When Erin Whiteley stepped onto Saint Leo’s University Campus for the first time, she knew it was exactly where she belonged. Already an alumna with her bachelor’s degree, she is now pursuing a graduate social work degree through the university.

The 23-year-old is a native of Duanesburg, NY in the upstate region of New York. She now resides in Jacksonville, FL. She has a twin brother, Preston, and a younger sister, Emma. A 2017 alumna of Schalmont High School, she attended Hudson Valley Community College to earn her AA in humanities and social sciences in 2019.

Moving South to Sunny Saint Leo University

After completing her associate degree program in the Empire State, Whiteley eyed a new chapter in her life.

“I really wanted to experience living away from home for the rest of my college career,” Whiteley shares. “But I wanted to find a school where I had family nearby. I Googled ‘accredited social work degree programs’ and Saint Leo University was one of a few in Florida that popped up. Fortunately, I had relatives only 15 minutes away from campus in Wesley Chapel.”

As soon as she set foot on campus, she knew she had made the best decision for her future.

“I didn’t really buy into how some people say they love a college campus right away, but I can honestly say this absolutely was the case for me coming to Saint Leo.”

Opting for a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work

In the fall of 2019, she began Saint Leo University’s bachelor’s degree in social work program. Several factors contributed to her decision to pursue a social work degree.

“My sister has Down syndrome and our family has worked with caseworkers for a long time,” she explains. “They have been a big help to us and have given a lot to our family, so I wanted to give back to other families in need. My mom is also a social worker at a nursing home, and I’ve had the chance to observe how she and her colleagues make such a difference in the lives of others.”

Additionally, she was intrigued by the lengthy list of career tracks and areas of specialty within the social work field.

She admits that the 1,200 miles separating she and her family in New York made her feel homesick for a bit early on. However, once she made more connections, she began to find her niche.
“I tried to focus on getting more involved on campus. That was how I met Dr. [Veronika] Ospina-Kammerer (Dr. VOK). She was the first professor I felt so comfortable around, and she introduced me to the social work club.”

Presiding Over the Social Work Club

Erin Whiteley and others outside

Not only did Whiteley become a member of the social work club, she would go on to lead it.

“I saw a little more potential in what the club could do compared to previous years,” she explains. “I wanted to find more opportunities for the group to get out and do more things in the community.”

One activity the club did during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic involved creating “thinking of you” cards to send to local nursing home residents. Several members also helped Dr. VOK maintain the Peaceful Reflections Garden on campus.

“In my role as president, I learned a lot of leadership skills, especially how to delegate tasks to others.”

A Residential Role

During her senior year, she became a resident assistant (RA) on campus and made even more meaningful relationships through this opportunity.

“I got to attend several events with other RAs,” she recalls. “The residence life staff on campus is truly amazing.”

Notable Professors in the Bachelor of Social Work Degree Program

She says Dr. VOK has been a superb instructor, mentor, and friend.

“She has been a great influence on me,” Whiteley says. “She has a ton of professional experience working in so many different areas. She has given me so much advice about my career goals and just life in general. I can’t appreciate her enough.”

Drs. Ebony Perez and Rhondda Waddell, as well as Prof. Christina Cazanave, have all been memorable to her.

“They have all been great professors who have provided great insight and perspectives into the social work field.”

Continuing on with a Master’s Degree in Social Work

According to Whiteley, she had every intention of sticking with Saint Leo University for her graduate studies.

“One of the reasons I chose Saint Leo was to eventually complete the Master of Social Work program. The opportunity to do the MSW in one year was very appealing to me.”

She enrolled in May and expects to complete the coursework by August of 2022. She explains what the transition has been like going from an on-campus undergraduate program to one that is fully online.

“It was a bit of an adjustment from the traditional classes I took in my undergrad program. But being able to meet with my professors virtually has offered lots of flexibility. All of my professors have been very helpful at answering any questions I have.”

Meaningful Saint Leo Core Values

In terms of the six Saint Leo University core values, two are most important to her.

“In the social work field, you have to maintain integrity because clients are telling you so much confidential information,” she says. “Personal development is also a big one for me since I’ve learned a lot about myself. The BSW program allowed me to self reflect and reexamine my values.”

Career Considerations

Whiteley has worked as a nanny since age 13 and still has a part-time role. In January, she will be starting an internship in the Jacksonville area.

“I will likely be interning with a substance abuse agency that helps people overcome these issues.”

She currently serves as a board member of Liv4TheCure, a New York-based nonprofit working on gene therapy to help treat rare diseases.

“I’ve gotten to use several of my social work skills when doing this volunteer work.”

And which possible social work career tracks is she considering?

“I really want to jump into a career working with children and families or geriatrics in nursing homes. I could also see myself being a caseworker for families with special needs. At this point, I just want to gain experience and see where it takes me.”

Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog article were provided by Erin Whiteley and are used with permission.