Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a 10-part series on the 2011 Experiential Learner of the Year Award nominees. Nominees for the upperclass and freshman awards will be honored at a luncheon May 6; the winners will be revealed at Honors Convocation May 7.
When freshman Courtney Ray was about 10 years old, she dreamed of becoming an
actress on a soap opera. Three years later, the social work major wanted to be a pediatrician, and three years after that, a cosmetologist.
But after spending her first Field Period in her hometown of Cato at Cato-Meridian Elementary School, Ray knows exactly what she wants to do when she grows up—help others.
Nominated for the Freshman Experiential Learner of the Year award by Assistant Professor of Social Work Julie Burns, Ray spent her January Field Period shadowing Ember Hilkert, a school social worker who works with students in kindergarten through fourth grade.
“I wanted to determine from the start of my academic career whether or not the school setting was right for me,” she said.
According to Burns, Ray had a “meaningful experience with the school social worker and took a great deal of time and effort in documenting and presenting her experience.”
Through her time at the school, Ray got to know “each student with whom Ember meets, which enhanced my understanding of the different issues a social worker might encounter each day. And through my observations, I grasped a better concept of the strategies Ember takes to approach a topic to a student.”
“Courtney has such an extraordinary ability to assess a situation and respond appropriately, that I quickly forgot that she was a first-year social work student,” said Hilkert. “She brought with her a thorough understanding of child development, which is vitally important in assessing and addressing the needs of young children.”
Additionally, Ray sat in on child protective services calls and meetings, meetings with teachers, and conferences with parents.
“I believe the best thing about my Field Period was the connection I created with Ember,” said Ray. “She and I got along well, and I loved that she would take the time to sit down and explain everything to me. We had long discussions on her experiences in college, the work force, other things she has been through, and so much more. She taught me a great deal on confidentiality, and I have a greater understanding of the different types of opportunities in the field of social work.”
According to Ray, expecting the unexpected was an idea she took from her Field Period at Cato-Meridian.
“You never know what a student could come in and say to you as a counselor,” said Ray. “It could be positive or negative, so every day you have to come into work and take it ‘by the horns,’ as Ember would say.”
Ray admits that the “unexpected” may be hard, but she appreciates the surprise each day could bring.
“The ‘not knowing’ makes coming into work a lot easier because you’re not doing the day-to-day, boring routine,” she said.
Ray also “realized how much of an impact Ember had on the students, and each of them admire and look up to her. They are so enthusiastic to come and see her and some even see her as a role model. It makes me aspire to be what Ember is to the kids. I want to be a to be a role model, good influence, and be part of the impact that could positively enhance their development, not only as students but human beings.”
Said Hilkert: “Through Courtney’s interactions with the students at Cato-Meridian, it was quite obvious that she has a genuine love and desire to work with children. She already shows such promise and I can’t wait to see the wonderful social worker she undoubtedly will become in the future.”
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