August 20, 2018  

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USM Graduate Student is First Mississippian to Earn National Social Work Fellowship

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Evelyn Sullivan

Evelyn Sullivan is making history, for her family and for the state of Mississippi.

As a first-generation college student, the Gulfport native earned a public health degree from The University of Southern Mississippi and is now working on her Master of Social Work degree at USM's Gulf Park campus.

In the fall of 2017, the Council on Social Work Education selected her as the first Mississippian in the four-year history of its Minority Fellowship Program for master’s students, encompassing 160 recipients during that span.

More Opportunities for Mentoring

One of the major benefits of the one-year fellowship is support and mentoring for women who want to be social work educators, particularly women of color.

“One of the biggest issues is there are not a lot of social workers of color who have Ph.D.’s and also teach,” Sullivan says.

In fact, the CSWE’s most recent “Statistics on Social Work Education in the United States” publication, from 2016, indicates:

  • 16.3% of full-time social work faculty and 14.8% of part-time faculty were African-American.
  • 19.5% of enrolled social work Ph.D. students and 15.2% of graduates were African-American.

 “Many social workers don’t go past a master’s degree because they don’t have to,” Sullivan says. “You can do clinical work with a master’s degree. But to teach and get tenure, you need to have PhD. That means extra student loans, and a lot of students can’t afford deeper debt.”

She says she learned of a doctoral fellowship program that would offset some of the costs associated with pursuing a Ph.D., something she hopes to do in the next three to five years.

‘A Positive Reflection on … Education and Training’

“Evelyn’s success in earning a national-level fellowship, especially one as competitive and selective as the MFP-Youth for Master’s Students fellowship, results from her obvious commitment to the health and well-being of children and young people from diverse backgrounds, as well as the strength of her application,” says Dr. Karen Coats, dean of the USM Graduate School. 

“Moreover, it is such a positive reflection on the education and training she is receiving in our MSW program. I hope Evelyn’s MFP fellowship experience will encourage her to continue her education with the goal of earning a doctorate.”

Sullivan’s fellowship has also provided a camaraderie among those who are the first in their family to attend college and who often lack a support system to help with the experience.

“When I say struggles, just things that students of color go through,” Sullivan says. “Being a first-generation student, not having family members who know how to tell you what things to do when you’re in school, what to avoid, scholarships to apply for, not to take out student loans. … You don’t have that mentorship that other students have.”

‘There are Others with Similar Struggles’

The fellowship’s major event each year is a three-day training session. Sullivan attended that training in early March in Alexandria, Virginia.

“That was the big one, and it was fabulous,” she says. “It was really good to be around so many minorities … to know that there are others with similar struggles as me, who want to be social workers. Some want to be in politics and policy, some just want to do direct practice. It’s refreshing to talk to people who look like me and have similar issues.”

The Alexandria trip came directly after a two-day session in Hartford, Connecticut, for a “campaign school” for social workers through the University of Connecticut; the session introduces social workers to the ins and outs of running for office or working on a campaign. 

“There were awesome speakers,” Sullivan says. “They talked a lot about women in politics and how great a need there is for women to be in politics, especially women of color. Since I am a woman of color that really spoke to me.”

‘I’ll be More of a Force to Take on Things’

Sullivan has also applied for a fellowship through the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan, Washington, D.C.-based research and policy institute. If accepted, she would work for two years in a state legislature outside Mississippi.

“I’ll learn how to follow bills, write bills, how legislators move and things they do on a daily basis,” she says. “It will really be a head start on being a politician and knowing what happens behind the scenes. When I come back to Mississippi, I’ll be more of a force to take on things happening in my state.”

Sullivan’s pursuit of additional experiences does not surprise Michelle Brazeal, an instructor and grant project director in the School of Social Work. Brazeal set up a hybrid internship that allowed Sullivan to work on a grant-funded mental and behavioral health initiative, as well as at a Head Start Program and homeless mission, Back Bay, in Biloxi, Mississippi.

“One of the things about Evelyn that I think is most impressive is that when she is passionate about something, she goes after it and is willing to do whatever is required to get the job done,” Brazeal says. “She just goes after it to make it happen.”

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Learn more about the USM School of Social Work.