A passion to help, spurred by the outrage of injustice

You cannot speak with Anna Scheyett for more than five minutes without realizing her passion to help people and, soon thereafter, her indignation at the obstacles to getting that help to those who need it most. It is the hallmark combination for any good social worker: individual well being and social justice.

Deciding that life as a clinical researcher for a drug company was not for her, Scheyett put her Spanish fluency (her mother is from Puerto Rico) to good use, working in a center providing social services to Latinas. It was there, Scheyett will tell you, that her desire to help met her outrage of social injustice during her counseling of a pregnant woman.

“She told me, ‘I have three kids at home. My husband beats me if I use birth control, so I am pregnant. But I can’t feed the kids I have. I can’t bring another one into the world, but I’m Catholic. I know I’m going to go to hell, but I’m going to have an abortion, so I can feed my children,’ ” Scheyett recalled. “I don’t care how you feel about abortion, being in a society where a woman has to choose between, in her view, feeding her children and her soul, flipped a switch for me. That’s when I got the mad part.

“I was so outraged that this woman had to make this choice in her mind. For her, we had painted her into that corner. That’s when I became a social worker.”

Now, as dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Social Work, Scheyett turns out about 250 new social workers each year through the college’s master’s of social work program.

“For me, a part of this job that is really important is there are only two master’s of social work programs in this entire state,” Scheyett says. “We are, in a lot of ways, the producer of social work practitioners, so we have a really strong ethical obligation to make our curriculum as good as we can.”

That curriculum, which was recently revamped, focuses on five specializations at the master’s level: health and mental health; children, youth and their families; aging; social community and economic development; and the military.

“In South Carolina particularly, there is a huge need for social workers to provide supports and services to military veterans and their families,” she says.

The college also offers an undergraduate degree and Ph.D. in social work and focuses on research in key areas, such as technology that can help the aging population stay independent; how broader food choices can improve a community’s health; and, helping veterans re-enter civilian life.

The research has garnered about $20 million from outside funding sources for dozens of innovative projects.

Generating new knowledge in social work that can inform practice is really important,” Scheyett says. “For me, getting that information out to the practice community more quickly is just as important.”

The college does that through a continuing education program and an online component called “research to practice” that offers practitioners a quick look at essential findings of professors’ research.

If you are going

UofSC College of Social Work Dean Anna Scheyett will bring her take on social work – social worker as superhero – to the TEDxColumbiaSC event Monday (Jan. 19).

“Everybody in their life has times when they wish they had a superhero. You don’t know what to do with your kid or your mom needs to go to the nursing home or you have a crisis or somebody loses a job or somebody’s struggling with something that just feels bigger than something you and your immediate support system can do.

“Everybody kind of needs a superhero. The good news is there are a bunch of them. They’re social workers.”

But it goes beyond the idea of someone coming in to save the day. Social workers help their clients tap into their own “super powers,” Scheyett says.

“We know that everybody has strengths, but we need to help them find them and tap into them and use them.

“Good social workers make themselves obsolete really fast. They help folks become as self-sufficient as possible as soon as possible.”

TED is a nonprofit organization that presents what it calls “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers” to give talks at two annual conferences. Local groups host versions of these events. Visit the TEDxColumbiaSC website to learn more about the 2015 event.

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