Courtney Dunsmore “Shining a Light on Women Leaders in Social Work”

In April 2015, Courtney Dunsmore walked across the stage to receive her Master’s degree in Social Work from WMU. After two years’ of work in the Policy, Planning, and Administration concentration of the MSW, Courtney’s experiences in that program include a co-authored article with her mentors, a professional conference presentation to a packed house in Las Vegas, various committee appointments, and a field placement that has confirmed her belief that this degree was the right choice for her.
A former Bronco undergraduate with degrees in sociology and psychology, Courtney knew she wanted to work in the human service field but dreamed of travel and moving far away from Michigan. Soon after her first graduation from WMU, she joined AmeriCorps, moving to South Carolina and working chiefly in administrative program planning for Georgetown County United Way AmeriCorps*VISTA Collaborative. After this, Courtney looked briefly at graduate programs across the country, but eventually her vision shifted back to Michigan. She knew the MSW program here and it became clear that returning to WMU for graduate study was the correct path.

A photo of Courtney Dunsmore on the Campus of Western Michigan University

During the second year of her program, Courtney had the opportunity to work with two faculty mentors to research trends in women’s roles in social work. Having previously established good professional relationships with Drs. Barbara Barton and Dee Sherwood, Courtney was invited to help them dig further into Dr. Sherwood’s dissertation research: a study of women in leadership positions in social work, the challenges they experienced and the progress they made.
They analyzed a group of interviews of female social workers that Dr. Sherwood had recorded, picking out ten as representative and then read through and coding the interviewees’ responses. In this process, they narrowed in on different types of gender biases and micro-aggressions that the women experienced during their time in the field, especially as they attempted to enter leadership roles. Courtney and her mentors discovered that when these women attempted to pursue administrative roles or positions with greater responsibilities, they were often marginalized in various ways or told “maybe you should pursue a different direction.” Courtney says she finds this eye-opening, as she intends to pursue leadership and administration in social work and may be faced with similar challenges as she forges ahead. She observed that the research process and analysis demonstrates that these aren’t just individual stories or anecdotes about peoples’ job experiences; when taken collectively, the data show quantifiable trends in the ways women are treated and what influences them in the workplace.
Once Courtney and Drs. Barton and Sherwood had compiled their information, they were accepted to present as part of a panel at the 27th Annual Ethnographic and Qualitative Research Conference, held February 2015 in Las Vegas. Courtney spoke about past and present trends in women’s leadership in the SW profession to a full house. Following her talk, Courtney was able to check out posters and to speak to a number of graduate students about their dissertations. Spurred on by these conversations, Courtney looked at PhD programs, but for now plans to go straight into employment in the field. Regardless of whether she plans to undertake a doctorate in the future, she is building her credentials right now, as she works on an article (co-authored with Drs. Barton and Sherwood) that they will submit to the Journal of Ethnographic and Qualitative Research. As she wrote the literature review for the manuscript, “Falling Silent?: Analyzing the Voices of Women Leaders in Social Work,” Courtney gave credit to her mentors for a great opportunity to view professors collaborating and see their research through the final stage of publication.
She completed a field placement as part of her MSW program, working at Southwest Michigan Behavioral Health in Kalamazoo, and found it invaluable to be able to apply lessons learned in class to situations in her internship. This placement gave her hands-on experience in administrative and organizational tasks: she performed gap analysis of current policies and crosswalked those policies with requirements for National Committee for Quality Assurance Health Plan accreditation.
Courtney’s service to the WMU community extended beyond her academic and research work. In her second year of the MSW, she served as a graduate assistant in the Dean’s Office at the College of Health and Human Services, working directly with the communications coordinator of CHHS. Also that year, she served on two committees within the School of Social Work: the Field Education Subcommittee and the Admissions Policy Committee, working with faculty and students to understand and improve policies behind field placement and admission in the School of Social Work. She joined the Bernhard Center Advisory Board as an alumna representative, voting on new vendors contracts at the Bronco Mall and reviewing and approving the Bernhard Center budget for the upcoming academic year.
Courtney’s hard work and dedication to her MSW, the College of Health and Human Services and Western Michigan University paid off as Courtney was one of five recipients of the Graduate Student “Make a Difference Award” at the Graduate Student Association banquet on April 17, 2015. In the words of her nominator,
“Courtney is always the first person to jump on volunteer activities within the university as well as the Kalamazoo Community. We were given the opportunity to participate in the bi-annual Point In Time Count at a local homeless shelter through one of our classes and Courtney was eager to help out. She also dedicated her day off on Martin Luther King day to the MLK Day of Service and volunteered with The Land Bank helping to restore some apartments in Washington Square. There is no doubt in my mind that Courtney is a true Bronco through and through.”
When asked what advice she might have for future graduate students in the MSW program (or beyond), she advises students to advocate for themselves: “It’s important to reach out, find connections, and network. Not all experiences are going to be handed to you.” She has the highest praise for her professors and mentors, whom have been advocates for her and helped her along with her career. In the end, she says, it comes down to you. “What you put in is what you get out of the program. If you want to succeed, you have to put the work in!”

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