the country that became my new home.”

The married mom of two, now living in the Bay Area of California with her husband, came across the University of Kentucky (UK) in her research. She noted seeing the high graduation rates for UK, which was not only a sign of success for the university but for herself as well. Knowing she wanted to finish what she started, Irina began to consider the MSW program at the CoSW.

She was also intrigued by the graduate certificate in Military Behavioral Health that she could earn while obtaining her MSW. It would be an excellent segue for her career pathway. Upon graduation with her MSW, Irina wants to continue her passion of helping others by becoming a healthcare social worker and potentially working in Veterans Affairs.

“In simple words, I wanted to help people,” she said. “Maybe I sound cliche, but I really mean it.”

When Irina isn’t working on making the world a better place, she enjoys traveling and exploring new places with her family and reading real, paper books. She also hopes to start a support group for people with spinal cord injury.

And while better late than never, Irina said she wishes she started school earlier, noting that it’s not scary, but rather challenging and fun. But in the end, she’s glad she chose to make the leap toward her earning her MSW. From the great support and interactions she’s received to the coursework, Irina knows she’s destined for success.

Irina also said that to write explanatory essay is not hard as it spells. So to use it you just can spend few hours

“I feel like I made a great choice, and after my first semester, I am getting even more confident in my choice of school. Classes I’ve taken so far were great, good material, [and] amazing teachers,” Irina said.