June 16, 2020

Class of 2020: Undergrad didn’t think research was for her until she discovered how it can create change

Bachelor of Social Work grad Jessica Sauerwein says becoming involved in research was life changing
Photo of Jessica Sauerwein
Photo of Jessica Sauerwein Photo: Dale McMillan

Social work often feels like a profession that people seem to find when they’re ready. So many students tell of bumping through different life and career paths until they discover social work – and they suddenly know it’s what they’ve been searching for.

Jessica Sauerwein was one of those students. Sauerwein, who is set to graduate with her Bachelor of Social Work, tried a lot of things before finding social work. Out of high school, she thought she might be a hairdresser, but decided to try university first. She took courses in early learning and childcare and decided that wasn’t for her. She thought about education, but still wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She then stumbled on social work – on the Mount Royal University website ­­– and the lightbulb went on.

“I found that a lot of the values of social work aligned with my values,” she says. “So, I applied for the diploma program at Mount Royal. And then as soon as I started that, I realized that that is what I wanted to get into.”

  • Photo, above: Jessica Sauerwein found her experiences pursuing her Bachelor of Social Work degree to be 'life changing and career changing.'

After completing her diploma, Sauerwein decided to better her job prospects by pursuing her Bachelor of Social Work. After completing a few courses needed for entry to UCalgary, she was ready for a fresh start. Part of that commitment was a decision to become fully involved in her undergrad experience, and she jumped in with both feet.

In my previous five years of school, I never really got involved in anything. So, I came in with the mindset of just getting involved in as many things as I possibly can. I never knew that it would end up being what it was. And I'm so grateful for what it was. It's been life changing and career changing.

Student helps peers through leadership

Sauerwein became a student leader. She joined the Social Work Students’ Association (SWSA) after the group's presentation at the annual orientation and became president of the club in her final year. As part of SWSA, she advocated for student needs and supports and worked to build community between students and the faculty. She also helped lead events designed to foster community, and worked at creating programs student support programs, including an ongoing, current project of developing a social work peer support program to address the mental health needs of students.

“We want it to have the structure of a support group,” she explains. “We want to have a professional facilitator, but also give students the opportunity to co-facilitate. We’d have a different student co-facilitator each week to help students build those skills. But to also connect more with the students involved in the group.”

The other decision that she made early on was to get more involved in research. Like many students who come from more practically focused programs, she was unsure about the value of social work research. However, a single course changed her perspective.

“I actually was quite hesitant to come to U of C in the beginning because I heard it's more of a research-based school,” she admits. “I thought, ‘What does research have to do with social work? Is this going to impact social work education?’ Then I took the research course with Dr. Jessica Shaw, PhD, and that completely changed my outlook on research.”

Sauerwein ended up doing a summer research project after her first year and completed her practicum education with her research supervisor, Dr. Gina Dimitropoulos, PhD, working as a research assistant in a number of projects and locations, including the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

I got to engage with a lot of different professionals as well with participants that we interviewed … Now I want to pursue a career in research. I'm just in shock everyday with how much things have changed. I wanted to be a clinical social worker now. I really see that value in the macro level.

Research skills honed as student progresses

Dimitropoulos says that it’s been incredible to watch Sauerwein progress from a novice – with an emerging understanding about social work research – to leading her own summer research project in her current role co-ordinating research at the national level.

“Jessica is an incredibly talented student researcher,” says Dimitropoulos. “She deeply cares about the social work profession and the impact that research can have in that space. Not only has she acquired the research skills and prowess to take her far in this field, but she’s also incredibly hardworking and humble about her accomplishments.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Sauerwein’s career in research will continue after she graduates. Dimitropoulos says it was a “no brainer” to keep her on the team as a research assistant as she works toward pursuing her Master of Social Work. “What drew me to research is just the change that it can create,” says Sauerwein. “I never really saw that before."

I kind of had those stereotypical beliefs about research – someone sitting in a research lab with a lab coat on. But I've really seen like how much change that that research can facilitate.