Social Work Theories Came to Life in a Family Crisis

College classroom lessons about how to be an effective social worker came to life for Joanna Parker '18, '19G when she needed help herself.

The baby boy whom she and her husband, Gary, were expecting near Thanksgiving 2017 was born 10 weeks premature, weighing only 3 pounds. Yet Parker only missed a couple of weeks of school during and after little George's stressful, 34-day hospital stay.

Tiny baby George holds Joanna Parker’s pinky

Tiny baby George holds his mother's pinky.

Parker says the supportive response from professors and college staff — a resounding "What do you need to be well and successful?" — exemplified her overall experience at Nazareth and reinforced the strengths-based social work theories that she has learned. Rather than make assumptions, the faculty and professionals in support offices on campus were flexible and treated Parker as an individual who has strengths and needs, she said.

In turn, she carries that perspective to her social work fieldwork at Mary Cariola Children's Center, where she works with families of school-age children with developmental, physical, or medical disabilities. Her mantra: "Listen more. Take time to slow down and appreciate individuals for who they are." As she knows personally, she said, trust and human connection support success.

Parker's exceptional ability to balance the needs of her family and son while also maintaining an unwavering commitment to high academic performance and professionalism didn't go unnoticed. It inspired the Nazareth Social Work Department to nominate her for a 2018 Rochester Area College Continuing Education (RACCE) Outstanding Adult Student Award, which she received in April.

Gary, Joanna, and George Parker at home.

Gary, Joanna, and George Parker at home.

"There are a lot of strong people in our program," says Parker, who was surprised to be honored. When she asked her advisor why she stood out, Professor Shirley Sharp noted Parker's consistency and personal growth. The nomination letter also mentioned Parker's ongoing emotional support of a classmate who has struggled to balance academics and her personal life concerns: "Joanna was constant in her support yet never telling her what to do regarding her decision-making."

Why Nazareth?

Parker earned an associate's degree in human services with distinction from Monroe Community College and chose to transfer to Nazareth because of the answers she got when she asked people in the community about where to study social work: "Nazareth makes great social workers." People told her that Nazareth is invested in its students, strong community involvement, and diversity. "It's not a factory," she says.

Her college experiences pushed her out of her comfort zone, including work with people who were homeless at Project Homeless Connect in downtown Rochester, where Nazareth students and faculty play a vital role as volunteers. For a religious studies class, she visited a rural place of worship at which she was a racial minority.

What's next

Parker earned a graduate degree through the Nazareth-Brockport Greater Rochester Collaborative Master of Social Work Program (which has since split into two separate programs). She says her education and fieldwork — which included work with elders as well as with children — have prepared her well to be a social worker in any setting. She is grateful to her mother for immigrating with her to the United States from the Philippines in 2001, when Parker was 9, which opened up opportunities. Parker, who celebrated becoming a naturalized citizen in May 2018, sees social work as a way to strengthen the community she lives in and to support more social and economic justice. She sees herself as a lifelong learner, taking after Professor Sharp — whom Parker called a "social work rock star."

Joanna Parker as a child in the Philippines, with her mother and brother.

Joanna Parker as a child in the Philippines, with her mother and brother.

Her son, born in September 2017, is small for his age but healthy. “He is happy,” Parker says. “He’s a joy.”

George Parker at 6 months old in March 2018.

George Parker at 6 months old in March 2018.

Parker says her experiences in life and in school have given her confidence that she can manage anything. "I'm not afraid of the unknown any more," she says. "I think that's the biggest change since I started here. I feel like I can be placed anywhere and be successful, because I've already been challenged here so many times."

2019 UPDATE: While completing her graduate degree, Parker said, "I am proud of my thesis, as I purposely choose a subject that is overlooked in the profession:" Intellectual Disability and Sexual Autonomy: An Ethical Right.

Parker went on to join the social work team at Mary Cariola Children's Center.

Joanna Parker and her family by her master's thesis poster

Joanna Parker and her family at her Master's Symposium in April 2019.

Joanna Parker

Joanna Parker

Feeling overwhelmed as a student?

Parker's advice:

  • "Nazareth is there to help you be successful if you just step out of your comfort zone. The first step is the hardest."
  • "Don't hesitate in asking for help; your professors are there because they want to help you succeed."