How the Leadership Fellows program is transforming the future of social work
For the past eight years, Paula Atwood (SAS ‘73) has mentored students at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences in the Leadership Fellows program— two-year experience through which a small cohort of Master of Social Work students earn full-tuition scholarships and participate in specialized seminars, mentorship and a capstone project while earning their master’s degrees. Atwood has worked with various universities and colleges over the course of her career in administration, management and direct practice social work, but she said the Mandel School is unique in how it continues to evolve.
“[The Mandel School] has kept up with the times,” said Atwood. “It is committed to making a difference in the world—not just here in Cleveland, Ohio—and to paving the way for leaders of today, and of the future, to significantly make a difference in people’s lives.”
At 71 years old, Atwood is partially retired, and she stays connected to the field of social work through mentorship opportunities like the Leadership Fellows, through which she’s now paired with her sixth mentee since 2013. “It just keeps getting better,” said Atwood. “I enjoy having the tough conversations about life—about what it takes to work with and on behalf of others, about navigating the ills of the world, and then trying to draw conclusions about what can be influenced and what is out of our hands.”
Those difficult conversations are critical to helping graduate students find their area of interest in the field of social work—but they are just one part of the experience. The Leadership Fellows program began as the Louis Stokes Fellowship in Community Development—named in honor of the Cleveland civil rights pioneer and former congressman Louis Stokes—and was active from 2001 to 2007. It was reestablished and redesigned in 2012 by David Biegel, PhD, the Henry L. Zucker Professor Emeritus of Social Work Practice, and continues today thanks to generous grant support from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, the endowed Louis Stokes Fellowship in Community and Social Development fund and contributions to the Mandel School annual fund.
“I enjoy having the tough conversations about life—about what it takes to work with and on behalf of others, about navigating the ills of the world...”
— Paula Atwood
In recent years, Leadership Fellows Director David L. Hussey, PhD (SAS ‘79, GRS ‘92, social welfare), has built the seven-student-per-year program on a foundation of evidence-based practice and leadership.
Hussey, an associate professor at the Mandel School and the associate director of research at the school’s Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education, arranges two seminars per semester, bringing in speakers to answer questions about what it means to be a social worker in the real world and give glimpses into their post-graduation career options.
Mentors take this a step further by helping students explore what opportunities the future may hold, and the fellows round out their experience with capstone projects in their final year.
“A number of the proposals center around practice innovations to create better interventions that meet the more specific needs of a vulnerable population,” Hussey said of the varied capstone experiences.
These three program-specific elements, combined with the full scholarship, make Leadership Fellows one of the nation’s premier social work leadership training programs, and help recruit top-tier candidates to the school who may not have otherwise considered moving to Cleveland, Hussey said.
“Scholarship support makes a significant difference in students’ lives,” he explained. “It also affords [the Mandel School] an opportunity to develop and cultivate true leaders in our field.”
Kwame “Eddie” Botchway
As an international student, Kwame Botchway (SAS ‘19) could not access student loans for graduate school in the U.S.—and he had his sights set on attending the Mandel School. Being accepted into the Leadership Fellows program enabled him to make the move from Ghana to Cleveland and begin his social work career.
The full scholarship was meaningful to Botchway—and now he’s paying it forward in the Cleveland community.
For his capstone project, Botchway worked with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP) to design a program that would elevate the work of women and minority contractors while helping Black and Brown families build wealth through homeownership.
Village Capital Corp., a subsidiary of CNP, officially adopted the project—titled Contractors on the Rise—and brought Botchway on as community capital and impact manager post-graduation. Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the initial rollout of the program, but in its first two years, Contractors on the Rise has renovated and sold 12 homes in the Greater Cleveland area, with more in progress.
With additional funding on the way, Botchway is taking the opportunity to redesign the growing program using the trauma-informed approach he learned at the Mandel School. “You need to be cognizant [of the fact that] you’re working in communities that have a history of trauma, of being redlined,” he said. He’s integrating feedback from contractors and taking a fresh look at how Contractors on the Rise works in historically disinvested neighborhoods.
Cheyenne DeShields (SAS ‘21) was inspired to pursue a career in social work after seeing the impact of stress and trauma on the elementary school children she taught and tutored. “It’s hard for kids to focus on something like math,” said DeShields, “if they aren’t eating at night, if their parents are arguing or if they live in a shelter.”
In addition to a fulfilling relationship with her mentor Sharyse Jones (SAS ‘08), DeShields said the seminars were a highlight of the Leadership Fellows program. “I thought social work was just therapy,” she said. “But the seminars really opened my eyes to everything you can do with this degree.”
In the few months since graduation, DeShields has grown her original capstone presentation into a full-scale research project in collaboration with the Veterans Administration Health Care System in Palo Alto, California.
Her project studies the impact of COVID-19 on occupational health providers—doctors and other practitioners who work exclusively with hospital employees. DeShields and her colleagues interviewed providers around the country, asking how the pandemic has affected their patients, and helping to find solutions and resources moving forward.
The team hopes to publish a paper with their findings in the coming weeks. In the meantime, DeShields has made her way back to the Case Western Reserve campus—this time as a staff member, working in University Health & Counseling Services.
Lexy Lattimore (SAS ‘21) first moved to Cleveland to work with a contemporary dance company. When she began dating Kwame Botchway during his final year of the Leadership Fellows program, Lattimore found she loved hearing about what Botchway was studying, often perusing his course reading materials. It sparked a passion in her and, with Botchway’s encouragement, she applied to the Mandel School.
“My motivations were initially more professional, but the ways in which I’ve been transformed as an individual are really remarkable,” she said. “The social work degree has sculpted me into a better human being... I wasn’t anticipating that.”
Lattimore said navigating “big life questions” became easier—and more powerful—with the help of her mentor, Paula Atwood.
“Social work is so personal,” she continued. “In order to do this work in the way it deserves, you have to be right with you.”
Through her capstone project, Lattimore designed a program she hopes to develop into a full-scale program post-graduation. Titled “Choreographing Space for Justice: A Healing-Centered Model for Women-Led Change,” the program uses movement, storytelling and other healing practices to address environmental traumas, and to support Black women and girls as they start to redesign their neighborhoods in ways that work for them.
Amy Vaughters (SAS ‘20) spent four years in the Peace Corps after college, serving in Mali, China and Ethiopia. She learned about the Mandel School through its partnership with the Coverdell Fellowship, a financial assistance program for Peace Corps volunteers pursuing graduate studies.
“Social work wasn’t even on my radar, but in reading about the Mandel School, I realized [the field] aligned with my interests.” said Vaughters, “ I applied [to the program] and was connected with Dr. Hussey—and the rest is history.”
Vaughters enjoyed how the seminars kept students plugged into the community, and her capstone project allowed her to put into practice all she had learned during her time at the Mandel School. But she said the primary benefit of the program was having Hussey as an advisor and mentor—crediting him and the school for her career success thus far.
She was recently accepted into the U.S. Army’s highly competitive Social Work Internship Program for military-specific social work training.
Because of her experience and professional degrees, Vaughters will begin at the rank of First Lieutenant and, after some “army 101” courses in early 2022, start her internship at Fort Drum, New York. Vaughters said she is excited to dive deep into the culture of the army so she can help soldiers and their families navigate the unique mental health issues that come with military service.
By Carey Skinner Moss