Shivani Chudasama discovered her passion for social work in a high school biology class in Charlotte about five years ago. Then employed with Teach for America, Chudasama quickly realized she could do a lot more to serve young people from outside of the classroom than from within.
“Honestly, a lot of what I learned came from some of the conversations I had with my students, either when I was pulling them out of class because we needed to hit reset in some way or during conversations at lunch or after school,” said Chudasama, a final year MSW student at UNC’s School of Social Work. ‘I think I really just started to get to know them as human beings and not just as a student who needed this score so they could pass the class and move on.”
That learning process also opened her eyes, she said, to the personal challenges that some children face and how family complications at home can oftentimes be a stumbling block for academic success. In many ways, her students taught her the importance of empathy and understanding, she said.
“For example, when a student doesn’t have their homework and then you find out that they were kicked out of their house,” she explained. “Well of course, biology class is the least of their worries at the moment. I loved teaching, but being able to support students through those kinds of challenges just felt a lot more natural to me. It just felt like, ‘Oh, wait. This is where I can better serve.”
Although a 2010 graduate from UNC with a double major in studio art and philosophy, Chudasama said she knew she would likely end up pursuing a different path. After all, her parents, who emigrated from India in their 20s, began preparing their three daughters for careers in caring for others from the moment their children were old enough to volunteer. Today, Chudasama’s eldest sibling is a plastic surgeon and her younger sister is an aspiring social entrepreneur. Chudasama, who is interested in psychotherapy, plans to pursue direct practice work with adolescents and young adults after graduation.
Even her parents’ own chosen professions—her mother is a public school teacher and her father is a doctor—further illustrated to their children the value of giving back, Chudasama added.
“I think seeing them do that kind of work and seeing how they treated others and how they always urged us to be involved in the community in some way— all of that felt very normal,” she said. “We were always caring for others because we knew this is just what we were supposed to do. This mindset becomes more and more apparent to me every time we go back to India to visit family. There is such a constant sense of community and support. So those values and always taking care of other people and being really focused on the group and not just the individual is what really drives me to social work.”
Chudasama’s commitment to such ethics is also why she was among the first students in the School of Social Work to be awarded a scholarship from the newly created Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund. The fund, which honors the life and legacy of the late UNC men’s basketball coach, was created to financially support outstanding undergraduates from lower-income families as well as enable professionals in education and social work to pursue advanced degrees.
Scholarship recipients, known as Dean E. Smith Scholars, must demonstrate Coach Smith’s qualities of leadership, service, and excellence.
Chudasama, who has been a Tar Heel fan since childhood, said she was thrilled and grateful to receive the award.
“I loved that they named it Opening Doors because that’s exactly what it’s done for me,” she said. “It’s opening up the opportunity this semester to really focus on my studies and not stress about finances.
“At the same time, it’s also humbling to think about how in many ways, the way I grew up and the way that my family supported all of us is very similar to what Dean Smith did for his basketball team and the community at large. He created this inclusive environment and ultimately, that’s the kind of social justice work that I want to pursue or at least help to spread a few more seeds for growth.”