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Doctoral student searches for strengths in at-risk children

Charity Watkins could have easily taken a different path in life. Born in Rochester, N.Y., a city that has long struggled with poverty, Watkins was raised by a single mother who worked hard but never made a lot of money.

Research has suggested that children from similar households who grow up in poor communities often face potential problems, including academically and socially. Watkins knows she could have been just another statistic. Instead, she credits her childhood and family experiences for laying the foundation for her success. In 2011, she became the first in her family to pursue a graduate education. Accepted into the School of Social Work’s MSW program, Watkins is now a full-time Ph.D. student.

But don’t call her the exception to the rule. Watkins is certain other at-risk children have been and continue to be just as resilient. In fact, that certainty fuels her determination to learn more about why some children thrive when data suggest that they shouldn’t.

“Ultimately, my goal is to highlight that there are children who have these circumstances but who are also succeeding in school, and they’re not necessarily deemed to fail because of external factors,” she said.

For the last several years, Watkins has explored student achievement through her work with Joelle Powers, a former clinical assistant professor at the School of Social Work. Powers, now an associate professor at Boise State University, is the principal investigator for the School Based Support Program in Durham Public Schools. The program was developed to help teachers and staff better identify barriers to student learning, including mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

But what strengths might these children have that could also help them to achieve? Watkins is trying to answer that question by looking more closely at what factors at home, in school or in communities are having a positive effect on students.

“Primarily I want to focus on educational resilience so basically how are children in elementary school who are coming from these harsh backgrounds, whether its lower socio-economic status or from mental health issues in the home, how are they still able to succeed in school? Currently, I’m concentrating on parenting factors that contribute to their success. But I also want to look at how schools are interacting with parents and how does that inform parent involvement? How does that inform mental health interventions that may be put in place to support these children who have these different external issues going on?”

Watkins’ research interest almost took a different turn. With an undergrad degree in sociology from UNC, the doctoral student said she initially thought about studying psychology and entering private practice. She eventually realized she preferred a profession where she could serve the vulnerable and disenfranchised—people who need services but who are unable to pay the hefty fees associated with private counseling sessions.

Watkins understands the realities of affordability. As an undergrad, she worked 40 hours a week as a security guard to help pay for school and to assist with bills at home. Given the challenges of working full-time and keeping up with graduate level work, she worried that returning to school might be too much.

However, being selected for a Sam and Betsy Reeves Doctoral Fellowship helped alleviate any last-minute fears. The fellowship covers in-state tuition, health insurance and a nine-month stipend.

“I really am thankful for the funding,” she said. “Having the ability and the gift to focus on school—I honestly would not be here if it wasn’t for that. “

The scholarship has also helped Watkins to think about life after graduation, including about opportunities to return to and assist families in Rochester.

“I do want to give back to my hometown, and the tools that I’m gaining here, whether in research skills or direct practice skills or whatever it may be—all the training that I’m gaining here at the School of Social Work is going to give me the ability to give back,” she said. “So I’d like to think that the gift of my scholarship not only helps me but also potentially helps the people in my hometown.”

For more information about fundraising priorities and the impact of private giving at the School of Social Work, please contact: Mary Beth Hernandez, associate dean for advancement,

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