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Student credits early life lessons for drawing her to rural community work

Stephanie Griggs credits her tumultuous teenage years for helping her to better understand the connections that individuals share. In fact, she expects those experiences will make her a better social worker.

“Because of my experiences, I’ve been able to see the gamut of people – the good and the bad – whether they’re wealthy and run companies or whether they’re substance users and don’t have a steady place to sleep,” said Griggs, an MSW student in the School’s Advanced Standing Program and a Martha Sherill Dunn scholar. “I’ve gained a good understanding of the common threads of humanity that we all have, and I’ve learned what is important and what’s not.”

Those lessons came largely as a result of her experiences after dropping out of high school her sophomore year. Griggs said she wrestled for years with a complicated mix of personal issues and doubts. The off-the-rails moment, as she describes it, took some time to bounce back from but eventually refueled her journey to a GED and to a bachelor’s degree in social work from UNC-G in Greensboro.

That early journey also taught her a lot about empathy and individual self-worth – insights that still guide her as she works to become a clinical social worker.

“I think what happens to you and the things that you go through can have a real impact,” she said. “Ultimately, I don’t think I would be a competent social worker who is humble and who gets people and who believes in person-in-environment without having gone through the things that I’ve been through.”

Griggs, who grew up in a serviced-oriented household, also credits her mother, a former caseworker who co-founded a homeless outreach program, and her grandmother, who spent years caring for the elderly, for sparking her interest in social justice work. These women, she said, were motivated largely by faith to advocate for others.

Griggs is equally driven, especially about rural community work. As a native North Carolinian with family ties to small country towns in both the Foothills and the eastern part of the state, Griggs has seen firsthand how poverty has overwhelmed once thriving mill town communities. Moreover, she’s long felt a calling to help them rebound.

“I’ve always felt connected to these rural communities and with the people who’ve lived there for decades,” she said. “When you talk to them, they can remember when their community was solid middle class family homes and then after the mills left, they were left with desperate poverty and abandonment and increasing rates of incarceration and substance use. So redemption for those communities is important to me because they exist all across the South where people feel like there’s no hope in them.”

Thanks to a field placement last year with Davidson County Schools and this year with Family Services of Davidson County, which serves victims of domestic violence, Griggs sees interagency collaboration as a potential answer to the challenges that many of these struggling communities still face. In both internships, she has seen school systems, law enforcement, departments of social services, behavioral services and other agencies work together to develop innovative solutions that address community needs.

“Churches also are some of the life blood of these communities,” she said. “So I think everybody has an important role to play to tie it all together and to help centralize needed services.”

Griggs, who plans to be a school social worker, is eager to be a part of these communities and to partner with others to help revitalize livelihoods. That interest is one of the main reasons she was selected for the Dunn scholarship, which among other things, targets students who want to work in a rural county following graduation. Initially worried about leaving a full-time job for school, Griggs was thrilled to receive the financial assistance.

“I was accepted into four schools and was looking at what we could afford, especially because we were going to have to make it work off of my husband’s salary,” she said. “So, receiving this award definitely helped me to make my decision because it makes it possible for me to do this.”

After a few years of adversity, Griggs is also grateful that she has gotten her own life back on track. Long-term, she hopes to help others in need do the same.

“I am somebody who believes that God works things out,” she said. “And the things that I’ve done and the people I’ve met, and the conversations I’ve had since enrolling in the School have definitely shown me that this is all working together as it should.”