SSW student wins two scholarships

Tuesday, Aug 27, 2019

Two North Texas gerontological societies have awarded scholarships to a School of Social Work student who is researching aging issues.

The Dallas Area Gerontological Society and the Tarrant Area Gerontological Society both awarded Erin Roark Murphy nearly $5,000 to assist with completing her doctoral studies in Social Work. Murphy is pursuing the doctorate degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“It’s to provide financial assistance to professionals…who are working in the aging field,” says Kathleen Warshawsky, president of the Dallas Area Gerontological Society, of the organization’s scholarship recipients. “It’s really about serving the community.”

The Dallas organization awarded Murphy, who is in her fourth year of doctoral studies, $4,000 for tuition and school-related expenses. The society awarded another $15,000 in scholarships to other North Texas students, all of whom are pursuing careers in aging-related fields, Warshawsky said.

Meanwhile, Murphy earned $1,480 in scholarship money from the Tarrant Area Gerontological Society. She was notified of both awards via email, she said this week.

“I did the happy dance, like you described,” Murphy said during an interview. “I am over the moon to have someone pay for this fourth year.”

She expects to graduate in May 2021.

Officials at the Tarrant Area Gerontological Society could not be reached by phone or email this week.

At UTA, Noelle Fields, an assistant professor and researcher in aging, says the scholarships increase awareness of the gerontology career field and highlight the growing needs of aging adults.

“It’s really to help to support students who are preparing for careers in gerontology,” she says. “I think it recognizes their commitment to older adults and their families.”

Dr. Fields called gerontology “a unique field.” Gerontologists study the social, mental, physical and emotional well-being of people as they age. They also care and advocate for aging adults.

Financial support for such study, however, can be elusive.

“There’s not always a lot of scholarships for gerontology students,” she says. “It recognizes that they are already in the trenches doing great work in the field.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by the year 2035, there will be 78 million people who are 65 or older living in the United States. By comparison, there will be only 76.7 million people who are 18 or younger, according to the 2017 National Population Projections, a report of the Census Bureau.

This projection marks a major demographic shift in the United States: For the first time in U.S. history, the number of elderly residents will outnumber the number of children.

In the School of Social Work, Dr. Fields says the growing number of elderly opens career doors for those interested in researching or serving the nation’s aging population.

“There’s a real need,” says Dr. Fields, who herself researched how companions might relieve stress among African Americans who care for loved ones with Alzheimer’s or related dementia.

“I get questions from folks in the community all the time,” she says. “It’s ‘My parents are starting to have memory problems. What am I going to do?’”

“There’s also a great opportunity for those who want to work in counseling and therapy with older adults,” Dr. Fields says.

Warshawsky, the president of the Dallas Area Gerontological Society, agrees more professionals are needed to serve aging adults.

Awareness of such needs, however, is lacking, she says.

“I think people just don’t really think about it. Aging is not considered to be something we look forward to,” Washawsky says. “People are just less interested in it.”

The School of Social Work plans to recruit and encourage more students to seek the Aging specialty when they begin their Master’s or doctoral studies at UTA, Dr. Fields says.

“We’re trying to build our specialty in Aging,” she says. “We need to grow it.”

Murphy, like many students, says she “stumbled into” an interest in aging-related study while working on an undergraduate degree in Social Work.

“It’s crazy. I came into Social Work thinking I was going to work with children,” she says. “But children broke my heart.”

 After working in a field placement addressing needs of adoptive and foster children, Murphy says she learned many employees in such environments quickly burn out.

“It was the level of neglect that I saw,” she says. “I was dealing with children that didn’t have a home life.”

A mother of twins, Murphy says her field work often became quite emotional.

“I have such a personal connection to all of it,” she says. My twin daughters are adopted out of an orphanage. For me that personal connection made me take it all home with me.”

After some soul searching and conversations with Social Work faculty members, Murphy turned to advocating for aging adults and those who are homeless - and discovered a new liking.

“The fact that we have individuals sleeping on the streets older in life, now that makes me fired up,” says Murphy. “It makes me so mad.”

Murphy is part of a School of Social Work team who is researching homelessness – including older adults - in Arlington. The results are expected to be presented to the Arlington City Council in mid-August.