Graduating SSW Student Lends Hand, Heart to Local Families

Friday, May 15, 2020 • Valerie Fields Hill :

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Elizabeth Joy Anderson

Last fall, when Social Work senior Elizabeth Joy Anderson learned she had been placed at Arlington Urban Ministries to complete her required internship, she was overjoyed.

It was a perfect fit.

For 19 years, Arlington Urban Ministries, a small nonprofit located in central Arlington, has provided food, rent and utility assistance to the city’s most marginalized residents.

Anderson is familiar with such need: Years earlier, her own father and mother relied on assistance to support their young family.

She vowed to make a difference.

“When people come in for a little help, I can recognize that their level of hard work often has little to do with the situation they’re in,” said Anderson, who grew up in Grand Prairie but now lives in Arlington. “I can treat them like the hardworking people they are and try to upend that sense of haughtiness I felt as a child.”

Anderson will graduate with a Bachelor of Social Work degree this month. She is accepted into the School of Social Work’s Master’s degree program and plans to become a Licensed Master Social Worker.

Anderson is among hundreds of UTA students who have completed internships, mastered their course work and held down full-time jobs - all while pursuing their degrees. Yet, they have no commencement ceremony to attend.

At least, not yet.

UTA postponed graduation exercises for spring and summer 2020 graduates due to the Coronavirus pandemic and to state-wide restrictions on large public gatherings. University officials have said they will announce a new date for a ceremony in coming weeks.

To be honest, some graduates said, they were disappointed.

“I am the first female in my family to graduate from a four-year college and one of three to graduate in the past several generations on either side, counting aunts, uncles and cousins,” Anderson said this week. “As such, the ceremony holds value to me that can only compare to my own wedding.”

To try to ease the sense of loss, university officials will salute spring graduates during a virtual watch event that will be broadcast at 7:20 p.m. Sunday, April 17, on the university’s Web site. The event includes a 10-minute preshow followed by the virtual watch event.

“I had been looking forward to showing my siblings, particularly one of my younger sisters who recently began her college journey, what they are capable of,” Anderson said of the expected ceremony.

“I won't lie, I drove my husband a little crazy talking so much about my disappointment surrounding the ceremony,” she said. “It took me a long time to get past the disappointment of things not looking at all like I had hoped for or expected.”

Sunday’s virtual watch event features expressions to graduates and their families from deans of academic schools across the UTA campus, including the School of Social Work.

The event caps off months of preparation that graduates like Anderson, who carried an 18-hour course load during the spring semester, had undertaken.

Anderson’s, internship, or “field placement” as it is referred to among schools of Social Work, began January 21. The professional work experience is required by UTA’s School of Social Work to assist students with gaining practical experience before heading into their career field.

Initially, she saw families facing bleak conditions: Their lights or water were scheduled to be turned off. Many needed groceries. Some were homeless.

Anderson scheduled appointments for them to see case managers – and she received copies of their water bills, light bills or other documentation to assist agency officials with advocating on their behalf.

It’s exactly the kind of work she had hoped to do in her field placement, she said.

“It aligns with my career goals by giving me experience with client intake, service provision, appointments, documentation and resource referrals with populations I have a direct interest in, namely, individuals with low incomes and people experiencing homelessness,” Anderson said.

However, just weeks into her internship, the federal government declared the spread of the novel Coronavirus a pandemic. State governments closed non-essential businesses. Employers, particularly restaurants, hair and nail salons, retail stores and airlines, all laid off thousands of workers.

Agencies serving clients in need saw huge leaps in requests for assistance. Many agencies and nonprofits which, historically, are understaffed, needed workers like Anderson.

She was thankful to be available.

“Early on when things had just begun to look bleak, I told my older sister that it seemed strange that I felt so calm. I realize that things are grim on a global scale and I have empathy for those suffering,” she recalled thinking in the early days of the pandemic.

“At the same time, I realize that….it aids no one for me to shut down… Because of my privileged position right now, I can take it in stride and use that energy helping other people.”

UTA’s Office of Communications highlighted Anderson’s outreach work during the Coronavirus pandemic in its “Mavericks on the Front Line” series.

The series is a group of stories and pictures featuring UTA students and alumni helping those affected in various ways by the pandemic. The stories appear on the university’s Web site.

“At its heart, the ‘Mavericks on the Front Line’ series is a way to show pride in the UTA community through a series of engaging stories showing how interwoven UTA is in the community,” said  Jeff Carlton, executive director of Communications and Media Relations in the Office of University Advancement. “It shows the impact, not just of our nursing grads, but also our Pre-Med and Social Work programs, among others.”

Carlton said readers and viewers following the university’s social media pages have shown a particular interest in the ‘Front Line’ series.

“We thought the stories would be engaging for our social audiences, and that’s proven correct,” he said. “The social posts featuring these individuals have been among our best-performing over the last month.”

Anderson grew up in Grand Prairie with a mother who home-schooled her and her six siblings and a father “who worked harder than nearly any man I’ve met.”

At times, the family had difficulty making ends meet. They sought assistance from community resources. Anderson still carries some of those memories.

“I have a vivid memory of feeling unwelcome glances at a WIC office,” she said recently. “And of the implied ‘Again?’ in the eyes of some adults when I joyfully announced (the arrival of) a new sibling. Something in my small heart understood that social supports and a multitude of children aren’t something that some people think should mix.”

Anderson’s recollections of her childhood experiences helped her to develop a keen sense of empathy. She used the trait while interacting with families seeking help at Arlington Urban Ministries.

“I told apologetic, embarrassed or defensive clients that I’ve needed help too. Friendliness and reassurances can go a long way toward helping people not feel so uncomfortable with help-seeking,” she said. “All the agencies in the world are useless if clients can’t or won’t access them, either because of the process being confusing or because of a sense of judgement.

“For me, it all boils down to people need to know they are valued.” 

What an important lesson for a graduating student to take into the world.