field work

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


A Passion for Policy: MSW Student Zachary Henderson Works to Effect Change in Kalamazoo

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MSW Student Zachary Henderson surveys the view over Quito, Ecuador
MSW Student Zachary Henderson surveys the view over Quito, Ecuador

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

Making the best of your graduate experience……..

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This past January, I began a new journey, a doctoral program. Now, I’m no stranger to graduate school, I completed my MS in 2007, but this time it was different, I was going into a not so familiar territory, the Geosciences! Although I had an idea of what I wanted study, I just wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. It wasn’t until I met the professor, who would quickly become my advisor, did I know what I really wanted to study. That is when I joined “Team Geochemistry”.

Since joining this research group, I have had opportunities to do things I never thought I would do such as field work. In my previous studies, I was a chemist. More specifically, I studied biochemistry (cell signaling pathways). The thought never crossed my mind of going out in the field, sitting in a canoe in the middle of the lake collecting water samples or going to collect mud and analyzing it. Not to mention travel to a different country just to do field work.

Recently, I had the privilege to visit The University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario to partake in a massive project doing field work with the ecohydrology group. When I volunteered for this project I did not know what I would be doing or where it would be, all I knew was that they needed some extra hands. Along the way I did received some information such as here is the schedule (which included overnight sampling), this is where you are going to be staying, and make sure you bring warm clothes. Now you might say why I didn’t ask, well it really didn’t matter because I was going to spend three weeks in Canada! However, by doing some research on their website I discovered that they were flooding a swamp to study its biogeochemistry.

As I started working, there were some really intense sampling days, which were 12 hours long and as I mentioned  before night sampling. Just imagine walking in the woods with just a headlamp and a flash light and having to take water samples at 1:00 in the morning. At times it was kind of scary because you had this fear of getting lost, but it was very exciting and I enjoyed every minute of it. That even included the last day, when I fell in the swamp. Yes, you read right I fell in, not once but twice. But what can I say, it’s all part of the experience and I just made the best of it.

So it must be said, while I was in Canada, I had a wonderful time. I got to meet so really neat people, who are doing some amazing research. I can only hope that I have many other opportunities just like that one. So as I embarked on this journey I won’t always know what to expect, but I am definitely going to make the very best of my experience!

Until Next!

Denisha Griffey