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Meet the social work graduates making history at the University of Kentucky

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Posted at 2:24 PM, May 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-23 18:40:21-04

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Caps and gowns are on, and it’s time for 2022 graduation photos.

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But behind these Wildcats’ celebratory smiles, there are stories of perseverance.

Dr. Shericka Smith is a member of the inaugural class of graduates from the University of Kentucky’s Doctor of Social Work Program, or DSW.

“I'm not really supposed to be here,” she said. “According to society, according to statistics, according to what everybody else thinks, you know what Black women are supposed to be or supposed to look like, or not supposed to be, or not supposed to look like. That's what makes me the most proud.”

Dr. Smith is proud because she and her peers are members of a ground-breaking group. Within their class is the most Black doctors to ever graduate from a single discipline at UK.

“We literally made history,” said Dr. Sharrion Brown. “And that's not something I'm used to. I'm the first person in my immediate family to graduate college, let alone get this far.”

Dr. Brown and Dr. Smith joined some of their fellow graduates at the student center last week to talk to LEX 18 about their accomplishments. We met women like Dr. Marilyn Lucille Sails, Dr. Cerenity Leavell-Barker, Dr. Angela Williams, and Dr. Cynae Adams.

They all graduated from the online program in two years, meaning they went to school full-time while working. Many of them are also parents.

“I have two children, so I hope one day they can see this and think they're proud their mother was a part of this,” said Dr. Brittany Gentry.

According to UK, 23 of the program’s 72 graduating doctorate students are Black, including three Black men. Its representation professors say will make a difference in a field that’s historically made up of white women.

“It's hard to become what you don't see,” said Dr. Laura Escobar-Ratliff, the DSW program director. “And we are providing opportunities for children to see themselves.”

“We deal with diverse communities,” said Dr. Jay Miller, the dean of the College of Social Work. “And it is extremely important practitioners reflect those communities.”

A 2017 survey from the National Association of Social Workers found nearly 70% of social workers are white. Dr. Gentry says those disparities are part of the reason she enrolled in the program.

“The need for people of color as therapists, as mentors, as case managers, has increased significantly,” she told LEX 18.

To many of the graduates, the title of “Dr.” still feels surreal. But they hope the two letters on the front of their names inspire future students who also want to make a difference.

“We see things on TV, about, ‘Oh this is history-making, people make history.’ And to actually be a part of making history, it's once in a lifetime,” Dr. Smith said.