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West Virginia University students from underrepresented groups are gaining valuable experience in social justice work thanks to generous alumni support.

Ellen Archibald, of Minneapolis, formerly an attorney in Charleston, graduated from the WVU College of Law in 1989. She has given over $200,000 to establish two social justice awards at WVU – one for students at the College of Law and one for students enrolled in School of Social Work programs at the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.

For the School of Social Work award, preference goes to minority students – specifically Black, Indigenous and people of color – who are completing a field placement or internship focused on social justice. Deana Morrow, director of the School of Social Work, said Archibald’s gift has provided financial support to students completing internships in behavioral health, immigrant and refugee child care, legal justice, prison re-entry and trauma-informed care settings.

Recipients have received $10,000 to $15,000 each to assist with travel costs and living expenses associated with their internships, which are required to obtain a social work license.

“Social work internships are typically non-paid professional training experiences that require 600-900 hours over one to two semesters,” Morrow said. “Ellen’s support has been crucial for helping students have the necessary resources to devote the substantial time required for completing their internships. We are grateful for her investment in the future of our students and the social work profession.”

At the College of Law, the award provides a stipend for law students completing internships in public service or with public interest organizations in West Virginia. Preference goes to BIPOC students working in unpaid positions.

“We are grateful and honored to receive Ms. Archibald’s gift to the College of Law to support underrepresented groups who seek to provide public legal services throughout our West Virginia communities,”Amelia Smith Rinehart, William J. Maier, Jr. Dean of the College of Law, said. “Our mission to educate and train future lawyers and leaders in the state of West Virginia can only be achieved when we collaborate throughout the state to create a diverse and inclusive profession committed to transformative public service and when we set our students up for success within that profession.”

Purpose and passion

Darrin Lester, one of the inaugural recipients within the School of Social Work, found his purpose in prison. Lester was incarcerated for 12 years at West Virginia’s Mount Olive Correctional Complex on an armed robbery charge. While he was there, he confronted the personal trauma that led to his circumstances, completed a bachelor’s degree, and created a curriculum to help other incarcerated men better themselves and improve their lives.

Lester, 55, began pursuing a master’s degree in social work at WVU just two months after his release. The Social Justice in Professional Practice Award allowed him to complete a field placement with RISE WVU – a program that helps first-generation Black, Latinx and other diverse students achieve success – while continuing his work to help prisoners and undergoing dialysis.

“There’s a stigma to being a convicted felon or someone who was in prison,” Lester said. “To have someone believe in you and say, ‘You know what? I think you can be better than what your circumstances show,’ is encouraging, inspiring and empowering. That’s what receiving this award was for me. That gave me a push, because there was a lot of fear and trepidation in entering a master’s program.”

California native Mariela Cardenas discovered her passion for social work while working for a domestic violence agency. As a second-generation Mexican American, she feels a connection with refugees and hopes to help migrant families, particularly by working with adolescents.

She is grateful to Archibald for establishing the Social Justice in Professional Practice Award, which allowed Cardenas to work with refugees as a therapist while pursuing her master’s degree in social work.

“What she is doing to help first-generation, especially college students and anyone who’s a minority, to obtain that assistance or that support is amazing, especially during this time,” Cardenas said. “As social workers, I feel sometimes we’re not recognized for the work we’re doing, and we just want to make a change and continue fighting for social justice, so this award is amazing.”

Paying it forward

Archibald, now retired, came to WVU as a non-traditional student after 18 years as a trust banker. Her first career afforded financial resources to support her legal education, and paid summer internships covered living expenses as she gained professional experience.

“I’ve been lucky, but I didn’t do it all by myself,” Archibald said. “I was helped by many people while I was a student, in my work life, and when I went back to school. I'd like to give back to help others.”

Archibald supports social justice and wants to see more diversity in the social work and legal professions. “I believe it's a matter of fairness, and it may help with service delivery in West Virginia, since research shows people may respond better to those who look like them,” she said.

Learning that internships are required for social work licensure, and that most are unpaid, motivated her to act. Similarly, many law students who want to work in public service or with public interest nonprofits cannot afford to take unpaid internships, yet West Virginia public service and public interest employers often cannot afford to pay them.

“Ellen saw the need, stepped up and helped ensure through her support that our students would gain valuable work experience in their chosen profession with less financial hardship,” said Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Meshea L. Poore, Esq. “This is a wonderful example of an individual looking to the future and using their own experience and resources to make a difference. I hope Ellen’s leadership and generosity will inspire others to make similar investments in our students and their futures.”

Archibald is eager for other WVU supporters to contribute to both social justice awards so more students can benefit. Her gift is already leveraging additional dollars at the College of Law. Stuart May, a member of the College of Law Visiting Committee, and Susan Striar May, formerly of Charleston, did not attend WVU, but they recently pledged to match up to $50,000 to bolster the Social Justice in Professional Law Practice Award.

Prospective donors to both funds can contact Bob Wetzel, WVU Foundation senior executive director for central development, at 304-284-4083 or bwetzel@wvuf.org to learn more. All gifts are made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.