For Zachary Henderson, a first-year Master’s student in the School of Social Work, the MSW program has provided a wealth of opportunities to be involved in programs and policy-making to create real change in the Kalamazoo community. After earning his BA in sociology from Western, Zachary decided to shift his focus from sociological theory to the real-world applications of social work; he also wanted to make use of his Spanish language skills gained after studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador earlier this year. Our MSW program was an ideal choice for him, giving him the chance to work with the City of Kalamazoo and the city’s new Family Engagement Program.
As part of his field experience in the MSW program, Zachary’s interest in working with Spanish-language groups led him to an internship performing data-entry for the Hispanic-American Council in Kalamazoo. After a time, he realized that he wanted to have a better view of how governmental / municipal programs can make positive change for Kalamazoo citizens, so he talked to his former professor and City Commissioner Dr. Don Cooney about the role of policy in social work. Seeing Zachary’s passion and enthusiasm, Dr. Cooney helped to connect him with the Lewis Walker Institute and, through the Institute, with a new internship for the City of Kalamazoo. As a student intern for the city, he undertakes research about various government programs, including policies to reduce gun violence, poverty, and truancy. On his first days in his new position as a student researcher, Zachary participated in a meeting of the City Council with Mayor Bobby Hopewell, Dr. Cooney, Dr. Tim Ready, City Commissioner Laura Lam, and former Commissioner Stephanie Moore, and was excited by the opportunity to engage immediately in conversation about policy, and to see how his research could have real-world effects. Currently, he is working with the city to provide employment assistance programming for impoverished individuals. As Zachary explains, “it’s not just providing clothing, or help writing resumes or letters — we want to help people make real connections with employers and CEOs in the community. We need to see real change and improvement in peoples’ lives.” His passion for this work is clear as he excitedly talks about the other programs he’s researching for the city; “I get excited by actually seeing problems being solved, by seeing the impact of policy first-hand!”
The difference between the environment of the classroom and of the internship is clear, though Zachary has found a bridge between the two in order to make his skills and experience work for him. He explains, “social work is extremely research-based. What you learn in the classroom, those critical thinking skills — you really get a chance to put them to work in the field. You see the difference between classroom applications and real-world applications. But my internships have also really taught me to open up, and to be curious… I’m getting interested in the history of these groups I’m working with — too see the roots of larger conflicts, so that we understand where we are now.”
His department is enthusiastic about his work, as well. According to SSW Field placement coordinator Jennifer Harrison, “Zachary is not only completing his field placement in an arena that will allow him to research and advance policy to decrease gun violence, reduce poverty, and effect truancy rates, but was also recently hired in the Family Engagement Project working in North Kalamazoo to engage families in early childhood education. The Family Engagement Project is a partnership between the Douglass Community Association and the Office of Institutional Equity, and is led by Dr. Linwood Cousins. Zachary is excited to have the opportunity to partner with community members to make an impact in both of these programs.” Speaking about this recent opportunity, Zachary says that even though his work with the Family Engagement Project has just begun, already he can see the dramatic and insidious impacts of poverty, and how poverty is ignored or misunderstood by the wider community. Though he has begun by taking surveys and inputting data in order to help the Project conduct research, Zachary has also participated in meetings between the Kalamazoo Mothers of Hope, the city police, teachers, doctors, and other citizens, listening as community members discussed how they interacted with police, what resources they needed in order to find employment. This kind of personal interaction with the community, Zachary says, “makes you realize what some of these families are up against.”
Zachary has also been an active leader in his own program. He was one of the co-founders of WMU’s student chapter of the Association for Behavioral Sciences and Medical Education (ABSAME) — the first student chapter of ABSAME in the nation — for which Zachary now serves as President. For other students considering enrolling in WMU’s MSW program, Zachary’s message is clear: “Go for it! You can take the MSW program in whatever direction you want… you can make the work fit within what you want for your life, whether that means working in politics, in a school, in a hospital. You just need to know to ask for what you want or need, if you think your program isn’t going in the right direction for you.”
— Ilse Schweitzer VanDonkelaar, WMU Graduate College