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Student motivated to help the oppressed, both young and old

Spend any time with second-year MSW student Anne Margaret “Sunni” Walker and one fact becomes immediately clear: Walker thinks a lot about how best to address various social problems and improve the lives of others. She is motivated largely by her personal and professional experiences, including with sexual assault, gender inequities, poverty, and aging care.

Her resume certainly reflects her passion. Among her volunteerism and professional work, she has participated in efforts to decrease interpersonal violence on UNC’s campus, helped raise money for school scholarships and agricultural projects in Haiti, and fostered nutrition and exercise among older adults.

As the daughter of an Episcopal priest and a public school teacher, Walker credits her commitment to a wide variety of causes largely to her parents. Their support during troubling times helped her to find her voice and the courage to speak up for herself and for the oppressed and to pursue an undergrad degree at UNC in women’s studies.

Although she initially considered counseling work with a rape crisis center, Walker’s interests have broadened as she has encountered individuals facing different challenges. For example, while in Haiti several years ago she became aware of the disproportionate number of young men and boys who are given the chance to attend school compared to young women and girls who are not afforded the same opportunity.

“That just didn’t sit well with me,” said Walker, a Florence Soltys and Dean’s Scholar. “I learned about the gendered implications of poverty and how it uniquely manifests in women’s lives in the U.S. and abroad, and I started to think about what I could do,” she said.

Ultimately, Walker realized a career in social work would enable her to transfer all of her interests and energy to practice.

“A graduate degree that allows me to engage in mental health recovery, community empowerment and social policy made social work the obvious choice, she said.”

As a first-year MSW student in need of a field placement, Walker easily could have asked for an agency that serves children and youth and addresses social issues she was already familiar with. She intentionally pursued an internship with older adults instead. Given her limited experience with aging issues, Walker said she needed to learn more about how best to serve one of the nation’s fastest growing populations.

She hit the ground running. During her first week on the job with Wake County Senior & Adult Services, Walker found herself observing a competency hearing, which had been called to determine if an individual needed to be appointed a guardian. The more she listened, the more questions she had about the legal process, which is often used with older frail adults or with individuals with disabilities who are no longer able to maintain their own affairs.

“As I sat there, I was bothered by the arbitrary terms equating an individual’s ‘capacity’ to bad decisions,” Walker recalled. “There was so much bias involved, and I wondered how the respondent’s voice factored into the equation. The respondent wasn’t even there. So, I was curious how self-determination was upheld and what was being done to include the person in decision-making.”

From that hearing, Walker directed her focus on learning more about the complexity of adult guardianship, including the factors that weigh into a ruling of incompetency and the unmet need. Her questions eventually led her to connect with School faculty at the Jordan Institute for Families. Coincidentally, the Jordan Institute had just started an initiative with the Division of Aging and Adult Services to examine the trends and causes of guardianship and to identify ways to support alternatives and promote system reform.

Walker spent nine months as a research assistant on the project. Her work so impressed her School colleagues, she was recently nominated for and awarded the Kathleen Price Bryan Scholarship, which recognizes students’ achievements in school and in the community.

“I am honored to receive recognition,” she said. “These scholarships not only help pay for tuition and other life expenses, but they also inspire me to stay motivated and passionate about my work. I am immensely grateful.”

Although Walker continues to weigh the possibility of a Ph.D. following her graduation in May, she is absolutely certain about her decision to be a social worker.

“I am thrilled by the prospects of social work research and practice,” she said. “I am committed to a life of advocacy that incorporates field experiences and personal stories to inform systems change.”

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