Meet Khalilah Louis Caines, a Saint Leo University alumna who brings her years of practical experience to the classroom as a social work instructor and field education director in the Master of Social Work degree program.

Prof. Khalilah Louis Caines spent many years in a variety of roles positively changing the lives of children through her career as a practitioner. These days, the Saint Leo University alumna and social work instructor prepares graduate students to follow her lead.

Known as “Professor KC” to many of her students, the 41-year-old hails from Aurora, CO. She and her husband reside in Riverview, FL. They have one adult son.

An Early Path Toward a Helping Career

Both of her parents were very active in their community. Her mom ran a licensed childcare facility. Her dad was a meteorologist and got the opportunity to mentor high school students.

“I think seeing them do this work nurtured my passion and desire to help others,” Caines says.

She also got hands-on experience working in a daycare as her first job and volunteering in the community.

“Growing up, I got the opportunity to volunteer at a homeless shelter and soup kitchen,” she recalls. “These experiences fostered my interest in serving the underserved populations in our society.”

Settling on a College Major and Career Path

Like many young people, Caines was unsure of her desired career path early on but didn’t take long to narrow her focus.

“I started college with an interest in medicine,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work with children. I had thought about pursuing pediatrics, but I realized I might be a better fit in a counseling role.”

Her higher education journey began at the University of Colorado Boulder where she attained a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2002. She then embarked on the Master of Social Work degree program with Saint Leo University, wrapping up the graduate coursework in 2011.

She is currently working toward a Ph.D. in public affairs with a focus on social work from the University of Central Florida. She hopes to add “Dr.” to the beginning of her name in 2023.

In addition to degree programs, the social work field offers numerous opportunities for certifications and other short-form professional development credentials. Caines is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in the state of Florida. She is also a Child Welfare Professional through the Florida Certification Board, a Qualified Clinical Supervisor through the Florida Board of Clinical Social Work, Marriage and Family Therapy, and Mental Health, and an Adoption Competent Professional through Rutgers University. Plus, she serves as an Educational Affiliate with the Florida Institute for Child Welfare and as secretary of the Florida Field Consortium.

Running the Gamut in Her Social Work Career

After completing her undergraduate studies in Colorado, she moved across the country to Florida in 2003 where she helped start a church. She says her first “real job” was as a child welfare case manager in Tampa.

“Getting this job opened up my understanding of the social work field,” she says.

For three years, she worked in the Florida Dependency Court system with children who had been removed from their parents.

“In that role, my goal was to connect with their parents to help stabilize them with their lives so that they could be reunited with their children.”

In 2006, she transitioned to become an adoption care manager.

“I worked with kids whose parental rights had been terminated,” she explains. “My job was to find adoptive families for them.”

It was during this time when she decided to go on for a graduate degree. After completing her MSW degree program from Saint Leo University, she embarked on a new chapter as a Wonderful Kids recruiter through the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a nonprofit started by the founder of Wendy’s.

“Dave’s daughter was adopted and he recognized that many adoption professionals were overworked,” Caines explains. “Plus, there are many children with behavioral challenges and medical needs who many people don’t want to adopt. They want the healthy babies with blond hair and blue eyes.”

She further explains her duties in this unique position in which she mainly worked with underage teenagers.

“I was responsible for locating biological family members of these teens and then traveling with them to meet their relatives. I also recruited adoptive families and provided support to the families once they adopted these children. I met lots of great people through this role.”

Transitioning to Teaching Social Work

Caines admits she never thought she would become an instructor. However, this became a reality in 2016. That year, Saint Leo University was one of 14 institutions involved in the Title IV-E Child Welfare Stipend Program. This program, which offered a stipend to undergraduate and graduate social work students, was in response to Florida legislation which required 50 percent of child welfare professionals to have a social work degree. As such, social work students could enroll in this program to take coursework on child abuse and children's services, complete an internship in child welfare, and commit to working one year in child welfare upon graduation in exchange for a monetary stipend while in school.

“Saint Leo was looking for someone with child welfare experience and a social work degree to teach such courses. I worked as the program director for this program and worked with both the BSW and MSW students in this role.”

