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Social Work Is Mercy Work for New GCU@Cumberland Graduates

Sherman Zikea

For Zikea Wise-Hughes ’19, social work is a passion. You could say it runs in her family.

To honor her late grandmother, a long-time drug and alcohol counselor, Zikea enrolled in Cumberland County College to pursue an associate degree in social work and a certificate in drug and alcohol counseling.

“I was so impressed with my studies at Cumberland County, I returned to complete my social work degree because helping people has always been a trait of mine,” said Zikea. “Social work is the art of helping people.”

Georgian Court University launched the area’s first bachelor of social work (B.S.W.) in the area two years ago, giving students like Zikea more options to pursue their passion.

“GCU offers first-hand experience in the social work field. It provides its students with valuable knowledge and confidence to enhance the quality of life for so many people,” said Zikea.

A Galloway Township native, now living in Bridgeton, Zikea was among the first graduates to earn the B.S.W. through Georgian Court University’s partnership with Cumberland County College.

When she entered the program in the fall of 2017, Zikea was one of 28 students in the first cohort. Today there are 45 students currently enrolled in the program, including students in a second cohort, who entered the program in September 2018. A third group will begin the program this fall.

“I remember the first day we started the B.S.W. program,” she recalled. “No one knew what to say, so we all just started laughing. This was most memorable because in a room full of leaders, no one was sure how to act.”

Under the agreement, Cumberland students with associate degrees in social work are admitted to the GCU B.S.W. program with junior status. Full-time students take a rigorous course load of classes ranging from Communications Skills in Social Work to Social Policy to prepare them to go into the field.

“GCU’s partnership with Cumberland is creating a workforce better able to deal with societal issues where they live,” said Mary Tuohy, D.S.W., social work program coordinator at Cumberland County College. “These students have responsibilities and families—having this program in their community provides access that they did not have before. Many do not have the time or means to travel to universities that are hours away to continue their education after the associate degree.”

Stepping Stones to a Better Future

“I completed my fieldwork hours, which were very intense, as I was trying to fight sleep daily and kept pushing. Throughout it all, I managed to overcome life’s many obstacles in ways I never thought. GCU got me through,” Zikea said.

The mother of a busy nine-year-old son, who is involved in the Boy Scouts, basketball, and modeling, Zikea works overnights, and puts in 40 hours a week in a direct support position for a local nonprofit organization that serves children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“I had no idea that this path would be mine,” she said. “I never thought I would return to school after all these years and flourish so much. I did not know what I wanted to do, but I know I deserved better than just a minimum-wage job, and my son deserved better.”

While it has been a balancing act between school, work, and family on the road to earning her B.S.W., the process has helped Zikea become a stronger leader. She served as president of the GCU Social Work Club and as a liaison connecting Cumberland students to the Lakewood campus. Zikea also helped create social media networks, coordinated events, and kept students on both campuses informed about the B.S.W. program.

Building a Community Through Partnerships

Mary Kay Tuohy social work
Mary Kay Tuohy, D.S.W.

Students in the GCU@Cumberland program have full access to resources and events on the Lakewood campus. According to Dr. Tuohy, Zikea gave students on the Cumberland campus a chance to be a part of the greater GCU community.

“Zikea is a community builder. She is a bridge between the main campus in Lakewood and Cumberland County College,” said the professor. “She got the Social Work Club off the ground. She organized fund-raisers and created partnerships. She would often organize groups of students to travel to the Lakewood campus. In fact, just recently she piled five students into her car and traveled to the main campus for an event for B.S.W. graduates.”

Social Work Is Mercy Work

GCU is committed to the Mercy core values of respect, integrity, justice, compassion, and service, which guide its mission. Similarly, the B.S.W. degree-completion program at Cumberland prepares students to make a difference in society and in their communities.

The rigorous curriculum focuses on ethics, values, critical thinking, human behavior, and social and economic justice. It enables students to become a change agent in today’s world—especially for those who are at a disadvantage.

“The Mercy core values represent what GCU is, ‘social work is mercy work,’” said Dr. Tuohy. “There are a group of really dedicated people at Cumberland County College who have not had the same education opportunities. They will make fantastic social workers, and they will come back to their communities and serve them well throughout the area.”

Zikea echoes her mentor and professor.

“GCU and the faculty taught me the fundamentals of how to be an effective social worker and leader in my community,” said Zikea. “GCU has provided me with the skills and tools to properly engage in counseling, therapies, and advocacy for individuals and groups. Through GCU, I broadened my leadership skills and learned the core values of mercy work.”

Graduating with Advanced Standing

Zikea Hughes Rutgers bound

So what’s next? Zikea has been accepted into the M.S.W. program at Rutgers University with advanced standing. She began her program one week after graduation and has an expected master’s degree completion date of May 2020. In fact, six graduates in the first B.S.W. degree cohort at Cumberland have been accepted into master’s degree programs with advanced standing and will complete their advanced degrees in just one year.

Zikea credits the B.S.W. program with providing her with first-hand experience in the social work field. She is thankful and humbled to have been able to attend GCU through its partnership with Cumberland County College.

“GCU offers the same classes at Cumberland, which gives people like me with families and employment the option to stay local while obtaining an outstanding education on our own turf,” she said. “I would recommend the B.S.W. program to other students. GCU gives us the skills to serve individuals, families, and communities in our own backyard. Through this collaboration, we are able to actively make change in our own communities through grace and mercy.”

Aerial view of GCU.

About Georgian Court University

Founded in 1908 and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, Georgian Court University is Central and South Jersey’s only Catholic university. GCU is a comprehensive, coeducational university with a strong liberal arts core and a historic special concern for women. As a forward-thinking university that supports diversity and academic excellence, GCU is known for expanding possibility for more than 2,100 students of all faiths and backgrounds in 35+ undergraduate majors and 10+ graduate programs. The GCU Lions compete in 15 NCAA Division II sports in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC). In 2020, GCU was named a Best Value College by and a Best Bang for the Buck (Northeast) by Washington Monthly. High student retention and graduation rates also make GCU a Top Performer on Social Mobility on U.S. News & World Reports rankings. The main campus is located in Lakewood, New Jersey, on the picturesque former George Jay Gould estate, a National Historic Landmark. Georgian Court, which is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, also serves students at other locations, such as GCU at BrookdaleGCU at Rowan College of South Jersey–Cumberland Campus, and through multiple online certificate and degree programs.

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