With nearly 30 percent of Athens County residents living below the poverty line, the challenges facing Athens’ impoverished are often lamented. Poverty brings with it political, social and sociological problems — but it also brings those looking to help.
Ohio University’s social work program comprises undergraduate and graduate students who are instructed by more than a dozen faculty members who are versed in different aspects of the field.
While many think of social workers as child protection agents and those who work with foster children, Natalie Pope, a professor in the social work program, said there are opportunities in many different fields such as mental health counseling, assisted living homes, substance abuse counseling and non-profits.
Pope said the field appeals to many people, including her, because of the desire to make a difference.
“I think everyone says, ‘Oh, I want to help people,’ but there are many different helping professions,” she said. “I think the field attracted me because it’s so versatile and I could navigate to different areas to help.”
Those pursuing a job in the social work field can often find their passions while exploring different options and volunteering in different fields, said Chelsea Gruttadauria, a junior studying social work.
“Since joining the social work field, I have realized now that I am much more interested in women’s activism,” she said. “As a member of Ohio University’s Survivor Advocacy Program, I have realized how amazingly fulfilling my life would be if I was to continue working with victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault and stalking. So with this, I think my dream job would be directing a women’s shelter.”
Because people in the field deal with many harsh realities of poverty and substance abuse, Pope said the internship and fieldwork portions of the program are especially important.
“When I worked in Child Protective Services, it really matured me not only professionally, but as a person,” she said. “Working really teaches you to manage yourself in tough situations and maintain professionalism.”
Students have a chance to experience the face of poverty head-on when seeing the “real” Athens in fieldwork, Pope said.
With such a large percentage below the poverty line, defined as those making less than about $22,000 according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, Athens County just about doubles the percentage of Ohioans living below the poverty line — about 14 percent, according to the 2010 Census.
“I think most students at OU are pretty secluded from the actual face of Athens unless they make a conscious effort,” she said. “For those who do go out into the city, there are a lot of eye-opening experiences that can be very humbling.”
These experiences, while humbling, are worth it because of the lives that are changed, Gruttadauria said.
“I think that what has surprised me so much about both the social work program at OU as well as the field in general, is the people that I work with,” she said.“These are people that are choosing to get paid almost nothing in order to help people better their lives. Social workers are the most genuine people I have ever met.”