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USM student becomes first Mississippian to win social work fellowship

Photo courtesy of USM.

Evelyn Sullivan is making history, for her family and for the state of Mississippi. As a first-generation college student, the Gulfport native earned a public health degree from The University of Southern Mississippi and is now working on her Master of Social Work degree. In the fall of 2017, the Council on Social Work Education selected her as the first Mississippian to receive a social work fellowship. The Minority Fellowship Program has been around for four years and 160 master’s students across the U.S. have received fellowships with the program during that time.

Sullivan said one of the major benefits of the one-year fellowship is the support and mentoring for women who want to be social work educators, particularly women of color.

“One of the biggest issues is there are not a lot of social workers of color who have Ph.D.’s and also teach,” Sullivan says.

The Council on Social Work Education’s most recent statistics on social work education in the U.S. indicates that 16.3% of full-time social work faculty and 14.8% of part-time faculty were African-American. In addition, 19.5% of enrolled social work Ph.D. students and 15.2% of graduates were African-American.

“Many social workers don’t go past a master’s degree because they don’t have to,” Sullivan said. “You can do clinical work with a master’s degree. But to teach and get tenure, you need to get a Ph.D. That means extra student loans, and a lot of students can’t afford the deeper debt.”

She says she learned of a doctoral fellowship program that would offset some of the costs associated with pursuing a Ph.D., something she hopes to do in the next three to five years.

“Evelyn’s success in earning a national-level fellowship, especially one as competitive and selective as the MFP-Youth for Master’s Students fellowship, results from her obvious commitment to the health and well-being of children and young people from diverse backgrounds, as well as the strength of her application,” said Dr. Karen Coats, dean of the USM Graduate School. “Moreover, it is such a positive reflection on the education and training she is receiving in our MSW program. I hope Evelyn’s MFP fellowship experience will encourage her to continue her education with the goal of earning a doctorate.”

Sullivan added that being a member of the fellowship has provided a camaraderie among those who are the first in their family to attend college and said that many often lack a support system to help with the experience.

“Being a first-generation student, not having family members who know how to tell you what things to do when you’re in school, what to avoid, scholarships to apply for, not to take out student loans,” Sullivan said. “You don’t have that mentorship that other students have.”

The fellowship’s major event each year is a three-day training session. Sullivan attended that training in early March in Alexandria, Virginia.

“That was the big one, and it was fabulous,” Sullivan said. “It was really good to be around so many minorities … to know that there are others with similar struggles as me, who want to be social workers. Some want to be in politics and policy, some just want to do direct practice. It’s refreshing to talk to people who look like me and have similar issues.”


Sullivan has also applied for a fellowship through the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan, Washington, D.C.-based research and policy institute. If accepted, she would work for two years in a state legislature outside Mississippi.

“I’ll learn how to follow bills, write bills, how legislators move and things they do on a daily basis,” Sullivan said. “It will really be a head start on being a politician and knowing what happens behind the scenes. When I come back to Mississippi, I’ll be more of a force to take on things happening in my state.”

Sullivan’s pursuit of additional experiences does not surprise Michelle Brazeal, an instructor and grant project director in the School of Social Work. Brazeal set up a hybrid internship that allowed Sullivan to work on a grant-funded mental and behavioral health initiative, as well as at a Head Start Program and homeless mission, Back Bay, in Biloxi.

“One of the things about Evelyn that I think is most impressive is that when she is passionate about something, she goes after it and is willing to do whatever is required to get the job done,” Brazeal says. “She just goes after it to make it happen.”

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