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Student’s personal adversity inspires advocacy work

As a future social worker, Olivia Bass knows at some point in her career, she will likely encounter individuals and families who are confused, frustrated and desperate for help. Many simply will need an advocate—someone willing to be the loudest voice in the room to ensure that their needs are met. Without a doubt, Bass’ own personal experience has prepared her for just that role.

As the mother of a child born with a rare genetic disorder and as a survivor of sexual assault, Bass has learned over the last five years how to better advocate for herself, her family and for others who feel powerless in the face of overwhelming challenges. Those lessons were made especially clear nearly three years ago as doctors struggled to determine why her then 13-month-old son, Carson, was having trouble feeding.

“Initially, we just thought it was a symptom of him being born prematurely and that he would grow out of it,” said Bass, a second-year student in the School’s Triangle Distance Education MSW Program and a recipient of the Dean and Amy Louise Brannock scholarships. “And then he lost a pound, which was really troubling. So we knew there was something else going on, and that’s what really started the hunt to figure out what was happening.”

The search for answers was far more complicated than anyone could have imagined. Finally, after weeks and weeks of hospitalizations and tests, Carson was diagnosed with “1q21.1 microdeletion,” a rare genetic disorder in which an individual’s cells are missing small pieces of DNA building blocks.

“Carson has a syndrome that he shares with only 76 other people in the world,” Bass explained. “So it’s extremely rare and so much so, that there is only about five years worth of research out there. And I read all of it in two weeks.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, what is currently known is that individuals with this chromosomal change may face developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, physical abnormalities, and neurological and psychiatric problems. Carson, now an active 3-year-old with an irresistible smile, regularly sees nearly a dozen different doctors and has experienced some gastrointestinal issues, as well as hearing and vision problems, Bass said. But so much is still unknown, she added.

Ensuring that her son has access to appropriate services and resources has been nearly as frustrating as getting that initial diagnosis, Bass said.

“There have been so many times I have been told you can’t do that or you can’t get those services,” Bass said. “But I’m just not someone who accepts the word, ‘No.’ One of the most frustrating parts of this experience has been feeling like others weren’t doing enough to help my family. At the same time, this experience has also shown me that I can help create the change that’s needed.”

Graduating with a master’s degree in social work is the first step in realizing that goal, said Bass, who is eager to work in a hospital setting, where she can advocate for other families who have children with disabilities or other special needs.

But long-term, she is just as determined to be a voice for other women of color who are also survivors of intimate partner violence. Bass, who graduated from UNC with a BA in psychology, said she was assaulted her freshman year at UNC. Since that time, she has grown more comfortable in sharing her story. Doing so is empowering, she said, and informs other women who look like her that they are not alone—they are not invisible.

“I just haven’t met a lot of women of color who have come out as survivors of intimate partner violence, and I always wondered why that is and how can I change that? I know they exist. I’ve heard stories. But I just haven’t found them. I want to be able to reach out to them and to let them know that there are resources and services for them.”

Bass said she’s particularly interested in developing alternative therapies that include a spiritual component—a framework she thinks would appeal to a larger audience and perhaps encourage other women of color to seek support. “I’m just interested in how I can help raise awareness about the services that are available and how I can educate others on the importance of including a cultural humility component to those resources.”

As a recipient of the Brannock scholarship, which recognizes students who are interested in working in the area of trauma and sexual violence, Bass said she’s also thankful that others appreciate the importance of preparing social workers for work with survivors of sexual assault.

“The Brannock scholarship is addressing this very important issue and I’m so happy about that,” she said. “But it’s also wonderful to have the financial support, especially given all of my circumstances. It really has made a difference.”

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