Bethany Thompson '99 returned to the School of Social Work after spending time in Los Angeles working at Colombian House, a residence for children with developmental disabilities.
It didn't take Bethany Thompson '99 long to form a strong impression of her freshman experience. After one week, she was looking for inspiration outside of the classroom. "I wasn't happy with what I was hearing in the classroom," she says bluntly. |
The academic, clinical aspects of social work education came as a shock to Thompson, who grew up in a family dedicated to social activism. "Volunteering was what you did," says the Remembrance Scholar and class marshal. "I had a lot of unique experiences as far as that goes. I believe in never limiting my role in the community."
Instead of returning to her native Milwaukee, Thompson balanced her studies with work. She volunteered with the Brighton Family Center, a community center in a disadvantaged Syracuse neighborhood, and Hospice of Central New York.
Thompson took a leave of absence after her first semester and looked for a long-term field experience. She eventually chose Colombian House, a Los Angeles-area residential facility for children with developmental disabilities, where she worked as a direct-care provider and advocate for several children, ages 3 months to 16 years. Most were unable to understand traditional means of communication. Some suffered terminal illnesses. Thompson saw firsthand how the families dealt with grief.
Meanwhile, Thompson stayed in touch with Social Work Dean William Pollard. She planned to spend the following summer writing a case study based on her experiences at Colombian House. But she first needed time to process what she had experienced. She went home to Milwaukee and returned to her old summer job as a camp counselor. "That was important for me because many of the kids at Colombian House couldn't communicate verbally," she says. "I felt I had lost some of those social skills. I needed to work with children who were not challenged in that way."
When Thompson returned to California, she took classes at the La Jolla campus of the University of California, San Diego, joined an archaeological dig based in San Diego, and worked as a recreation supervisor at a school for children with disabilities. But soon, SU beckoned. "After eight or nine months, I decided I'd better go back to school," Thompson says. "I needed my degree to progress and accomplish what I want to do. My time in California helped me put things in perspective and gave me the motivation to finish my degree."
Pollard immediately noticed a difference in Thompson's approach to her studies. "What she experienced in California affected her very deeply and influenced her decision to come back," he says.
Invigorated, Thompson felt more at home the second time around. "I'm eager to share what I learned," she says. "I now fit nicely into the social work program because the school has many students with nontraditional backgrounds. We all have something to offer."
Thompson still finds time to put empathy into action. She is a consultant to the Eastern Farm Workers Association, and volunteers informally in her neighborhood, located in the socially progressive Hawley-Green district of Syracuse. She is also writing a children's book on coping with death and dying that began as an honors thesis. "I want to take more time to further explore those issues," Thompson explains.
But that is just part of Thompson's dynamic life. She and her husband, Oren Amber, welcomed their first child, a son, in April. She was also awarded a Fulbright grant to study the racially influenced imbalance of hospice care in Zimbabwe. After that, Thompson plans to pursue a master's degree in social work at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
The prospect of being at a crossroads thrills Thompson, and she has a life partner who shares her enthusiasm for adventure and helping others. "I am open to whatever," she says with a smile. "I think we are ready for another challenge."