The Importance of Mentorship and the Value of Research

February 12, 2018
Kelsey and Holly

A Conversation with Student and Professor

Kelsey Moffatt, a second-year Master of Social Work (MSW) student at Baylor, was awarded a 2017 Ima Hogg Scholarship in July. This scholarship awards social work graduate students in Texas $5000 to support their studies and encourage them in their passions for mental health service after graduation. Garland School faculty, including Dr. Holly Oxhandler, Kelsey’s mentor and advisor, easily recognized Kelsey’s strong work ethic in her research and her distinct passion for counseling and improving care for people with mental illnesses.

It is an understatement to say that the GSSW is excited that Kelsey’s hard work has been recognized, but her biggest fan surely is her advisor, and now best friend, Dr. Oxhandler.

I recently sat down to talk with both of them about their mentoring relationship and what has made it so successful and impactful for both of them, as well as Kelsey’s scholarship.

Kelsey Moffatt began as a psychology major during her undergraduate studies and knew she wanted to do counseling in some capacity, but an Introduction to Social Work class with Dr. Johnny Jones really brought her into the world of social work. The two developed a close relationship that easily connected her to the next step of pursuing her MSW.

“For the first time, it really felt like someone was actually investing in me,” Kelsey said. “He served as a model for what social work really was.”

Once she graduated with her BA in psychology in spring 2017, her path quickly intersected with Dr. Oxhandler’s. Kelsey was looking for a graduate assistant position at the School of Social Work when Dr. Oxhandler was contacted. She happened to have a mutual friend who was a mentor of Kelsey’s at a women’s organization on campus.

“I found out that … Kelsey had been working on a paper and citing my work! She had been writing on the topic of the research I am already doing, so it just felt like a really good match right off the bat,” Dr. Oxhandler said. Kelsey fell in love with Dr. Oxhandler’s work because she was highly interested in the same topics Dr. Oxhandler was researching.

They started working together over the summer before Kelsey started her MSW program, and they quickly found out how alike they were.

“Dr. Oxhandler and I are so similar that she is just able to get what I’m going through, and she’s been so open about her learning experiences and how she’s learned and grown,” Kelsey said. “I’m able to learn from her in such rich ways––not just in research, but in everyday life.”

Of course, Dr. Oxhandler had high praise for Kelsey as well, stating, “[She conducts] research at a level we usually see our doctoral students doing.”

After hearing about how they ended up working together, I asked what practical things have made their mentor-relationship so successful.

One of the main things that drew them together is their shared passions for increased religious and spiritual (RS) education within social work programs and seeing social workers become catalysts for change regarding mental health in churches. Dr. Oxhandler said this “intrinsic motivation” has allowed them to “keep up with one another’s energy and passion.”

Dr. Oxhandler also brought up how her past mentor experiences have informed her relationship with Kelsey.

“I had a really good mentoring model for me when I was in my master and doctoral programs … that showed me how to position myself to be a good mentor, while still being completely genuine through that process,” Dr. Oxhandler said.

Perhaps the most impactful aspects of their time together have been Kelsey’s drive to try new things and take the lead on her research, and Dr. Oxhandler’s belief in Kelsey’s ability and guidance into new aspects of research. Kelsey quickly found that the best way to learn was by jumping in head first.

“I knew the conceptual framework of what research was, but [Dr. Oxhandler] allowed the opportunity to step into that and actually practice it, which has been so rich and formative in my growth,” Kelsey said.

When we have students who are willing to step out of their comfort, try something new, and learn and grow, it is transformative, not only for the student, but for the faculty too.

Dr. Oxhandler chimed in after, saying, Kelsey is an exception in a lot of ways because of her eagerness and fearlessness when it comes to learning about research. “That willingness to try makes the mentoring and work we do so much more powerful,” she concluded.

I then pressed for more information on the research they’re working on together. Dr. Oxhandler was eager to share that they are going to evaluate how many courses exist surrounding RS content and see whether or not the profession of social work has stepped up to try to increase attention around this area. They hope to see if social work students are being adequately equipped to handle the sensitive religious and spiritual parts of clients' lives.

Kelsey has been working diligently to look into the lack of RS education in social work programs.

“What we’ve been seeing is that very few schools offer a course on [religion and spirituality],” she said.

She went on, “My research has really been focused on the fact that religion and spirituality is such a complex topic, and it’s not something that we can just [skip] over...[because] there are so many elements of it.”

Kelsey and Dr. Oxhandler’s paper, “Religion and spirituality in master of social work education: Past, present, and future considerations” was recently published in the Journal of Social Work Education, the top journal in the social work community.

The two have also been fascinated with their results from a forthcoming paper they are writing together, where religion and spirituality naturally emerged among the people they studied at the University of Houston. These results weren’t what they were originally looking for in the study, but they both agree that those results deserve more discussion. They will be presenting their findings at the Council of Social Work Education conference in October.

Kelsey acknowledged how religion and spirituality came up without questioning in their study, saying “so many people in the United States hold religious or spiritual values…[so] not at least opening up the opportunity to have that discussion would be shielding a huge part of their [lives] from the therapy experience.”

She continued, strongly stating that without discussing religion and spirituality in counseling, “I would argue that you’re not even really helping [clients] because you’re not getting a holistic view of who they are.”

Tying these thoughts back to their conviction to research RS education in social work programs, Kelsey said, “How do we make people comfortable with talking about a really sensitive and oftentimes really tough issue to talk about––one that we’re told not to really talk about? It’s about learning those skills on how to do that well.”

Finally, I had to talk with them about what it meant for Kelsey to receive the Hogg Foundation Scholarship. Kelsey had been praying for financial provision for her MSW program, so the scholarship was right on time and a great honor.

“It’s a big deal because I actual follow Hogg Foundation for Mental Health [via email]. I love the work that they’re doing,” Kelsey said.

Citing Dr. Oxhandler’s love and care as a mentor and all of the other great faculty she’s gotten to work with as a graduate student, Kelsey said, “I feel like I wouldn’t be where I am without people who have contributed and invested in me. I’m the product of the wisdom other people have chosen to share to me.”

Dr. Oxhandler was just as excited as Kelsey, ending by recognizing again how unique Kelsey is and how she has been enriched by having the opportunity to mentor Kelsey.

“I [also] wouldn’t be where I am without the support that I’ve had from her,” Dr. Oxhandler said. “When we have students who are willing to step out of their comfort, try something new, and learn and grow, it is transformative, not only for the student, but for the faculty too.”

The relationship Kelsey and Dr. Oxhandler have both as professionals and friends is just one great example of how personal relationships between faculty and students are leading to great research and practical impact in the field of social work. There are no doubts that Kelsey and Dr. Oxhandler will continue to research together and work toward making changes in the social work field.

“Doing this work doesn’t feel like work to me. It feels like a meaningful calling, like something we’re doing is making a difference,” Kelsey said.