Embracing the Possibilities: Empowering Students to Create Their Future

by Sarah Flanagan, MSW, MPA, LCSW, Director of Community Health and Interprofessional Education

The notion of wanting to make a difference is not new; the idea of leaving a legacy, making your mark, or doing your part to make the world a better place is something that has driven people since the start of time. What has changed are opportunities, at least in terms of how they are perceived, packaged and presented. Society today sends conflicting messages. On one hand, we hear repeatedly that “anything is possible” and yet in many ways, those opportunities still only exist for those who already have resources, good fortune or downright luck.

We all want to find where we fit, where our calling and purpose make sense in light of the world around us, whether that relates to our family, work, school or other obligations. Now, maybe more than ever, there is such competition – not just in terms of achieving our goals, but it seems that everything and everyone is competing for our undevoted time and attention. We live in a world that expects us to be all things to all people at all times. It sounds exciting and rewarding, and yet we cannot possibly live up to the expectations in all areas if we have to conform to a predesigned notion of what fits the mold.

Education creates opportunities. Education enriches. Education empowers. In  current times, it is more important than ever for people to navigate these winding roads of life, and education allows us to not only be guided, but also to learn to guide ourselves and others. Humans were not created as cookie cutters, meant to look and feel and act in uniform, predictable ways. Indeed, half the joy of living is exploring, creating and figuring things out as we go. How we harness that ingenuity and vision in ways that enable us to help others and provide for our family is an important question we all face. What is the best path? What is the best way forward?

As I sit here now in my 40s and with better perspective on life, I look back and reflect upon my own path, my own journey. One thing that resonates about my own experience is something that I hope to also provide for others. When I began my undergraduate studies at Creighton University, I knew that I wanted to help people. I wanted to be the person who made a difference and left a lasting mark on the world around me. I began as a Pre-Occupational Therapy student, only to discover that while that would be a meaningful career, my heart was not in it. After an epiphany one evening my sophomore year, I decided to change my major to Social Work and move to Ireland for six months (which may not seem hard to most people but as an identical twin, it was the first time I would really be on my own). Those were two of the best decisions I ever made. I learned that it was not selfish to follow my dreams; that I would still be making people proud of who I was and who I wanted to become.

This increased confidence is something that I carried with me into graduate school at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. I applied for and was accepted into three programs – Master’s in Social Work, Master’s in Public Administration and a Graduate Certificate in Gerontology. I had no idea that this combination was anything other than routine. It was not until meeting with my academic advisor that she informed me that no one had done this before – no one had simultaneously worked on these three graduate programs. Anyone who knows me now probably knows what I did back then – I enthusiastically said, “let’s do it!” and embraced the challenge, knowing that I could create a new path forward for myself and others after me. I finished those three programs in two years while working full-time and starting my own new family. I advocated for myself, my goals and my passions, and I am very fortunate to have had so many supportive people behind me every step of the way.

Now, as Director of Community Health & Interprofessional Education and Associate Professor at Clarkson College, I fully embrace the responsibilities I have now before me to create similar opportunities and support for my own students. I feel so blessed and fortunate to have been able to help shape this degree program into what it is today: a beautifully interprofessional degree taught by high quality, experienced faculty. Day in and day out, they help me cultivate the same level of drive and passion in students who are working hard to achieve their goals.

It makes my heart smile each day as I work with our students. No two are exactly alike; they each bring their own wealth of knowledge and life experience to share with others. Nor do any two have the same course sequence plan, and for good reason. With this program, we have created a road map that allows students the flexibility and opportunity to create their own path, their own way forward that brings meaning and purpose to their life. I love that we offer a variety of concentrations (Public Health, Human Services, Gerontology and Women’s Health), each of which resonates and calls to different people for different reasons.

Every time I hear a student tell me how much they appreciate knowing that every course in their degree plan means something, that they see the immediate value in what they are learning, it reinforces that we have made the right decision by giving our Community Health students the tools to help write their own future. By empowering them to choose the path toward meeting their goals, we are building them up to be the next generation of leaders and visionaries. At the end of the day, I smile and my heart feels full as I take this all in. I can only hope that I play some small part in believing in them and helping them achieve their dreams, just as my advisor did for me.  

If you’d like to learn more about the variety of options available through the Clarkson College Community Health program, learn more at ClarksonCollege.edu/Community-Health.