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Student found purpose and direction in pursuing social work

Quinton Smith’s path into social work was so far from direct that the mission statement on his resume could read like an ad for a jack-of-all-trades: Once aspiring comic book artist and video game developer, turned songwriter and music producer, with experience as a correctional officer, freelance photographer, and mental health administrator, seeks opportunity to educate young adult minds about the pervasiveness of institutionalized racism and internalized oppression.

Such a varied background illustrates how much his life once lacked a bit of clarity, Smith said. He was unsure of himself and his purpose. But since enrolling in the School of Social Work’s MSW program, Smith now knows he’s exactly where he was meant to be.

“You could even say that I was pushed here by serendipitous circumstances,” added Smith, a 1st-year student in the Triangle Distance Education Program.

Had he followed his mother’s wishes, Smith would have grown up to be a math teacher. Given that he excelled in the subject, his mother urged him to pursue a career that would enable him to “do something.” He, on the other hand, dreamed of attending art school.

“But she said, ‘Don’t be a starving artist,’ ” Smith said, laughing.

He eventually agreed to apply to a four-year university and was accepted to UNC. As a young college student, Smith said he struggled academically. Still longing for an artist’s life, he enrolled in a few studio art classes but found them uninspiring. He eventually found some direction and order as well as creative comfort in writing hip-hop songs and performing with a campus musical group.

By 2004, Smith was happy to be graduating. He’d earned a BA in interpersonal and organizational communications, a degree he really had no interest in. He felt rudderless.

“I still didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said. “I came to college just knowing that I was supposed to go, but I had no plans for what I wanted to do afterward.”

The one thing he didn’t want to do was move back to Buckingham County, Va., where he’d grown up and where so many residents either worked in the lumberyards or at the local prison, including several relatives. After all, as a young man, he had vowed to get out of his hometown and do something with his life.

But short on ideas and money, Smith eventually took a position as a correctional officer at Central Prison in Raleigh. He was assigned to the mental health ward, a stressful place that scarred him with nightmares but also sparked his interest in social work.

“These people were just so, so sick, and there was no real treatment going on,” Smith recalled. “I mean these people are debilitated and have been in this hellish circumstance, and it was crazy to me then that you could let someone get like this. It was crazy to me then that you could let (prison) be their punishment when obviously, they are as sick as they are. There had to be some manner of treatment. There had to be something that could be done.”

Worried that his own mental health could suffer if he remained in the job, Smith left the prison after a year and took a position as an associate professional with a mental health agency in Durham. Although he started as a mentor, he was later promoted to case manager and began working with children and teens, most of whom were African American. The new role would be a turning point in his life.

“My research interest really developed and clicked with me during this time,” he said. “I had this young kid who was maybe 9 or 10 with a burgeoning psychosis. And he was completely gone. He hadn’t taken any of his medications for maybe two weeks. He was just not in touch with reality. He was extraordinarily violent, and he had hallucinations. And the look in his eye was the same that I had seen from inmates when I was at that prison.”

Discovering that level of illness in someone so young was scary, Smith said. At the same time, he also worried about the culture surrounding the teen and what, if any, support he had in place to prevent his mental health from deteriorating further.

“I think it was then that I really started to become cognizant of how damaged I think culture can be,” Smith said. “And specifically how toxic African American culture can be. It was really then that I felt I needed to do something.”

That desire ultimately led him to the School of Social Work, where Smith spent the past year learning the foundational basics. In between classes and his roles as a new husband and father, he continued working as director of compliance for the same mental health agency that first hired him eight years ago. He also managed his own photography business, which he started last year.

No longer lacking direction, Smith is excited about his academic and professional future, including plans to pursue a Ph.D. and his research interest: the influence and effect of violence introduced through slavery on the African American community. Over time, this violence has woven into the socio-cultural fabric of the community, Smith said, and as a result, African Americans have “lost touch with our actual identities.”

“I feel we’ve lost touch with who we really are as a people,” he said. “Instead, we’ve become the subjects of some manufactured identity from the majority or the dominant culture. We’re told how we’re supposed to dress and how we’re supposed to act. And the majority of it is based on stereotypes that we internalize so that it becomes this internal oppression. We think this is who we are, and we believe this is who we are supposed to be, and so we manifest that in our culture, and it just perpetuates itself, and it’s been ongoing for forever.”

Smith is grateful for the second chance to study at UNC, an opportunity made possible, in part, thanks to the School of Social Work’s Walsh-Cioffi Scholarship Fund. The scholarship helped Smith pay for his tuition this year, and helped ease the financial stress of paying out-of-pocket for health insurance for his family and day care for his daughter.

“There are just so many expenses that pile up,” he said. “And I’ve already taken on a good ton of debt to come back to school, and I’m already carrying a good chunk of debt from undergrad, too. So this scholarship has been very, very important to me.”

Being chosen for the scholarship also gave him the validation he needed to move forward professionally. “It makes you feel like you belong in the space,” he added. “I was valued enough that somebody thought to help me pay for my education because they felt it would be money well-spent. It’s also helped to keep me on track because I don’t want to put that faith to waste.”

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 at (919) 962-6469 or