Tito Williams has learned the hard way how to face fear head on.
He faced fear as a child growing up as the oldest of five children in a small rural town in South Carolina in a single-parent home affected by domestic violence.
His faced fear as a U.S. Marine whose two combat tours in Iraq included numerous house raids at night in unfamiliar territory under the threat of enemy suicide attacks.
And he faced fear as a mere 25-year old man and dad diagnosed with stage III Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Through it all, Tito says he has developed courage and has learned many life lessons – how to be independent, to be supportive, and to truly listen to others.
He has also strengthened his resolve to help people facing difficult challenges in life to move forward and create better futures.
Online learning -- a "comfortable" transition from military to civilian life
Tito is no stranger to Saint Leo University. He earned a bachelor's degree in 2011 through the university's online criminal justice program. He started the program during his 10-year career as a radio satellite communicator and platoon leader in the Marines. Inspired by the challenge and camaraderie the Marines offered, he joined the Corps shortly after high school and was able to take a few courses online while he served.
"I continued to take classes online even after I retired from the service because it was a very comfortable way to transition from the military to civilian life," he said. "I was used to online learning, and it enabled me to take care of my son full time."
Feeling "at home" online
In addition to the flexibility online learning afforded him, Tito said that he decided to continue his studies online by applying to Saint Leo's online social work degree program because of the personal attention he had received as an undergraduate.
"I had a great experience as an undergraduate student. The staff and faculty at Saint Leo are definitely military friendly, and the attitude of my fellow students was very accepting of my being a vet. I had a feeling of community. I felt close to my professors and my peers. I felt at home."
Experiencing caring and community as an online student
Tito also credits his positive experience to his academic advisor, Jimmy Surin. "Jimmy was always there, checking in on me. We formed a real friendship. I could call him up any time I needed him."
That personal connection continued with his graduate enrollment counselor, Mary Martinez-Drovie, when he was going through the application process for the masters of social work online program.
"Mary went above and beyond helping me through the application process. She really cares, which reflects the attitude of the entire university towards students."
"Online learning is personal. You can't hide!"
Tito thinks that there are significant advantages to an online M.S.W. program.
Students attend classes via webcam, which allows for face-to-face interaction with professors and other students. "I prefer it over taking a lecture in a classroom because there are fewer distractions. And you can't hide in the back of the room. You need to participate because the camera is on you."
In addition to giving students their phone numbers and email addresses, Tito said professors also hold scheduled office hours via webcam. "So they're always just an arm reach away."
Putting theory into social work practice
Currently in the second semester of the two-year M.S.W. program, Tito is carrying out his 256-hour field practicum at HPH Hospice, which serves residents in three local counties. He works in bereavement services helping individuals and families to cope with the loss of a loved one. "The experiences I have had in combat and in my life have helped prepare me for this type of work," he said. "I understand loss."
He also, most certainly, understands the suffering of cancer patients and families.
"I was 25. I was the picture of health when I was diagnosed with cancer," he said.
Months of debilitating chemotherapy treatments put him into remission for 18 months, only to be diagnosed again. In addition to a similar chemo treatment cycle, he underwent a stem cell transplant and has been in remission now for four years.
"Those were challenging times, for sure," he said. "Without a doubt, I have been tested." But relying on his faith and knowing his son needed him, he was able to fight hard and survive.
A heart for those who feel lost
Whenever he faces adversity now, Tito reflects back to how far he has come since his days in a hospital bed.
When he completes the M.S.W. program, Tito hopes to enter mental health counseling. He wants to study post-traumatic stress disorder and work with veterans.
To become an effective social worker requires more than critical thinking skills, social work knowledge, and a set of practice competencies, he believes.
"It requires both the head and the heart."
And Tito is proving he has both.
He says he knows what it's like to be poor – when going to McDonald's is like taking a trip to Disney World – what it's like to lose a comrade in battle, and what it's like to lose control over your body.
Yet he believes "everything happens for a reason."
"I now have a unique perspective to help others see options in life.
"And I have a heart for those who feel lost."
March as been designated by the National Association of Social Workers as National Social Work Month. For more information about National Social Work Month 2013 or the social work profession, visit SocialWorkMonth.org.
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Image Credit: Saint Leo University