Creating a Bridge for Prospective Social Work Students of color at Columbia University

November 7, 2022 @ 3:15 pm

As part of its Social Work Pathways Initiative, The Action Lab for Social Justice at the Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW) has announced its first fellowship awards recipients: Kateland Cay Keene, Khalid Tellis, and Kevonyah Edwards. The Social Work Pathways Initiative will eventually provide substantial support to nine students over a two-year period, and is funded by a $200,000 grant from the Robert and Ellen Popper Scholarship Fund and the Lois and Samuel Silberman Grant Fund, administered through the New York Community Trust. This  initiative is a multi-pronged program designed to engage, recruit, and retain MSW and PhD students of color from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Kateland Cay Keene and Khalid Tellis are the program’s first MSW to PhD Pathways Fellows. Both students will receive faculty mentorship and support towards their research interests, participate in Action Lab for Social Justice initiatives, and be awarded a $10,000 stipend for one year as well as up to $5,000 to conduct a research project that may extend throughout their time at CSSW.  

Keene is a first-year student in the two-year social work program. A recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University, she has researched adverse childhood experiences and postpartum depression. Keene identifies as a caucasian American Indian and grew up in Cherokee Nation, where she became aware of the lack of mental health services in her community at an early age. Her goal is to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology to advocate for research that focuses on women’s reproductive mental health in Indigenous populations. 

Tellis spent six years as an educator at the Taft School in Connecticut. He received his undergraduate degree from Middlebury College and a Master’s in Education from Johns Hopkins University. His current research interests include spirituality and faith in social work practices, access to therapy and treatment for Black and Brown people with ADHD, and prison education programs. 

Kevonyah Edwards is the inaugural PhD Pathways to Completion Fellow. Edwards, who received both her bachelor’s and MSW from the University of Cincinnati, is a second-year PhD student and a predoctoral fellow with the Social Intervention Group. Her research focuses on integrating racial equity practices within the criminal legal system to improve the overall well-being of formerly incarcerated Black men. 

Edwards has previous experience providing substance use disorder treatment in psychiatric and jail-based facilities. She will receive preparation and faculty mentoring in the PhD program, actively participate in the Action Lab, and receive $8,000 to pursue racial justice in research, practice, and education. 

These awards represent one of many efforts to increase both diversity and racial equity at Columbia University. In the second year of the Pathways Initiative, the School of Social Work will also work with City University of New York’s Percy Ellis Sutton SEEK program to recruit BIPOC students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds from CUNY bachelor’s programs into the MSW program.

The Social Work Pathways Initiative aims to address a workforce shortage of MSW and PhD social workers of color, partly caused by relatively low social worker salaries compared to high tuition and living expenses. Students of color at the School of Social Work typically graduate with a higher amount of student debt than white students, due in part to less intergenerational wealth and lower family incomes. 

Prospective students of color may also hesitate to apply to CSSW for a variety of reasons, including concerns about entering the climate of a predominantly white ivy league institution. Additionally, a prospective student without a network of people who have advanced degrees may know little about how to navigate the academic path from bachelor’s degree to MSW to PhD.

“Oftentimes BIPOC folx come to Columbia for their degrees and immediately face the microaggressions, the uncertainty, the impostor syndrome,” says Dr. Ovita Williams, Executive Director of the Action Lab. “So can we address these realities beforehand so they can be more prepared?  And knowing that they have a connection, a lifeline, prior to setting foot here is huge for building community, for building a sense of true belonging.”

The Columbia School of Social Work Action Lab for Social Justice is an exploratory, student-driven center that aims to uproot systems of oppression and create conditions of love, care, and liberation in social work practice and academia. The Lab began as an immediate student and faculty response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020. Currently, 70 students are lab members, which allows them to complete their required field internship with an anti-racist framework, or receive federal work study. Some of the group’s initiatives include Umoja Circles, an emotional processing space for Black-identified people from the broader city, and Melanated, a student-produced monthly publication.