Helping Washington youth in foster care overcome challenges in school and achieve life-long success
It was not until after college that social work was even a blip on the radar of Skylar Cole, AM ’14. At a small, Lutheran affiliated, liberal arts college in Tacoma, WA, she majored in sociology with the assumption that she would go on to earn her PhD in that field because she liked writing and research.
But she is now a Senior Education Specialist at Treehouse in Seattle, WA, and she uses the term “sweet spot” to describe this organization that supports youth in foster care. In part because of her longstanding commitment to the service-oriented model of servant leadership, she decided to join AmeriCorps before entering graduate school. While co-leading a program that helped urban youth succeed in middle school, she met a young woman who changed her own career trajectory.
“When this young woman chose me as the person to tell about being sexually assaulted, I was confronted with the heartbreakingly insufficient response of the legal, mental health, and education systems to interpersonal violence. It became totally incongruent for me to continue in academia when I saw in real-life the personal and structural implications of this kind of trauma,” Cole says.
Cole was then eager to attend a school that had an outstanding reputation for training social workers to work with her chosen population of survivors of trauma and marginalization. Having spent a summer studying Spanish in Guatemala, as well as a semester volunteering at a school and an orphanage in Ghana, Cole was willing to relocate anywhere in the United States to train in a city that is confronting these issues. And because she knew it was not likely that she would remain in Chicago, she anticipated the importance of the name recognition of the University of Chicago.
“I’m really proud of being a social worker who graduated from SSA, although I still encounter some who seem to think that social workers only get involved when children are being taken away from their families. At SSA I definitely found the academic rigor that I was looking for. But it would not have been possible for me to establish my current career without many other components that make SSA a wonderful place. For example, when I considered the salary that I was likely to earn after graduation, I realized that I would really need the financial aid that I was offered by SSA. I’m really grateful for that,” Cole says.
Cole’s solid preparation for the multi-systemic work that she does in support of trauma survivors was provided not only in practical classes but also in a fieldwork placement that was focused on case management. And it is very important to her now – as it was when she was a student – that self-awareness is identified by SSA as being a vital part of a social worker’s professional development, both in practice and in everyday life.
“Because I was totally new to the field when I entered SSA, I was creating my professional identity even as I was completing assignments in classes and practicing in my fieldwork placement. When applying to SSA, I was unsure about mentioning my previous personal psychotherapy. But when I arrived on campus, I was reassured that knowing your own issues is respected. I began seeing another therapist during my second year at SSA, and it was very affirming to be comfortable on the other side of the desk with someone who happened to be a SSA alumna,” Cole says.
She was inspired to ultimately apply for her present position at Treehouse by examples of employment described by alumni she heard talk on a panel during SSA’s Orientation. She took full advantage of SSA Career Services and continues to think outside the box on who is part of her network.
“Although geography prevents me from being at as many alumni events as I would like, I love to share with my peers about how we are growing and evolving as social workers. I was excited to be in Chicago recently for the wedding of two of my SSA classmates and to talk about the highs and lows of our first years as professionals. It was a great time of reflection on how far we had come since graduation,” Cole says.
Cole has quickly advanced to a leadership role that includes training staff and supervising social work interns. She developed a professional development plan that emulates what she learned at SSA regarding policies, practices, and perspectives. She also believes that SSA prepared her very well to work on teams, both professionally and in the community.
“I consider it to be an incredible honor that clients let me into their lives, and that I can interface in a positive way with others who are important to them. I hope to expand my role to become even more involved with an integrated, research-based, service delivery model that will decrease the disparity in graduation rates between foster children and their peers,” Cole says.