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‘My degree was my healing’

Years spent in child protection system motivates new graduate to become social worker

Part of a special feature celebrating the success of Memorial's graduates. This feature coincides with spring 2018 convocation ceremonies.

By Laura Woodford

Nicole Withers grew up in the child protection system.

Emancipated at 16 — the process where a minor becomes legally separated from their parents or guardians — she struggled growing up in St. John’s on her own.

This intimate knowledge of “the system” and her desire to try to improve other children and families’ experiences is what inspired the new spring graduate to enrol in Memorial’s School of Social Work in 2015.

A mentor

Once emancipated, Ms. Withers lived with a woman by the name of Susan Shiner, a well-known local social worker, and struggled to attend high school.

“As long as a child or youth has one mentor, one person who supports them, they can make it through.” — Nicole Withers

All the while, Ms. Shiner supported Ms. Withers in numerous ways.

“She became woven into my . . . journey,” says Ms. Withers.

“The guidance of Susan and her family enabled me to pursue social justice and become an advocate for myself and others. She truly changed the course of my life, by believing in me and my ability to overcome my circumstances. As long as a child or youth has one mentor, one person who supports them, they can make it through.”

Turning point

After high school, and a failed attempt at university, Ms. Withers joined Katimavik, where she learned new skill sets and gained a new confidence.

Soon after returning to Newfoundland and Labrador, however, her nephew was born and was removed from her sister’s care. Ms. Withers became very close to her nephew and attempted to foster him, but her foster application was rejected.

“I felt I was stigmatized, based on how I grew up. He was adopted under a closed adoption. I moved to Ontario. I couldn’t witness that.”

That experience deepened Ms. Withers’ passion for social justice and her resolve to pursue social work.

Invested professors and healing courses

After moving back to the province a second time, Ms. Withers lived in transitional housing for youth and began Memorial’s bachelor of social work (BSW) program. She was president of her class and became a teaching assistant for a social justice course.

“I became invested in my learning. I had some wonderful professors who were invested in me.” — Nicole Withers

Halfway through the program, she moved out of transitional housing. She gave presentations at national social work educators’ conferences.

She was the Newfoundland and Labrador director of Youth in Care Canada and a youth representative of Newfoundland and Labrador Foster Families Association. One of her BSW placements was with the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate.

“My degree was my healing. I’ve been healing from my past via my courses. I became invested in my learning. I had some wonderful professors who were invested in me.”

Ms. Withers is the recipient of the Ken Dryden Scholarship for youth who are in/from care, as well as six Memorial scholarships and the Canadian Federation of University Women St. John’s Undergraduate Bursary.

Focus on children and families

While Ms. Withers can’t wait to attend her convocation ceremony on Thursday, May 31, at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, she deeply mourns that Ms. Shiner won’t be there — sadly, she died after a courageous battle with cancer last year.

But Ms. Withers knows that her mentor’s inspiration and belief in her will always be with her.

Inspired by her time at Memorial’s School of Social Work and the support she received here, Ms. Withers will focus on children and families when she continues on her path in the profession of social work: she will begin her master of social work program at McGill University this fall.

“I’d like for new social workers to be aware of the impact they have on people,” she said.

“The root of social work is change and not doing things for people, or at them, but walking alongside people.”

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