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From GED to Ph.D., Mental Health Program Coordinator Finds Social Work Her Calling

Who: Nancy Meyer-Adams, B.S.W. and M.S.W., Florida International University; Ph.D., College of Social Work, University of Tennessee

Currently: Associate Professor, Associate Director and Coordinator of Academic Programs, and Mental Health Program Project Co-coordinator at the School of Social Work, California State University, Long Beach

More about Dr. Meyer-Adams: Founding project coordinator of the Pasadena Unified School District’s School-based Mental Health Program (2002); Most Valuable Professor (2008, 2009, 2011, 2012); College of Health and Human Services Community Service Award recipient (2010). Read more about Dr. Meyer-Adams as well as an interview with her.

CalSWEC News: You've had a long-standing interest in school bullying, from your dissertation research (on the effects of school bullying on the culture and climate of middle schools in urban communities) to being a consultant to the Pasadena Unified School District on bullying and school violence. Tell us what's behind your interest in this subject. 

I first became interested in doing research in this area during my B.S.W. and M.S.W. student internships where I facilitated groups with elementary and middle school students. Working with children in these settings allowed me to see the impact bullying had on them and the culture and climate of their school environments. 

Shortly after I started my dissertation research, the shootings at Columbine happened and then the topic of bullying and school violence became a national topic. I find it interesting that while bullying has been happening in schools for decades, it took major mass shootings to bring the topic to the forefront of researchers’ agendas and media attention. I think there is still much work to be done in this area of connecting the school climate and culture to the prevalence of bullying on school campuses.

I was fortunate to have Charles Glisson as a professor in my doctoral program. Dr. Glisson is well known for his work in the area of organizational climate and culture, and studying with him is what sparked my interest in looking at bullying in connection with the school climate and culture.

CN: Would you say that bullying and school violence have changed since you first studied it?

In some ways, yes, in the fact that we hear more about victims of bullies committing acts of retaliation now—sometimes very violent acts—but I think that the acts of bullying are still the same. I hope that the attitudes of adults on school campuses have changed.

For many years, adults attributed bullying to “kids just being kids” or a passing phase that all children go through. But I believe that attitudes about bullying are changing. I believe that many school staff and parents now understand the harmful effects of bullying and that the country’s attitude has changed. It is the adults in the school and the parents who are involved in the school who can change the culture and climate to address and prevent bullying. I think that these adults realize more now that they must take actions to create bully-free zones in schools.

CN: As a former mental health professional and as coordinator of CalSWEC’s Mental Health Program at CSU, Long Beach, what would you say are the greatest challenges facing the field today?

I think the greatest challenges in the mental health field are still fighting the stigma our clients face when dealing with a mental health issue or diagnosis. I think as an educator and stipend coordinator for this program I have to fight the stigma in my classrooms and with my students because the stigma and myths of what it means to suffer from a mental illness are still very prevalent.  

Another challenge is, of course, the state’s and federal budget issues and how that affects services that we can offer to clients as well as the job market for new MSW graduates.

CN: You describe yourself as a non-traditional student, obtaining your GED at age 37 and within 10 years of that, earning your doctorate. What motivated you to pursue an education so determinedly? And why social work?

As a teen mother, high school dropout, and restaurant server for many years, I understood the importance of education and the opportunities that education can offer. As my children started college, I realized that I wanted to be able to further my education as well.

Why social work—my inspiration to go into social work stemmed from experiences my son and I went through when he was a teenager. He struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, and he entered treatment at age 16. We worked together as a family with a social worker to address his struggles. He was able to finish high school and has also gone on to earn his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from UCLA.

The more I learned about how social workers approach helping people reach their goals and consider the environmental stressors that influence our clients, the more I knew it was the right career choice for me. I went on to earn my Ph.D. because I wanted to teach. This passion was sparked by some amazing professors I was lucky enough to have during my college experience. I know on a very personal level what a difference dedicated, caring, and inspiring teachers can make in a student’s life—I was inspired to keep going on from my GED.

CN: What advice would you give other non-traditional students?

I would say to take to time to enjoy the experience of school even with all the other demands many non-traditional students may have. Learning does not just happen in the classroom, and if you rush through a program just to get a degree, you are missing out on a lot. Also, don’t be afraid of new experiences.