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Kimberly Compton: The Interdisciplinary Role of a Social Worker

January 13, 2020

Kimberly Compton first realized she wanted to be a social worker while volunteering to help Iraqi refugees in Richmond, Virginia. She provided English as a second language (ESL) tutoring and saw how much of an impact she could have in her own state.

“That really made me think, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be a helper,’ ” Compton says. “I was following the answer to the question, ‘What gives me life? What makes me feel like I am an important part of this planet?’ I wanted to have tangible impact in the lives of refugees.”

Still, Compton’s path to the role of social worker wasn’t a linear one. She’d earned her bachelor’s in Middle Eastern studies and studio art and gained experience working with refugees in Jordan and orphans in India. Then she discovered the Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) program at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work.

“It was serendipitous that I ended up in a social work program,” Compton says. “Before my master’s, I wasn’t trained in what social workers actually are, so for me a social worker can be anyone. That’s the way I approach this whole profession.”

Compton now brings this open-minded perspective and interdisciplinary experience to her role as an instructor and doctoral candidate at the VCU School of Social Work.

Choosing the Right M.S.W. Program

Since Compton was new to the role of a social worker, she says she wanted a program that would enable her to step back and learn before diving into practice: “I felt an M.S.W. was really going to open those doors and help me work out some of these big ideas around social justice: What does it mean to be a part of a helping profession? What can I learn about empowering communities? What values do I bring to an organization, and how can I build programs that get at the root issues that I see in my community? That’s what the M.S.W. offered me.”

She also wanted a program that would enable her to continue to work in Richmond. “What I liked about VCU was that it was going to root my work here,” Compton says. “As a community-engaged researcher and practitioner, that’s important — to be able to ground my work with the people I know and have built relationships with.”

Compton chose to concentrate in social work administration, planning and policy practice (SWAPPP), instead of clinical social work practice. “I really believe in the power of systems-level approaches to solving social issues,” she says. “Having had experience in administrative environments and being drawn to organizational leadership, SWAPPP seemed to be a great fit for that. And it still is. It’s still at the heart of who I am.”

Helping Refugees in the Community

After earning her M.S.W., Compton landed a job as executive director for ReEstablish Richmond, a refugee-focused nonprofit. There, she was able to combine her experience working with refugees and her skills in strategic planning to help the organization develop new programming.

“We were really focused on building up communities of refugees,” she says. “How do we develop connections? How do we help people feel established and independent in this place when they are displaced?”

Compton helped ReEstablish Richmond launch a rooftop garden that served Richmond refugee communities. She’s proud of the work they have done with existing resettlement agencies, the Department of Social Services, and is excited to see a new branch of the International Rescue Committee in Richmond as well. She also worked with refugees from all over the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Myanmar/Burma.

“I’m really proud of those things,” Compton says. “They’re going to have lasting impacts on the changing landscape of refugee resettlement in Richmond and Virginia.”

Expanding the Scope of Environmental Activism

Compton left ReEstablish Richmond after two years to pursue her social work Ph.D. at VCU, where she’s focusing her research on environmental justice. “The human experience is shaped by our physical environment,” Compton says. “I want to know more about what role a social worker can play.”

She’s studying how communities are affected by environmental hazards and pollution and the work that environmental justice advocates and organizers are doing on the front lines.

“The Ph.D. program has been a mind-blowing experience,” Compton says. “I’ve been able to deeply explore theory and philosophy, and I’ve been exposed to what research could be, thinking about participatory methods and participatory action research.”

Compton hopes to use these new skills to expand the scope of environmental activism from personal efforts to community-based initiatives. “Environmentalism has become more about individual behaviors — recycling behaviors, transportation choices,” Compton says. “I think there’s a bigger story to tell, and that’s really where my research is.”

Teaching Through a Creative Lens

Compton is now an instructor at the VCU School of Social Work, teaching both online and on-ground M.S.W. courses. “For me, the most exciting part about teaching is mentorship,” she says. “I had excellent faculty and professors who became mentors and continued with me through to the Ph.D. program, and I wanted to be part of giving that back.”

In addition to teaching, Compton built an elective course, Social Work and the Natural Environment, for the on-ground program. She also helped develop the Online M.S.W. curriculum, including generalist courses that guide students to deeply consider the meaning of community, organizations, and developing ethical planned change strategies. She has also developed a policy course with a holistic approach to policy practice; the course approaches policy development as the work of dedicated policy actors as well as community and organizational leaders.

“Even though we are an online program, we are still rooted at VCU,” Compton says. “So I wanted to bring a bit of Richmond into our curriculum. For me, that means making sure that our students are able to understand racial justice. That’s something students can translate to wherever they are geographically.”

Compton also inspires students to take creative, unique approaches to the role of a social worker to make new discoveries in the field. This year, for example, she worked with the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art as a guest lecturer and field supervisor.

“Social work has a lot to teach contemporary art spaces about holding space for hard conversations, and social work has a lot to learn from contemporary art about how art can be used in ways other than art therapy,” Compton says. “How can it be used to push our practice and profession? Our activism? I invite art into the classroom. I think that we learn more through making and creating.”

As Compton continues to teach, she looks forward to completing her dissertation and discovering new areas of research in social work.

“I don’t work in a linear way, and I’m always open to shaping and making something,” she says. “I talk about this with my students, too. If the space that you fit in doesn’t exist yet, then you’ll need to create that space. Right now I’m really happy here in this space because it allows me to be creative and to build something great.”

Embark on a Career in Social Work

The VCU School of Social Work is a top-28 ranked school for social work, according to U.S. News & World Report. The Online M.S.W. program is designed to prepare professional social workers to make a difference as community-informed clinical practitioners and leaders. Students work online and in their own communities, gaining the skills and hands-on experience they need to improve the lives of individuals, families and communities.

Explore more of what VCU’s Online M.S.W. program has to offer, and start building your career in social work.