When Bachelor of Social Work student Caroline Smith graduates this May, she will have completed an unconventional path to earning her degree. Her journey since graduating high school in 2012 has included travelling to foreign countries, working as a hair stylist, and the birth of her son. But her experiences have played an important role in pursuing a social work career and motivating her to stay on track.
Smith did not declare a major when she initially started her undergraduate studies at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. But she left after only one year due to the uncertainty of which academic major to pursue. After traveling abroad for six months and cutting hair for a few years, a conversation with her older sister finally gave her perspective and a clearer view of her future.
“My sister, who has her MSW and does clinical social work, asked me what I wanted to do and my ideal job,” Smith says. “As I was talking, she said that I should study social work and do more of a macro (large scale) focus, such as working at a nonprofit or policy, and that struck my interest. It was the first time I felt that there was something that I can get a degree for what I wanted to do.”
Smith’s experiences abroad in Tijuana, Mexico, and the African nation of Uganda after her one year at UofSC Beaufort also had an impact in her interest in community development and sustainable community transformation. Spending three months in each location, Smith worked and saw first-hand the difference between sustainable community organizations and the ones that only placed band aids on big problems.
“Seeing the difference between sustainable community organization and ones that put out little fires made me passionate about realizing that if we want to see a community transformed, it must be more than just fixing problems,” Smith says. “It’s also about empowering communities to be involved in their residents.”
Four years after leaving UofSC Beaufort, Smith resumed her undergraduate studies in the fall of 2017 but this time as a social work major. Then she became pregnant and her due date was during the middle of the fall semester of the 2019-2020 academic year. Smith decided to delay her senior year by taking the year off instead of trying to juggle classes, field placement, and taking care of her newborn son. But even though she only had one year remaining, Smith initially felt overwhelmed at the idea of returning to school last fall.
“After my son was born, I questioned myself about coming back because I was nervous to leave him. But that quickly faded as he got older, and I felt more comfortable,” Smith says. “It would have been silly not to return with only one year remaining. I'm thankful that I made that decision because it's been refreshing to be back in school and studying again and have my mind on things outside of my home.”
Smith understands the challenges of managing academics and raising a young child. But a strong support system and having a schedule, such as breaking assignments into smaller parts or working through her son’s nap times and stopping when he awakes, has been beneficial.
“The experience of going to school with a child and having all of these responsibilities has helped me better manage my time,” Smith says. “We are always juggling different things, so I think it's been good for splitting my time and having a good work-life balance and making sure that things don't get out-of-hand because when they do, it's stressful for all parts of my life.”
Even though Smith has endured some struggles and setbacks, she looks back at them as positive experiences. She also believes attending classes and graduating in her late 20s has given her a greater appreciation for her education.
“If I would have stuck with college right after high school, I think I would have been unhappy in my career since I didn't know what I wanted at that time,” Smith says. “I'm thankful for how everything worked out because I think I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be and feel more confident. I’ve taken my studies more seriously, and I’m more driven as a mom in my late 20s compared to my 19-year-old self. From my own personal experiences, I was not a driven 19-year-old.”