SOAR Alumni Updates
Advocates for Change: SOAR Alumni Earn MSW’s
Paris Freeman, BA Behavioral Sciences, 2019; MSW University of Michigan, 2022
When Paris Freeman began working at SHAR House as a therapist, it was a full circle moment for the CASL alum (Behavioral Sciences, ’19). Years earlier Paris was employed at SHAR in a variety of office positions, but her goal was always to become a licensed clinical social worker. She realized that goal in August of 2022 when she graduated from the University of Michigan School of Social Work with her MSW after completing an intensive 12 month accelerated program with an emphasis in clinical social work. “I went to school so I could do what I want to do,” says Paris, “I’m at a stage of life where I need to know I will thrive in my workplace, not just survive.”
In 2014, Paris made the decision to return to school and complete her bachelor’s degree because she felt she wasn’t living up to her potential and she always dreamed of graduating with a Michigan degree. At UM-Dearborn, Paris sought out opportunities to grow as a researcher and future clinician. She was involved in numerous research projects with her professors, most notably with sociologist Paul Draus and economist Juliette Roddy sharing, “I valued those relationships as I learned to do research. I was invested in them and their research, but what mattered is that they were equally invested in me. Over time my confidence grew along with my interests.” Her experiences as a research assistant led to a position at the Institute for Social Research, primarily working out of the UM Detroit Center, where she is still engaged in research studying the effects of the pandemic on the community of IV drug users in the metro Detroit area.
Recognizing a need for greater cultural competency in social work education, Paris plans to pursue a doctorate in social work so that she can teach in addition to developing her clinical practice.
Paris offers this advice to current SOAR students, “The challenges and heaviness you’ve faced in your lifetime have not been in vain. It’s gotten you here. Unless you’ve been through the fire, you cannot come out as gold. Welcome the challenges. They are making you a better person, more well-rounded, and able to handle the good that’s to come.”
Courtney Grove-Dyer, B.A. Integrative Studies, 2019; MSW University of Michigan, 2021
CASL alum Courtney Grove-Dyer says the resiliency she developed while raising two children on her own impacted her approach to her education at both the UM-Dearborn campus where she earned a B.A. in Integrative Studies and on the UM-Ann Arbor campus where she completed a Master of Arts in Social Work with an emphasis in community change. “With kids, there’s always something to be done, whether you like it or not. You can’t waste time thinking about what you want to do. You just do what’s in front of you. Better to just do it and get it done.”
Courtney relied on that resiliency while starting the MSW program at the University of Michigan during the height of the pandemic when the program was all online. It was challenging and she felt isolated at times, but Courtney persisted, made connections and got involved. She became the field director of the student organization Black Radical Healing Pathways a group focused on radical social justice efforts to bring about transformative change on campus and in the community. After her first year in the program, she completed her field placement internship through Community Movement Builders Detroit at the Mama Akua Community House, a thriving community center in Detroit’s Zone 8 neighborhood founded by UM-Dearborn alum Yusef Shakur, who also earned his MSW from UM-Ann Arbor.
Courtney came to UM-Dearborn to complete her undergraduate degree because she wanted to start a non-profit to empower single Black mothers and others from historically oppressed communities. To be successful she knew she needed coursework in grant writing and organizational leadership, along with a degree. Courtney participated in several undergraduate showcases highlighting her research into African American women’s leadership. She was the Office of Metropolitan Impact’s intern of the year in 2018 and was selected to be the 2018 commencement speaker. Courtney was particularly inspired by her experiences in SOAR, “I would not be in the position I am today without the support and existence of SOAR. Because of SOAR, I was inspired to take the necessary steps to start my non-profit Detroit Power Detroit to help eliminate racial disparities among African Americans to create upward mobility.” Courtney is developing the non-profit while also working in the social work field and raising her children.
Through Detroit Power Detroit, Courtney offers free financial literacy training, youth sports development, and other programs. Her advice to SOAR students is “Never give up on your dreams. They are achievable no matter what your circumstances were or are now.”
Benita Robinson, B.A. Women’s and Gender Studies and Sociology, 2015; MSW Wayne State University, 2021
Benita Robinson started her master’s degree journey at Wayne State University in 2018 while working full time at Avalon Healing Center (formerly Wayne County SAFE), a nonprofit offering trauma informed care to sexual assault survivors. Prior to beginning graduate school and launching her career, Benita was a SOAR participant and student at UM-Dearborn double majoring in Women’s and Gender Studies and Sociology. She started her undergraduate studies at UM-Dearborn in 2010 as a computer science major but found herself increasingly drawn to courses and faculty engaged in social justice teaching and practice. “The entry point for me was getting involved in WILL (Women in Learning and Leadership) and taking the Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies with Dr. Bergeron,” said Benita, “It was such an awakening for me. I had no idea there was a field of study addressing issues that mattered to me.” Through WILL she became involved in Take Back the Night and numerous campus and community initiatives that focused on empowering others. Benita was a founding member of UM-Dearborn’s American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) chapter where she organized and helped facilitate AAUW’s Start Smart salary negotiation workshops and served on the AAUW National Student Advisory Council.
Benita’s experiences at UM-Dearborn influenced her decision to pursue a career in social work. “Once I started seeing the impact my involvement and work on campus had on students and others in the community, my interest in community development and organizing to impact policy change grew. I knew then that at some point an MSW was in my future.” She earned her MSW from Wayne State in 2021 with an emphasis in community and leadership and credits the program with teaching the theoretical knowledge that informed the work she was already doing at Avalon.
At Avalon, in her role as Director of Crisis Services and Education, Benita develops a wide range of programs and trainings for sexual assault service providers to improve their skill sets, become more empathic, and provide more culturally competent care for survivors of sexual violence. In addition to growing in her current career, Benita plans to teach social work in the future, hoping to bring a different lens to share with students to help them understand how policies are created that can intentionally or unintentionally marginalize communities. Her advice to SOAR students is to “Own your voice. Don’t let others shape your narrative or silence you. That’s harmful to you and keeps you from living to your full potential. Despite anything you’ve experienced, you can still fulfill your dreams.”
Spotlight on SOAR alumna Joi White
Joi White, B.A., CASL ’21, Behavioral Sciences
Joi White has a message for SOAR students, “Don’t let life get in the way of your education. No matter what, finish and finish strong. Never quit even when it gets hard.” Joi’s persistence in achieving her dream of a Michigan degree paid off when she graduated in 2021, ten years after she started at the university. As a busy mom of seven – her oldest just started college and her youngest is in kindergarten, Joi juggled many competing demands for her time occasionally needing to take time off from school, but she always returned, never taking her eyes off her goal. Driven by a love of learning and a desire to help others, Joi flourished as a behavioral science major stating, “The blend of sociology, psychology, and anthropology made sense to me when it came to understanding others. You can’t really help someone if you don’t know who they are on the inside and outside.”
While in her last semester at UM-Dearborn, Joi interned at the Development Center in Detroit, a non-profit offering mental health services, early childhood programs, and adult employment assistance aimed at helping individuals and families improve their lives while facing challenging circumstances. Shortly after graduating, Joi was able to leverage the skills and insights she gained from her internship, education, and life experience into a position as a community health advisor. Within the next couple of years, Joi plans to enroll in a master’s degree program in public health or social work.
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