Social work students from Valparaiso University aren’t waiting for graduation to start changing the world around them. This September, the SOCW 410: Social Welfare Policy: Analysis and Advocacy class under Caroline Ban, MSW, program director and assistant professor in the Valparaiso University Social Work program, traveled to Indianapolis to bring their research and recommendations to Indiana policy makers at an interim committee meeting on criminal justice reform.

For students in the class who plan to make social work their profession, state legislation and the impact of the law on various populations will necessitate a firm grasp on lobbying and the process behind legal change. According to Professor Ban, the experience this course offers Valpo students an edge in their future professional environment, preparing them to take a leadership role wherever they go.

“I tell students that they will know more about lobbying than most people in their agency,” Professor Ban says. “When they graduate, they’ll be able to help agencies advocate for better policy because of their experiences.” 

At the beginning of the semester, Professor Ban asked the students to focus their research on specific areas of criminal justice in the state of Indiana, and the class selected pretrial and cash bail reform. Smaller groups took on a variety of roles including issue researchers who defined the problem, data gurus who identified key statistics relevant to  legislators on the committee, and policy idea members, who researched and recommended best practices in pretrial reform. The students were supported by a legislative research team, who crafted background information on the interim committee members, copy editors, a fact-sheet maker, and a logistics manager to plan the trip itself. 

Three students volunteered to personally go before the committee to present the group’s findings: social work majors Clo Perkins ’23 and Joy Kassel ’23, and political science and global service major, Lily Carmel ’23.

Clo, a Presidential Scholar, originally came to Valpo as a biology and health care leadership double-major with a desire to become a physician. The events of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as her experience taking Social Work 151, led her to switch to a social work major. Since the change, Clo has worked with dementia patients at Avalon Springs health campus in Valparaiso, and as an intern at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, mediating conversations with students. Her natural inclination towards interpersonal relationships — and her long-term goal of working in government — led her to volunteer to speak at the event. 

“I love talking in front of people,” Clo says. “This was a chance to get my name in the door at the Statehouse, and they may take my application later seriously.” 

Joy Kassel, another Presidential Scholar, Alumni Fund Scholar, and member of Christ College — The Honors College, first took on a Chinese major before switching to psychology, then, finally, social work. 

“I realized that I really liked working with people more than the clinical aspect of psychology,” Joy says. “And Professor Ban really helped me get excited about the social work program.” 

For Joy, who wants to pursue her masters of social work after graduation, volunteering was a great way to gain experience that would help her stand out from the crowd.

“I knew this would push me to grow and force me to speak in front of a large audience,” Joy says. “I really wanted to challenge myself to be a better public speaker.” 

The final speaker, Lily, who is attending Valpo as a recipient of the Lilly Endowment Community Scholarship and pursuing a double major in political science and global service, recognized the impact the class would have on her own career aspirations.

“That’s where I hope to be in the future,” she says. “I had to go up there and speak, and if I have to do that in the future, I can look back on this experience and remember that I can do it.”

The class arrived at the capitol on Tuesday, Sept., 20 for a meeting with Senator Rodney Pol, Indiana Senate District 4. During the meeting, Senator Pol discussed the ins and outs of serving in the Indiana Senate, the issues facing the state, and how he stays in touch with the needs of his constituents, while spending most of his time in Indianapolis. According to Professor Ban, the meeting was a big step toward reducing the intimidation students may feel when interacting with elected officials.

“Legislators put their pants on one leg at a time, just like we do,” Professor Ban says. “They are approachable; you can talk to them.” 

Once the committee meeting convened, the Valpo students were one of many groups from a variety of sectors to testify. For Lily, an initially nervous situation quickly became one that built her confidence.

“These were professionals, and I was in the mindset that I was still just a student,” she says. “But as soon as I got up there to speak, I realized that I was qualified, that I had done the research, and that there was no reason that I shouldn’t have been up there.” 

Joy and Clo recall trying to convey the breadth of the information they had researched in class to the committee in a meaningful way. 

“We had to take a two-page speech, turn it into bullet points and an outline, then perform the testimony without looking at any papers,” Joy says. 

“They were individuals trying to hear you out, not experts on necessarily everything,” Clo says. “We needed to talk to them like people, not just sit down and lecture them. 

The Valpo students were able to present their research, and integrate and expand on points made by other testifiers and committee members, and also provide an impressive amount of meaningful participation in the overall discussion on criminal justice reform. 

“I think the staffers anticipated that, as students, they wouldn’t have a lot to offer, but we were up there presenting really good information that was competitive with the other professionals,” says Ban. “I got some great emails from staffers after the fact that said my students did an excellent job.” 

Moving forward, the students will monitor any new legislation that may come from their testimony, and will have opportunities throughout the academic year to advocate for continued reform in the criminal justice system. For future students looking to join the class, Professor Ban says that there is a job for everyone. 

“I have plenty of students whose comfort level right now is just being an editor,” Professor Ban says. “They’re learning by watching the process unfold. Even when they work in smaller teams, they’re doing it with at least one or two other people. They’re not flung out there to sink or swim; there’s a lot of support built into the class.” 

Find out more about what the Valpo social work program offers and how its students impact the wider community at valpo.edu/social-work.