As he approaches the Thanksgiving holiday, graduate student Cory Whitfield remains grateful for a mentor’s powerful impact on his journey at East Tennessee State University.
Whitfield, who will graduate with his Master of Social Work in May 2022, would not have been able to attend ETSU if not for the late Dr. Angela Radford Lewis, an ETSU administrator who served as vice provost and special assistant to the president for strategic initiatives at ETSU before her death in 2019.
Lewis paved the way for Whitfield to pursue his dreams at ETSU, and now, he hopes to pay it forward and mentor and inspire others through a career in social work.
As a student, Whitfield has already taken on a leadership role on several university, state and national social work organizations. Among other roles and responsibilities, he currently serves as the National Association of Social Work-TN Board of Directors Secretary and is working to begin a local chapter of the National Association of Black Social Workers.
You’ve had a successful academic career here at ETSU. What role did your mentor, Dr. Angela Radford Lewis, play in your journey?
This is my second time attending ETSU. I initially attended ETSU in 2012, but had to leave because of finances. In 2018, the late Dr. Angela Radford Lewis provided the opportunity for me to return to ETSU, and that’s why I am here today.
I was working at a warehouse in Johnson City and was desperately looking for a new opportunity at the time. Out of nowhere, Dr. Lewis sent me a text telling me that she found a way to remove the economic burdens of returning to school and I needed to enroll ASAP. That moment has changed me and my family forever.
Returning to school basically overnight, I struggled that first semester. However, I was still able to make the Dean’s List. I broke the news to Dr. Lewis before I told anyone else. Unfortunately, Dr. Lewis passed away two months later.
My goal is and will always be to make her proud. I recently saw her husband, and he told me that she would be proud of me. Those words were more important than any of my accomplishments. Humbly speaking, I feel that I carry a small piece of her legacy with me. I will carry on her legacy with the same level of excellence that she would demand. Furthermore, it’s the same level of excellence that she carried herself. Dr. Lewis taught me that mediocrity is unacceptable. That’s why I work so hard to have an impeccable record. Dr. Lewis has also taught me to never be afraid to invest in people and assist them with their journey. You never know what that person will become. I hope to someday be able to help elevate someone in the same manner Dr. Lewis elevated me.
Why did you choose a career in social work?
If you ask a group of small children what they want to be when they grow up, I doubt that many would say a social worker. If you asked a group of high school students the same question, many probably wouldn’t say a social worker – not unless someone close to them is a social worker. This is because you don’t choose social work. Social work chooses you.
We go through trials and tribulations throughout life. In response to these trials, we develop courage, resilience, tenacity, determination and coping skills. From our ability to overcome adversity, social work chooses those who are able to share those qualities with our clients and community. I didn’t choose social work because social work chose me.
Why have you chosen to be involved in so many professional and student organizations throughout your time at ETSU?
As social workers, many of us come in with big ideas on how to effect change. However, for some, these ideas never manifest into anything but complaints and disgruntled workers. To have a seat at the table to make change you must be involved. I’m not a huge deal, but I have established myself as someone who has the ear of some influential people. That’s only because I am heavily involved.
What do you hope to do when you graduate?
In the short term, I want to work toward obtaining my clinical licensure and becoming the best clinician that I possibly can be. In the long term, I aspire to be involved with the legislative and policymaking process. As social workers, we have the unique position of seeing the disparities of our clients reflect the oppression in their community. Social workers are greatly needed in the legislative process. It is my ambition to fill that role.
What advice do you have for other students who are experiencing adversity or obstacles?
I know this is cliché, but never give up on yourself. I’ve had many lows in my life, but I never gave up on myself. Regardless of what you’re going through, regardless of how many people count you out, never give up on yourself. I was counted out and disregarded by so many people. But even with the doubts, I knew my worth and potential. Regardless of what people say and the challenges that you face, know your worth and keep pushing.