Shining a Light on Women Leaders in Social Work: WMU Alumna Courtney Dunsmore

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Courtney Dunsmore, MSW
Alumna Courtney Dunsmore, Master of Social Work

This past spring, Courtney Dunsmore walked across the stage to receive her Master’s degree in Social Work from WMU. After two years’ of work in the Policy, Planning, and Administration concentration of the MSW, Courtney’s experiences in that program include a co-authored article with her mentors, a professional conference presentation to a packed house in Las Vegas, various committee appointments, and a field placement that has confirmed her beliefs that this degree was absolutely the right choice for her.

A former Bronco undergraduate with degrees in sociology and psychology, Courtney knew she wanted to work in the human service field but dreamed of travel and exploring the world beyond Michigan. Soon after her first graduation from WMU, she followed her heart and joined AmeriCorps, moving to South Carolina and working chiefly in administrative program planning for Georgetown County United Way AmeriCorps*VISTA Collaborative. After her time in this program, Courtney knew that working and collaborating with non-profits was what she wanted to do… she looked briefly at graduate programs across the country, but eventually her vision shifted back to Michigan. She realized that she knew the MSW program here — she knew the department, knew the people she’d be able to work with — and it became clear that returning to WMU for graduate study was the correct path.

This year, the second year of her program, Courtney has had the opportunity to work with two faculty mentors to research trends in women’s roles in Social Work. Having previously established good professional relationships with Drs. Barbara Barton and Dee Sherwood, Courtney was invited to help them dig further into Dr. Sherwood’s dissertation research: a study of women in leadership positions in social work, the challenges they experienced and the progress they made.

They analyzed a group of interviews of female social workers that Dr. Sherwood had recorded, picking out ten as representative and then reading through and coding the interviewees’ responses. In this process, they narrowed in on different types of gender biases and micro-aggressions that the women experienced during their time in the field, especially as they attempted to enter leadership roles. Courtney and her mentors discovered that when these women attempted to pursue administrative roles or positions with greater responsibilities, they were often marginalized in various ways or told “maybe you should pursue a different direction.” Discouraging, certainly… but Courtney says she also finds this eye-opening, as she herself intends to head in the direction of leadership and administration within Social Work and may be faced with similar challenges as she forges ahead. She also observes that, in a project like this, the research process itself is fascinating — this kind of analysis demonstrates that these aren’t just individual stories or anecdotes about peoples’ job experiences; when taken collectively, the data show quantifiable trends in the ways women are treated and what influences them in the workplace.

Dr. Dee Sherwood, Dr. Barbara Barton, and Courtney Dunsmore at the Ethnographic and Qualitative Research Conference
Dr. Dee Sherwood, Dr. Barbara Barton, and Courtney Dunsmore at the Ethnographic and Qualitative Research Conference

Once Courtney and Drs. Barton and Sherwood had compiled their information, they began looking for conferences where they might all present. They applied and were accepted to present as part of a panel at the 27th Annual Ethnographic and Qualitative Research Conference, held this past February in Las Vegas. Courtney’s contribution to the trio’s 15-minute talk was to speak about past and present trends in women’s leadership in the SW profession — and they spoke to a full house! Following her talk, Courtney was able to check out posters and to speak to a number of graduate students about their dissertations. She reflects that it was invigorating to hear students talk about the genesis of their research. Spurred on by these conversations, Courtney says she spent a day looking at Ph.D. programs after the conference, but right now is planning to go straight into employment in the field. Regardless of whether she plans to undertake a doctorate in the future, she is building her credentials right now, as she is currently working on an article (co-authored with Drs. Barton and Sherwood) based on their presentation in Las Vegas, that they will submit to the Journal of Ethnographic and Qualitative Research. As she writes the literature review for the manuscript, “Falling Silent?: Analyzing the Voices of Women Leaders in Social Work,” Courtney says it’s awesome to be co-authoring with her mentors, and a great opportunity to get a clear view of how professors collaborate and see their research through to the final stage of publication.

This spring, she completed a field placement as part of her MSW program, working at Southwest Michigan Behavioral Health in Kalamazoo, and has found it invaluable to be able to apply lessons learned in class to situations in her internship. This placement has allowed her to acquire hands-on experience in the kind of administrative and organizational tasks she would like to do in her career; she has performed gap analysis of current policies and crosswalked those policies with requirements for NCQA Health Plan accreditation at her current institution.

Courtney’s service to the WMU community also extends beyond her academic and research work. In her second year of the MSW, she served as a graduate assistant in the Dean’s Office at the College of Health and Human Services, working directly with the Communications Coordinator of CHHS. Also that year, she served on two committees within the School of Social Work — the Field Education Subcommittee and the Admissions Policy Committee, working with faculty and students to understand and improve the policies behind field placement and admission in the SSW. Finally, the joined the Bernhard Center Advisory Board as an alumna representative, serving on this board since last fall and voting on matters such as new vendors contracts at the Bronco Mall and reviewing and approving the Bernhard Center budget for the upcoming academic year.

All of Courtney’s hard work and dedication to her MSW, CHHS and the university really paid off as Courtney was one of five recipients of the Graduate Student “Make a Difference Award” for the 2015 academic year. She received this award at the Graduate Student Association banquet on April 17. In the words of her nominator,

“Courtney is always the first person to jump on volunteer activities within the university as well as the Kalamazoo Community. We were given the opportunity to participate in the bi-annual Point In Time Count at a local homeless shelter through one of our classes and Courtney was eager to help out. She also dedicated her day off on MLK day to the MLK Day of Service and volunteered with The Land Bank helping to restore some apartments in Washington Square. There is no doubt in my mind that Courtney is a true Bronco through and through.”

When asked what advice she might have for future graduate students in the MSW program (or beyond), she advises students should advocate for themselves: “It’s important to reach out, find connections, and network — not all experiences are going to be handed to you.” She has the highest praise for her professors and mentors, whom she says have been more than happy to advocate for her and help her along with her career. In the end, though, it comes down to you — “what you put in is what you get out of the program… if you want to succeed, you have to put the work in!”

— Ilse Schweitzer VanDonkelaar, WMU Graduate College


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