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Student credits family for her passion for helping vulnerable individuals

Samantha Watson credits her family for instilling in her a passion for social justice. Growing up in Poughkeepsie, New York, Watson said her parents not only encouraged volunteerism but ensured their children were along to witness it first-hand, even if they didn’t quite understand it at the time.

“There were little things like Meals on Wheels,” explained Watson, a first-year MSW student at UNC’s School of Social Work. “I’d get home from school and my dad would say, ‘OK, let’s go and deliver meals. And we’d all go get in the car and visit all of these people, who it turned out were also living with HIV and AIDS. It was just a very normative experience for me. So the whole concept of volunteer work and giving back, it’s just what we did.”

Those early experiences helped guide Watson to Siena College, where she earned a degree in sociology. As an undergrad, she honed in on issues she thought needed more attention, especially those involving violence against women and girls, trafficking and domestic abuse. The more she learned, the more determined she became to change laws and policies that better protect victims.

Although unofficially, she had been practicing social work for years through volunteerism, including with a homeless shelter in New York, Watson knew an MSW degree would give her the language and skills she needed to serve the vulnerable populations she longed to help.

“I knew I didn’t want to go into clinical work or direct practice, but I still wanted a really well-rounded education,” she said. “And this was the only program I ever wanted to go to.”

With assistance from the Kristin Marie Ten Harmsel Anderson Memorial Scholarship and Dean’s Scholarship, Watson enrolled in the School’s full-time program this year. The financial support, she said, has given her the freedom to focus on her classwork, as well as her field work with Alamance County’s Family Abuse Services, a nonprofit that offers advocacy services and crisis intervention to victims of domestic violence.

In addition to helping lead a weekly support group, Watson serves as a court advocate, assisting individuals with filing protective orders and developing safety plans, and as a monitor for the agency’s supervised visitation program. The internship has taught her about the many challenges victims from rural areas often face in getting the services they need.

“In New York City, it’s easy just to give somebody a metro card and say, ‘Here, hop on the train and go to Brooklyn. Here’s the address. Go,’” Watson explained. “Or if you’re in a dangerous situation, to get to know your neighbors. Here are some organizations right here or go to the hospital right here. Emergency planning is a lot easier. Whereas if you are in a rural environment where your closest neighbor is two miles down the way, you’re isolated. Learning this changed my thinking. It’s given me a different lens to see the issues.”

The work has also shown her that creating lasting change may take a few more years of education, including a possible master’s in public policy or perhaps a law degree. For now, Watson is comfortable that she’s right where she is supposed to be.

“I know that I have this big passion for policy and laws and the bigger systems macro focus, but I’m just taking it one step at a time,” she said. “We’ll just see what happens.”