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School of Social Work advisor creates safe space for Black voices

School of Social Work advisor creates safe space for Black voices

Double alumna Kelly Sydnor '09, MSW '10 helps students of all backgrounds find their passion for the field.

October 20, 2021 at 4:00pm

Double alumna Kelly Sydnor earned a bachelor's and a master's in social work from FIU in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Today, after working in the field for several years, she uses her background to help guide students at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. As the coordinator of student services, Sydnor serves as a champion for those pursuing degrees by ensuring they have access to high-quality experiences while learning all they can. Her efforts include co-leading the Black Social Work Student Voices Group. More than 100 Black students are currently working toward degrees.

Tell us about your position at Stempel College.
I focus on coordinating engagement opportunities for our undergraduate and graduate students. I have a social work background, and that is useful as I help students explore career goals to help them decide whether social work is truly their best match. As the academic advisor for the graduate programs, I work closely with our MSW and Ph.D. students to guide them through the program plan and map out future semesters.

Overall, my focus is to ensure that our students understand the career and engage with people who can help nurture their passion.

What led you to the field?
I did not find social work. It found me, and I said “yes” to the career. Social work is a combination of my passions. The career allowed me to be an advocate, understand policy and use that knowledge in the fight for social justice, explore people and what got them to the point that they need your help and how to use what they naturally have inside to help them help themselves.

The field of social work also helped me explore and understand complex issues and how to help people navigate through them. What better choice for me! I get to help humanity. Perfect match.

What was the catalyst for creating the Black Social Work Student Voices Group?
If you look at the African American community, historically, we have had to deal with too many societal issues related to the color of our skin. 2020 was an unprecedented year. It became the year that the straw finally broke the camel’s back.

As FIU moved to a completely remote environment, COVID-19 numbers were climbing, and the virus was disproportionately impacting the Black community. If you weren’t aware of health disparities in Black communities before, you certainly knew when COVID hit. People were scared. The future felt bleak. On the same day that FIU sent employees home to begin working remotely, Breonna Taylor, a black woman, was killed by police—while she was at home sleeping. A couple of months later, Ahmaud Arbery, a black man, was killed while jogging. Three white men have been charged with his murder. A couple days later, George Floyd was murdered by police.

And so you decided to establish a platform for FIU students?
We were hurt, upset and, in some cases, enraged. Seeing the frequency of injustices, on top of trying to stay safe in the middle of a pandemic, maintain work duties and, for our Black students, trying to remain afloat academically had all become very heavy. Keep in mind the core purpose of social work is to address needs. Black people were in need.

Black social work students found it difficult to learn about addressing needs when their own needs felt overlooked by society. We had to have an outlet and a space for Black students to process their feelings.

Along with my colleagues, Sheila Jenkins Boone, the School of Social Work’s undergraduate academic advisor, and Twala Kelly, visiting assistant teaching professor, both seasoned social workers, we decided that it was time to give Black students the space to not only connect and process with us but to also connect with each other. We decided early on that the group would not be structured to feel like a class or workshop but, rather, a safe space for cultural talk. [The group meets monthly on Zoom.]

As Sheila says, “Community is where unity begins, flourishes and inspires authentic change in its members, who in turn, can help others.”

How do students interact in the group?
We tell our stories. We support each other. We do lots of laughing, yet there is a seriousness. We answer the “What can I do?” questions. It is time spent looking at our issues and digging deep to find ways that we can be a part of the solutions. No hierarchy, no expectancies, no can’ts. Just be.

Tywan Ajani, a first-year doctoral student said, “I have been encouraged tremendously, knowing that other students from my social identity group understand my culture challenges and have similar issues.”