Once this program was no longer funded, she is grateful to have remained with the institution.

“After the funding ended for this program, Saint Leo was so gracious to keep me on board. I was able to remain in my role as an instructor.”

By 2018, she was named the director of the field education program within the Master of Social Work graduate degree program. She would continue teaching courses as well.

“This is more of an administrative leadership role overseeing all of our student internships for our MSW students. I work with about 14 adjunct instructors who serve as field liaisons for our program. We offer the program in 11 states, so we have to find partners in each of those states with whom our students can complete their internships.”

In her eyes, the work offers a nice balance.

“It’s the best of both worlds because I get to work with our students to help prepare them for social work practice, but I also get to be engaged in the community,” she says.

An Overview of the Master of Social Work Degree Program

Caines explains the unique approach of the graduate social work program at Saint Leo University.

“Our program has a good balance of online work for students to complete on their own, but it still maintains a live component of learning using Zoom. This allows them to consistently engage with their faculty. You don’t really get that aspect with other more traditional online programs out there which are more focused on discussion questions and may not offer those crucial interpersonal connections.”

As such, students benefit from close interactions with their instructors.

“We say our MSW program is high tech, high touch,” she says. “Even though it is an online program, we strive to provide one-on-one support and a personal touch to all of our students.”

The average age of a student in this graduate program is 37. Many of the students are already working in the social work field in some capacity.

“I will admit that it is a rigorous program. However, being able to log in to classes at home versus having to drive to a campus can be very convenient, especially for working professionals and parents.”

The faculty make it a point to be there for the students and are constantly reevaluating themselves, Caines adds.

“Both our full-time and adjunct social work professors really care about our students. We meet regularly as a group to talk about new strategies on how we can support our students. It's really important for us to prepare students for not only the social work profession but also the complex changes in our world. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for social workers. There are so many challenges in our communities, and our graduates have to be prepared to meet those needs.”

A Hands-On Approach to the Virtual Learning Environment

Working primarily as an online social work instructor, she describes the dynamics of her teaching style.

“I use a student-centered, holistic approach to teaching,” she explains. “Because of my professional background of being a practitioner in the field, I of course want to teach content, but I’m very concerned about each student as a whole person.”

And how have students defined her approach as an instructor?

“My students use the words ‘caring’ and ‘supportive’ to describe my teaching style. They also report that I’m one of the most difficult graders, but they know that I care.”

And what does she find most enjoyable when it comes to teaching?

“I love working with students. I actually meet with several alumni regularly as a ‘mentor.’ Some like to call these meetings ‘empowerment sessions.’ I enjoy staying connected to them as they pursue their future lives and careers. We are also trying to establish a formal alumni group for the program.”

It is clear that she and her fellow instructors have made a difference. Numerous alumni from the program have been recognized right off the bat, she adds.

“Saint Leo University produces students who are ready to engage with others. Many organizations say that when they hire a Saint Leo MSW graduate, they know this individual will be prepared to do the work.”

Her Areas of Research

She has done a good amount of research on children who are specifically in the foster care system.

“My Ph.D. dissertation is on community risk and protective factors for educational attainment for youth who age out of foster care,” she says. “I’m looking at whether they are graduating from high school or potentially enrolling in post-secondary education. They disproportionately do not pursue further education compared to others. I’m studying the multitude of community factors that may hinder or promote educational attainment. I really want to amplify the voices of marginalized populations, particularly older youth in foster care to inform policy and practice. My goal is to improve outcomes for them.”

Plus, she and several doctoral classmates are examining racial trauma on young people and how K-12 schools can respond through culturally responsive trauma-informed care.

She even recently co-authored a chapter on this subject in a book published by the Child Welfare League of America due out later in 2022.

Additionally, she is writing a paper on instructional modalities and how students who transitioned to virtual learning during the pandemic have been impacted by this change in learning.

Unwinding When She Can

Away from her day job, she enjoys spending time with her husband and extended family. She has also learned the importance of self care through walking and meditation. She is very involved in her church and loves to sing as an alto. She previously directed a praise and worship group for 11 years.

LEARN MORE: Check out Caines’ LinkedIn profile to learn more about her career.