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Student learned early to be bold enough to speak up for others

Birnettiah Killens’ interest in advocacy work began at a most unlikely spot: the football field.

Growing up, her father armed her with confidence by reminding her often that she was capable of doing anything. As a result, Killens said she never thought twice about trying out for her middle school football team. She wasn’t immediately welcomed, but with some persistence, she was eventually given a chance and earned a spot on the team as a tailback.

She was immediately put to the test. At one of her first practices, the pintsized girl was paired off with the team’s largest and most intimidating male player. The goal: to see who could hit the hardest.

“Of course it was no contest,” said Killens, a 3rd year MSW student in the UNC School of Social Work’s Triangle Distance Education Program. “But what I really remember is my father, who came rushing over and yanked me up.”

At that moment, Killens said she learned a most valuable lesson–one she still applies to her life today.

“My father said if they hit you and you lay down and stay down, they are always going to hit you,” said Killens, who went on to play football throughout her high school career. “So, even if you are not stronger than them, if you bounce back up every single time, that will let them know that that hit didn’t mean anything. And it instills fear in them because they will learn that they are not strong enough to lay you down. Football taught me that and that there will always be marginalized populations, but you have to be bold enough and strong enough to pop back up and to learn how to out maneuver the challenge.”

Such determination is especially needed in the field of social work, where practitioners are encouraged to speak out for oppressed groups, she said.

“Especially when you’re working with people who are most likely to be unheard, it’s important as a social worker to do your job intentionally and informed and to do your job with love,” she said. “You can’t be afraid to speak up for others.”

Although she originally considered becoming a lawyer, Killens eventually shifted her career path, graduating from N.C. State University in 2008 with a degree in psychology and a minor in Africana studies. She went on to work for 3C Institute for Social Development in Cary and then landed at Planned Parenthood in Charlotte, where she served for three years as a community health educator. Although given the professional freedom to develop and teach various programs, Killens said she finally realized that to reach a broader audience, she would have to return to school.
“I knew I needed to get the letters behind my name in order to impact the people I always wanted to.”

Today, Killens’ interests gravitate toward adults with addiction and mental illness–issues that helped her land one of the School’s Linda M. Summer Field Placement Scholarships. The scholarship is awarded to students who have a field placement in areas related to mental health. Killens is interning this year at the Durham VA, where she works closely with patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma.

Receiving the scholarship has been financially rewarding and humbling, said Killens, who graduates in May.

“It amazes me that there is a group of people or a foundation that takes an interest in investing in others and their dreams,” she said. “Because investing in me at this point, means that you are investing in the thousands of people that I have worked with and the millions hopefully, that I will work with one day.”

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