Nov. 25, 2020

Class of 2020: COVID-19 couldn’t shake social work grad’s determination to make a difference

Ayana Woodward pressed on after losing her father when both parents became ill with COVID-19

She doesn’t use the word directly, but it’s pretty clear that Bachelor of Social Work graduate Ayana Woodward is on a mission. And while COVID-19 changed a lot of things in 2020, it didn’t change her resolve to move forward with her purpose in life.

Woodward, who will be part of the Nov. 26 online convocation, has lived, worked and volunteered in Montreal all her life. However, she chose UCalgary’s online Bachelor of Social Work program (Virtual Learning Circle) because the program looked like exactly what she was after.

Ayana completed a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science at McGill but realized politics or becoming a lawyer wasn’t what she was after in life. Since the age of 11 she's always volunteered or worked in human services — in community groups, in youth protection and crisis intervention — and realized she was already doing work similar to what she saw her social work colleagues doing. She also she felt a deeper calling.

“Being Black and female and seeing the injustices that happen to people who look like me and Black men," says Woodward. "And with everything going on in the world right now with police brutality. Essentially, I felt like I wanted to be part of the solution and this was the best way that I know how. The easiest route to helping people realize that they can solve their own problems and empowering them to do that.”

Woodward admits that she was a little wary of an online program but was pleasantly surprised to find an amazing level of support from the staff and faculty, and perhaps most important, a direct connection with an incredibly supportive cohort.

“It's just amazing how we came together online,” she says. “I feel like I'm so much closer with my online cohort compared to my previous degree at McGill which was in person, every day. It's strange, but it's such an amazing feeling. It's on a different level. I don't even know how to explain why I feel like we built such relationships with each other. Relationships that I think we'll carry on forever.”

'Helping people helps me'

Woodward’s supportive cohort was a blessing last spring when COVID-19 hit her family hard. In April, her uncle, mother (a nurse) and father contracted the disease. By May her father had passed away.

No one would have blamed Woodward if she had decided to withdraw and focus on her family and her loss. But she says she actually found strength and support in her program, so she stayed on.

“I think everybody at the social work faculty really made me feel like I could finish my degree,” says Woodward. “They were super understanding, and it was an amazing experience. It was definitely difficult to go through. But I couldn't have been in a better place for that to have happened. It's strange that I say that, but I don't know what I would have done if I wasn't in school and this happened. I wouldn't have had that same support that I had going through it.”

The other reason she pushed on is that sense of purpose we mentioned at the start: Her determination to make a difference.

“I just decided that this is what I wanted to do. Why put off something that I could do now, for a year? I still have the goal of wanting to help people, and it's not going to get any easier by me waiting a year. I think part of my grieving was just being able to help other people. I knew that the only way I could do that was by just finishing my degree, so I could get to what I wanted to do quicker. So, that's the way I was able to manage. It's just helping people helps me.”

A new perspective on parenting

The other silver lining in these darkest of clouds was her practicum experience. Every social work student’s degree includes field education — essentially “real-world” work experience under the supervision of a social worker. Woodward found a placement with a private practice in Montreal that gave her valuable experience supporting families, even while many of her cohort were scrambling to find new placements during the pandemic. Woodward says she learned so much during her practicum, particularly in how to take a different lens on parenting.

“I think for myself as a social worker, working with parents, is to understand that they're trying their best,” she says. “So my biggest takeaway is just being more compassionate towards parents because I've also worked in youth protection, where you often think, 'What are you doing? Like, you obviously can't do that to your kid!' So, it's trying to balance that mindset with being more compassionate and working with them to help them through that.”

Good at being busy

While dealing with all of this, Woodward was balancing a schedule that seems almost superhuman. While taking her degree she also worked two jobs, for a crisis intervention agency and a school board, while volunteering for a community organization’s board of directors. As she puts it, she’s "good at being busy — in a healthy way."

“To this point in my life,” says Woodward, “I've always been busy like that. I had such a set routine. I'd wake up, I'd go to the gym, I'd go to work at the school, then I'd go to work in the crisis centre. And I'd do my homework and my classes on my break. On the weekend, I'd study. I don't want to sound cocky, but I feel like that's just what I do. And I'm really good at it.”

Gratitude and determination

All in all, when Woodward joins the online celebration on Nov. 26, she’ll have a lot to reflect upon, and a lot to be proud of. However, she says she’ll reflect on the amazing bond she feels with her cohort and the time they spent together during the program’s residencies.

“I think,” she says, “just talking to them and having this sense of achievement, that I was able to get through it when it was the worst time of my life. So just feeling accomplished and feeling grateful for the support of my cohort — now my colleagues — and the staff and teachers and everyone at the University of Calgary. I'm so thankful to have done my BSW there.”