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Student eager to make a difference in the lives of immigrants, refugees

As a high school senior, Alice Keyes was thrilled when she landed an internship with a small local newspaper in Black Mountain, just east of Asheville where she lived. For as long as she could remember, Keyes had dreamed of being a journalist. So when the chance emerged to kick-start her writing career before leaving for college, she eagerly accepted the opportunity.

But a few weeks into the job, Keyes began to have second thoughts. Although she loved meeting new people and sharing their stories widely with a public audience, Keyes said she quickly realized she needed to do more than just write about those in need.

“I found I really wanted to be more involved with the people I was writing about, but my job was to share the story and then move onto the next,” said Keyes, a Gorham Scholar and MSW student in the School of Social Work’s Advanced Standing Program. “So I started looking at social work and this idea that I could play a small role in someone else’s larger journey in life. I could work to empower them and work alongside them.”

In shifting her professional focus to social work, Keyes developed a passion for working with Latino immigrants and refugees and has spent the last seven years in various capacities serving these populations domestically and abroad. She began cultivating her interest during her undergraduate studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. During her junior and senior years, Keyes honed her skills as an English-as-a-second language tutor and financial advisor with a refugee resettlement agency and local nonprofit. In both positions, she worked with individuals and families from Burma, Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Eager to learn more outside her own borders, Keyes spent several years pursuing study abroad and international social work experiences. Her interests took her to Honduras, where she studied international development. She also spent a summer in Hong Kong, where she piloted and led English language immersion camps for an agency serving third and fourth graders in under-served schools.

Drawn to international social work, Keyes completed a bachelor of social work degree practicum at Uganda Christian University in 2013. She then returned to Honduras, where she served for a year as a counselor in a bilingual school. During her tenure there, she designed and launched a counseling program for students in kindergarten through 11th grade.
Each journey, Keyes said, broadened her lens on the experiences of others. She also discovered how much she enjoys program management and development. “I really love creating something from the ground up and then continually reevaluating what adjustments need to be made,” she said.

She’s fine-tuned those skills a bit over the last year by working closely with the UNC Refugee Mental Health and Wellness Initiative. Clinical assistant professor Josh Hinson leads the innovative project, which trains graduate students to use an evidence-based refugee mental health screening instrument and collects data on the extent of refugees’ mental health needs and the effectiveness of mental health treatment. Among other tasks, Keyes has written grants, developed marketing strategies and collaborated on a strategic plan to help sustain the initiative.

That she has been able to focus on her studies and not worry as much about her own finances has been a blessing, said Keyes, who graduates in May.

“The Gorham Scholarship has enabled me to take out far less loans, reduced my debt burden and freed up my ability to think about the future, especially one in international social work. I can say, that’s realistic to me now,” she said.

Still, Keyes hasn’t ruled out any jobs closer to home. She’s just thankful she’s found her vocational calling.

“I’m privileged in what I’ve been able to do in my life,” she said. “I just want to give back and use my time for something that matters to me and to ultimately help the people around me, especially those who are so often pushed aside and disempowered.”

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