Miriam Laskey has coped for much of her adult life with a severe mental health disability that, at times, made it impossible for her to function from day to day.
But her disorder was in remission when she was encouraged by her case worker, a social worker, to go back to school and consider getting a degree in social work herself.
And so Ms. Laskey applied to Dalhousie. Her application was certainly not typical – not only was her GPA a little on the low side, but her prior degree was a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry.
But Dalhousie’s School of Social Work looks for more in its students than high marks, and is known for having one of the strongest affirmative action programs of social work schools in the country.
“[We] have a longstanding commitment to actively create an organizational culture that is inclusive of human differences through strategies that recruit and support diverse faculty and students,” says Gail Baikie, assistant professor at the School of Social Work.
And after explaining her situation to the school, Ms. Laskey, who is now 53, was accepted, and began her studies in the fall of 2008. Yet she continued to struggle with her illness throughout her three years at Dalhousie and relapsed during her second year. The school not only encouraged her to take time off to recover, but also gave her extended deadlines on her work.
Ms. Laskey did recover, and went on to do her practicum with the Sharing and Caring Social Club, a place for adults with disabilities run by the Canadian Mental Health Association. She is now employed full-time in a managerial position as the program coordinator for the club.
Merlinda Weinberg is a professor with the School of Social Work, and has taught Ms. Laskey in a few different classes. She and other professors in the department see her as an inspiration to other students facing challenges in their day to day lives.
Dr. Weinberg admits that affirmative action policies in schools don’t always lead to employment once a student enters the workforce, but sees Ms. Laskey as a success story in this regard. “What for me is incredibly heartening is to see a student like this be successful, not just in terms of graduating but in terms of society seeing them as capable of doing the work.”
A role model for her openness
Ms. Laskey is also being lauded as a role model to her classmates for being open about her experiences in the mental health system and the challenges she has faced, but still working hard to overcome them.
“Regardless of where she was at in terms of her own struggle, there was an openness and self-reflexivity about it that was remarkable and impressive,” says Dr. Weinberg. “I never felt she was asking for more than what other students asked for, but what she had to overcome was pretty gigantic in comparison.”
The school focuses on empowerment – not only for clients but also for students. That sense of confidence and empowerment is something Ms. Laskey says she received in spades during her time at Dal. Going back to school wasn’t an easy experience, but she believes her personal struggles have helped her to become a better social worker.
“When you discover your own vulnerability you can see the vulnerability within others,” she says.
Judy MacDonald, an associate professor and the undergraduate coordinator for the social work program, sees Ms. Laskey's major strength as her lived experiences and her ability to make the personal political. “She’s lived the other side of things,” she explains.
The philosophy of the possible
“Miriam embodies a philosophy of the possible, and has clearly demonstrated that she can create reality from dreams,” adds Dr. Baikie. “Her experiences and insights and experience will be a tremendous contribution to our profession. Miriam has acquired and demonstrated a deep wisdom regarding social issues through engagement with her own experience, the school and the curriculum.”
And indeed, Ms. Laskey’s personal experience as well as her education at Dalhousie has made it easier for her to identify the many challenges and stigmas associated with mental health issues. She is considering pursuing a master’s degree in social work so that she can work on issues of mental health policy within the government to improve the system for sufferers of mental illness.
She graduated at fall convocation earlier this month, and looking back on it all, she has nothing but good to say about her educational experience.
“I had character before, but this program builds a lot of strength,” she says. “And that’s the liberation of education.”
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