by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For Bethel College senior Sheldon Nunnally, Los Angeles, the trip to Kansas City proved to be, in his words, “life-changing.”
The event was the annual conference of the Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors (BPD), March 4-8 at the Westin Crown Center. Nunnally was one of 10 Bethel social work majors, sophomore through senior, who attended the conference along with Hamilton Williams, associate professor of social work.
Last semester, the students in Williams’ Intervention in Human Systems class applied to present a poster at the BPD annual conference. Their proposal was accepted, and Nunnally agreed to be one of two students who stayed with the poster to answer questions for judges and other visitors.
“I didn’t know how big this conference was until I got there,” Nunnally says. “Hamilton didn’t tell me because he didn’t want me to be nervous.”
Since the theme of the conference was “Educating the Masses,” the Bethel poster described how the Día de los Muertos parade they help organize each fall, in conjunction with a Newton Catholic church, can be used in place of a protest event to educate and inform.
“When people hear ‘protest,’ often they think ‘riot,’ or something negative,” Nunnally says. “We showed how, instead, a parade could inform about [a minority] culture and history, and even about issues such as voting, and could take the place of protesting.”
“Sheldon hit a home run with his connection to the dynamics in the community and the impact this has had since the parade began three years ago,” Williams says.
For Nunnally, the size of the conference and the number and variety of people he spoke to were part of what made the experience significant for him.
“I think about my friends [back home in Compton], how many are in jail, or dead,” he says. “I had never done anything like this before – if they could see me now. I have a daughter, and I want to make her proud.
“It was also life-changing because school has not been so important to me before,” he goes on. “[In high school,] sports was the main thing.
“I wasn’t interested in school because [there] they weren’t interested in me. And here I was the student to make the presentation [at the conference]. I’ve come a long way from where I was.”
Besides being a confidence-builder, the conference for Nunnally and three of his peers – all of them young black males – put them in a surprising position.
It was almost like “black privilege,” Nunnally says. “There are not a lot of males in social work, much less black males. They don’t usually see a group of young black men at a conference like this.”
“People would come up to us and say, ‘We’re so glad you guys are here,’” says Malcolm Mustin, a junior from Kansas City, Missouri. “They said, ‘Keep it up – and see if you can [encourage] more males and more racial minorities to consider social work. We need them.’”
“It really affirmed this career choice,” Nunnally adds. “People were telling us they wanted us for their [master’s degree] programs.”
“The guys were really heavily recruited,” observes Katelyn Melgren, senior from Olathe. “They saw the value placed on them, and how their education applies [to career choices].”
That’s exactly why Williams works to get his students to the BPD conference when possible.
“It’s such a good representation of what the field is about,” he says. “There are people from all areas in one place. It gives the broad scope of social work and shows the multiple opportunities for students.”
“I’d never had a chance to experience so much information in one place,” Mustin says. “It was a great experience. A lot of social work is networking, so that was huge.”
For Joe Kondziola, a senior from North Newton, the conference helped him “narrow down what I’m interested in for graduate programs. I’m definitely more interested in the macro level, working with groups, then the micro, which would be more individual work, like counseling.”
Melgren appreciated “learning what people are actually doing. It was great to sit around a table with people working in the field and find out what problems and challenges they experience.”
Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2014-15 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2014-15. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.