Selena Stewart is a busy mom who volunteers and serves as vice president for the board of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of North Sand Mountain, Alabama. She also recently moved her aging parents to live in the house behind her family so she can help care for her mother. And in Fall 2020, with all of this on her plate, she jumped into school full time to earn her Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) primarily online from The University of Alabama.
Selena’s interest in social work was piqued years ago. In 2016, with two nearly grown daughters, she was working in a day care. “I didn’t know much about social work then, but I got attached to a little boy whose mom just couldn’t care for him at the time, and his grandmother was struggling. We decided to become foster parents, and you know, we didn’t do it to adopt – we just did it to help.”
The Stewarts formed a strong bond with their first foster daughter and ended up trying to adopt her, but a family member claimed custody, disrupting their plans and breaking their hearts. Despite this difficulty, Selena and her husband have persevered in service, fostering six more children in their home. “We just wanted to help, but they’ve made our lives better,” she said.
By 2018, she had started to volunteer with CASA, and between serving as an advocate and as a foster parent, Selena’s eyes opened to the great need for good social workers. “After working as an advocate and board member with CASA, I realized I would be taken more seriously if I had the degree to back up my passion,” she said.
Her passion is shared by her second oldest daughter, who at the time was already earning her own BSW from Jacksonville State University. Because of her daughter’s educational path, Selena knew a little bit about different programs in the state and had heard about UA’s School of Social Work. To accommodate her life, she wanted an online BSW program, and the fact that she and her family are “major Alabama fans” helped push her in the right direction. UA’s primarily online BSW includes online coursework, field education and regionally convenient skills labs. This way, students like Selena who have family, work or other responsibilities that prevent them from being a resident student on campus can still earn UA’s prestigious BSW around their schedules.
When she applied for the program, Selena and her husband had five children – two by birth and three by adoption. In August 2020, just weeks before her first UA classes started, they drove to Minnesota to pick up their sixth child, who joined the family through foster care. Jumping into a full course load at this time hasn’t been easy, but Selena’s already advancing her knowledge in the field.
“In my social work history and oppression classes, there have been so many concepts that have opened my eyes. And my death and dying class was very good, too. You write about some hard things in that class. I wrote about losing our first foster child, so that was difficult.” Selena said her professor, Peggy Swails, was encouraging and responsive not only to her writing assignments, but also when mid-semester, Selena was diagnosed with COVID-19. “She was really easy to contact and very understanding with everything!”
Selena is on track to begin her 400-level courses in the fall, and her skills labs will begin then as well. “They’ll be in locations that are convenient to me, so I’ll probably drive to Huntsville or Birmingham to complete those.”
Since beginning the social work program and working with CASA, Selena said her perspective has changed. “I used to want kids to be with a foster parent or stable family member forever. But with more knowledge now, I understand that everybody makes stupid choices they wish they could take back. And I had a lot of support in life from my mom. Your family’s support means a lot, and in these situations, I have found myself rooting for the parents, hoping they can find the support they need and do what it takes to be there for their children.”
After graduation, she hopes to work for Alabama’s Department of Human Resources for a while, and eventually she’d like to open her own practice with her daughter. “We live in a rural area, and we need more cognitive and behavioral options for kids here. I’d like to offer play therapy and things like that to help them.” Other dreams for her future include opening a group home for teenagers or pregnant moms.
“Most people will say you should do this for yourself. But I have six kids – I can’t just do this for myself. I’m doing it for them. I want to finish for my 20- and 22-year-olds, who always encouraged me and thought it was so great when I was going back to school. And to show myself and everyone else that even when you’re 44 and have six kids, you can go to college and finish.”
Published: May 10th, 2021