Felicia Smith had long expected to return to school before finally becoming a student in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Bachelor of Social Work program in 2018. When she went to college, she quit school to work full time. She later planned to return to school 26 years ago when she was expecting her eldest, Raeven – a return that was cut short due to complications during the pregnancy.
This month, the mother and daughter will graduate with a Masters of Social Work degree in the clinical stream at VCU’s School of Social Work and become eligible for licensure as clinical social workers, while twice graduating from VCU in the process. A drive to help others and a desire to create change motivated both Smiths in their graduate studies.
Felicia, 50, who earned her BSW in 2020 after transferring to VCU from Germanna Community College, and Raeven, 26, who graduated in 2018 with a BS in Psychology from the College of Humanities and a minor in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, did not always expect to attend the program together. In fact, it took a while for each of them to realize that social work might be the field for them: Felicia after volunteering in the ministry alongside her husband, Raymond, a longtime U.S. Marine , and Raeven after hearing her mother allude to Raeven’s fledgling social work. skills while navigating her desire to empower others as a mental health counsellor.
“I was going around the house talking about abolition, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ topics, and my mom would always say, ‘You sound like a social worker,'” Raeven said with a smile.
“Because with social workers, not only do we do the clinical aspect, but we are also advocates,” Felicia replied. “We stand up for our customers, stand up for different populations. So we don’t just stick to counseling and therapy, but the whole gamut, and that’s what I love about social work.
“So I started doing my research,” Raeven said, “And I was like, ‘I think I’m about this, and I can make this little change’ – not even a big change because ‘ he was always placed in my path, so my mother was an inspiration to become a social worker.
When choosing a program for her master’s degree, Raeven had several options, and VCU was the most attractive from a financial perspective. This, combined with encouragement from her mother, who was on VCU for her master’s degree, made the decision to attend VCU easier.
“My mom said to me, ‘Come on, Raeven, we can do this together. Imagine: we can lean on each other when we need it, and we’ll both understand what we’re going through together,’ said Raeven. “At first I was like, ‘Do I really want to go to school with my mum?’ ‘Cause most people say, “I don’t think I could do that” but I was like my mom and I, sometimes we’re more like sisters sometimes we bump heads but then we says, “OK, we’re cool.”
The two signed up and started taking many of their classes together. Nicole Corley, Ph.D., who taught Raeven and Felicia together in her Sequence Politics class, remembers being surprised to learn they were related.
“I wouldn’t have known, unless someone told me explicitly, that they were mother and daughter,” Corley said. “And one of the reasons was that they were equally passionate about social work and the work they wanted to do, but they just had different things they wanted to do and different approaches and also different personalities.
“Felicia was more outgoing, more talkative, while Raven was more introverted, something I know very well because I’m like me, and was a bit more reserved. Whether they were reserved or more outspoken, their commitment to the social justice work, in general, and the work with the military and LGBTIA+ populations, in particular, was undeniable. I am grateful for the time we spent together in class and know that they will help advance the profession of social work.
With the racial justice movement unfolding around the world — and in Richmond — around them during Felicia and Raeven’s time on the program, Corley recalls the pair working with their classmates to create space in the class for grace, compassion and an honest sharing of their experiences.
Creating such spaces wasn’t just something Felicia and Raeven did in class; they were both members of VCU’s Association of Black Social Workers, which Raeven called a “cornerstone” of her graduate experience. After hosting a panel in the fall of 2020 to teach others the importance of not re-traumatizing black students when discussing what was in the news at the time, Felicia, who had served on the student organization as an undergraduate, served as student organization president in 2021.
My mom was like, ‘Come on, Raeven, we can do this together. Imagine: we can lean on each other when we need it and we will both understand what we are going through together. At first, I was like, ‘Do I really want to go to school with my mother?’ Because most people say, “I don’t think I could do that,” but I was like my mom and I, sometimes we’re more like sisters. We sometimes bump our heads, but then we’re like, ‘OK, we’re cool.’
Raeven Smith, who will graduate alongside her mother with her Masters in Social Work from the VCU School of Social Work in May
“I’m older; I didn’t go to college to even want to be part of an organization. I just wanted to graduate and do what I had to do. But as fate would have it, my vice president at the time convinced me to lead,” Felicia said. “We were able to create a space as black students in the field of social work, to be able to share our experiences, help encourage and navigate through a minority perspective.”
Felicia said the lessons she learned from student organization and the MSW program, all contextualized by the ongoing changes in the world around them, will stay with her throughout her career.
“Being part of this program, learning what we’ve learned in some of our racial justice components that we have in a lot of our classes, it made me stronger,” Felicia said. “It gave me confidence as a black woman that I have the right to sit at this table and stand up for this particular population, regardless of gender, regardless of race. VCU’s social work program has given me these tools and the confidence to go out and not be afraid to be assertive. »
“Seeing that assurance from my mom definitely inspired me,” Raeven said. “It was like, ‘If my mom can do it, why can’t I?'”
This experience helped Raeven come out of her shell and left her with advice for future students of the program.
“Ask for what you need; ask for what you want,” Raeven said, thinking of teachers such as Corley who encouraged her. “It’s something I wish I had done a little more. Come on Knock on those professors’ doors, tell the field internship what your hopes and desires are and where you see yourself, and keep pushing yourself forward…. It’s intimidating, it’s scary. people who want to see you prosper, so go for it.
Raeven’s time in the program confirmed her interest in working one-on-one with LGBTQIA+ people after on-the-job internships with the YWCA, Advocates for Richmond Youth, and Side by Side in Richmond.
Felicia plans to put her skills to work in the nonprofit world, helping homeless veterans connect with the resources they need. Field placements at the United Community in Fairfax, Va., and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, DC, reinforced this interest. She wants to give back to the military community her years as a military spouse and see the challenges faced by veterans, especially veterans of color.
In a few years, Felicia hopes to lead Faith’s Place, an organization of her own for homeless veterans, alongside her husband. And, she says, the invitation is open for Raeven to join the family business when she’s ready.
In the meantime, the mother and daughter who, according to Felicia, “thought we were close because we are a military family who lived overseas with no other family but each other” will have special memories of a time that made those ties even stronger.
“My mom has very different identities from her that I had no idea,” Raeven said.
“It brought us even closer…just to really get to know my daughter and see her in her authentic arena with her friends,” Felicia said, turning to her daughter, “And I guess you just see me being Felicia, not mom. .
Geoff LoCicero of the VCU School of Social Work contributed to this article.
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