May 6, 2022
By Mary Kate Brogan
Felicia Smith had long expected to go back to school before she finally became a student in the Bachelor of Social Work program at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2018. When she first went to college, she stopped her studies to work full-time. She later planned to return to school 26 years ago when she was expecting her oldest child, Raeven — a return that went on hiatus due to complications during the pregnancy.
This month, both mother and daughter will earn their Master of Social Work degrees in the clinical track from VCU’s School of Social Work and become eligible for licensure as clinical social workers, while becoming two-time VCU graduates in the process. A drive toward helping others and a desire to create change have motivated both Smiths in their graduate studies.
Felicia, 50, who earned her B.S.W. in 2020 after transferring to VCU from Germanna Community College, and Raeven, 26, who graduated in 2018 with a B.S. in Psychology from the College of Humanities and Sciences and a minor in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, didn’t always expect to go through the program together. In fact, it took some time for each of them to realize social work might be the field for them: Felicia after volunteering in ministry alongside her husband, Raymond, a longtime U.S. Marine, and Raeven after hearing her mother hint at Raeven’s budding social work skills while navigating her desire to empower others as a mental health counselor.
“I would rip around the house talking about abolition, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ topics, and my mom was always like, ‘You sound like a social worker,’” Raeven said with a smile.
“Because with social workers, not only do we do the clinical aspect, but we’re also advocators,” Felicia said in reply. “We advocate for our clients, advocate for different populations. So we don’t just stick with counseling and therapy but the whole gamut, and that’s what I love about social work.”
“So I started doing my research,” Raeven said, “And I was like, ‘I think I’m about this, and I can make this little switch’ – not even a big switch because it’s always kind of been placed in my path. So my mom has been an inspiration toward becoming a social worker.”
When choosing a program for her master’s, Raeven had several options, and VCU was most appealing from a financial perspective. That, combined with encouragement from her mom, who was set on VCU for her master’s, made the decision to attend VCU easier.
“My mom was like, ‘Come on, Raeven, we can do this together. Imagine: We can lean on each other when we need to, and we will both understand what we’re going through together,’” Raeven said. “At first, I was like, ‘Do I really want to go to school with my mom?’ Because most people are like, ‘I don’t think I could do that,’ but I was like my mom and me, sometimes we are more like sisters. We bump heads sometimes, but then we’re like, ‘OK, we’re cool.’”
The two enrolled and began taking many of their courses together. Nicole Corley, Ph.D., who taught Raeven and Felicia together in her Sequence Policy course, remembers being surprised to learn they were related.
“I would not have known, unless someone explicitly told me, that they were mother and daughter,” Corley said. “And one of the reasons was because they were equally passionate about pursuing social work and the work that they wanted to do, yet they just had different things that they wanted to do and different approaches and also just different personalities.
“Felicia was more extroverted, more talkative, whereas Raven was more introverted, something that I very much am familiar with because I’m the same way, and was a little bit more reserved. Whether reserved or more outspoken, their commitment to social justice work, generally, and working with military and LGBTIA+ populations, specifically, was undeniable. I am grateful for our time together in the classroom and know they will help move the profession of social work forward.”
With the racial justice movement happening in the world — and in Richmond — around them during Felicia and Raeven’s time in the program, Corley recalls the pair working with their classmates to create a space in the classroom for grace, compassion and an honest sharing of their experiences.
Creating such spaces wasn’t just something Felicia and Raeven did in the classroom; they were both members of the Association of Black Social Workers at VCU, which Raeven called “a cornerstone” of her grad school experience. After organizing a panel in fall 2020 to teach others the importance of not retraumatizing Black students when discussing what was in the news at the time, Felicia, who’d been part of the student organization as an undergrad, served as the student organization’s president in 2021.
My mom was like, ‘Come on, Raeven, we can do this together. Imagine: We can lean on each other when we need to, and we will both understand what we’re going through together.’ At first, I was like, ‘Do I really want to go to school with my mom?’ Because most people are like, ‘I don’t think I could do that,’ but I was like my mom and me, sometimes we are more like sisters. We bump heads sometimes, but then we’re like, ‘OK, we’re cool.’
“I’m older; I didn’t go to college to want to even be part of an organization. I just wanted to get my degree and go do what I had to do. But as destiny has it, my vice president at the time talked me into leading,” Felicia said. “We were able to create a space as Black students in the field of social work, to be able to share our experiences, to help encourage and to navigate through a minority perspective.”
Felicia said the lessons she’s learned from the student organization and the M.S.W. program, all contextualized by the changes going on in the world around them, will stick with her throughout her career.
“Being part of this program, learning what we learned in some of our racial justice components that we have in a lot of our classes, it has empowered me,” Felicia said. “It has given me confidence as a Black woman that I have a right to sit at this table and advocate for this particular population, regardless of my gender, regardless of my race. The VCU social work program gave me those tools and that confidence to step out and not be afraid to be assertive.”
“Seeing that assertiveness from my mom definitely inspired me,” Raeven said. “It was like, ‘If my mom can do it, why can’t I?’”
That experience has helped Raeven come out of her shell and left her with advice for future students in the program.
“Ask for what you need; ask for what you want,” said Raeven, thinking of professors such as Corley who encouraged her. “That’s something that I wish I would have done a little bit more. Go knock on those professors’ doors, tell the field placement what your hopes and your desires are and where you see yourself, and just keep putting yourself out there. … It’s intimidating, it’s nerve-wracking. But you have people who want to see you thrive so just go for it.”
Raeven’s time in the program has affirmed her interest in working one-on-one with LGBTQIA+ individuals after field placements with the YWCA, Advocates for Richmond Youth and Side by Side in Richmond.
Felicia plans to take her skills into the nonprofit world, helping veterans experiencing homelessness to connect with the resources they need. Field placements at the United Community in Fairfax, Virginia, and Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, D.C., solidified that interest. She’s interested in giving back to the military community from her years as a military spouse and seeing the challenges that face veterans, particularly veterans of color.
In a few years, Felicia hopes to be running Faith’s Place, an organization of her own for veterans experiencing homelessness, alongside her husband. And, she said, the invitation is open for Raeven to join the family business when she’s ready.
In the meantime, the mother and daughter who, Felicia said, “thought we were close because we are a military family that lived overseas with no other family but each other” will carry a special memory of a time that made those ties even stronger.
“My mom has very different identities to her that I had no idea about,” Raeven said.
“This has brought us even closer … just to get to really know my daughter and see her in her authentic arena with her friends,” Felicia said, turning to face her daughter, “And I guess for you to see me just be Felicia, not Mom.”
Geoff LoCicero at the VCU School of Social Work contributed to this piece.
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