Assistant Professor of Social Work Milka Ramirez

Monday, July 18, 2016

Victor Gaskins never attended Northeastern Illinois University, not even for a single class. Yet he’s one of the University’s biggest fans. “What can I say? I love Northeastern,” Gaskins said.

With good reason: Gaskins is a program administrator with St. Leonard’s Ministries, a Chicago social service provider that helps with residential, case management and employment services for men and women who have been released from prison and need help rebuilding their lives.

In nine years of work with St. Leonard’s, Gaskins estimated he has hired between 25 and 30 interns from Northeastern—far more than from any other Chicago-area university. He may need to make room for more.

Northeastern will launch a Social Work master’s program in Fall 2016—and Gaskins, who has several undergraduate degrees, said the new program just might entice him to go back into the classroom for his first master’s degree. “The most dedicated and eager-to-learn students come from Northeastern,” Gaskins said.

The expansion of the Social Work program is the result of years of hard work and preparation by Jade Stanley, chair of the department that serves more than 400 undergraduates. Upon completion of their bachelor’s degree, as many as three-quarters of graduates pursue a master’s degree, Stanley estimated, which could boost their annual salary by up to $10,000. “We would prepare our students, and then they would go to other universities. We knew we could do that work here,” Stanley said. “We know our students well, and I’m excited because of the potential and the possibility.”

So is Troy Harden, who was hired at the beginning of the year to direct the master’s program. “We will develop professionals who have a serious commitment to justice, social change and high ethical standards that can serve our city, state and region,” said Harden, who has a long history in research and fieldwork in Chicago communities. “We will have a local and global presence.”

Northeastern’s Social Work program has earned a solid reputation in Chicago and beyond for developing graduates who are prepared for hands-on work with diverse communities. “We know that our students are going back to their community to do work on behalf of their families and individuals,” Stanley said. “We have a uniqueness that other universities might not have. We don’t have to teach them certain things. They know it; they lived it. It’s raw. It’s real.”

The Master’s of Social Work program will provide the opportunity for increased specialization in the field, whether it’s direct practice, clinical work or advocacy and leadership work in the field. It also will open up students’ eligibility for licensure.

“I was excited to hear about the new master’s program,” said Eddie Bocanegra, a 2012 graduate who went on to earn international attention—and even White House recognition—for his Urban Warriors program that connects combat veterans with at-risk teens to help each group deal with their shared stresses. “Northeastern is already producing these students. Why not have a master’s program and start competing with other institutions?”

That wasn’t an option for Bocanegra, who moved on to the University of Chicago to earn his master’s degree. Now executive director of the YMCA of Metro Chicago’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention Initiative, Bocanegra serves as a supervisor and mentor for interns and workers just entering the field. When they ask about grad school, he now can provide them with an exciting new option: Northeastern.

“I can tell which students take the gloves off and are in the fight, in the trenches,” Bocanegra said. “Northeastern students and graduates are inclusive in terms of the work they do. I believe in leadership, and I believe in how Northeastern goes about addressing these issues.”

Top photo: Assistant Professor of Social Work Milka Ramirez will teach in the new master’s program.