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October 30, 2019

SVSU social work student dedicated to empowering her community

Helping others comes naturally for Jessalyn Gaskin. The second-year Saginaw Valley State University social work major and youth services minor has always possessed a clear vision of what she wants her future to be: serving others and helping them navigate their futures.

She found this same selfless nature and caring spirit at SVSU. Her compassion for others guided her degree path and influenced her career objectives. The support Gaskin has received from her campus community and the connections she has built have set her up for success and helped her take strides toward realizing her goals.

After she completes her bachelor’s degree at SVSU, she wants to work in a juvenile delinquency center to make a positive impact on youth, and then she plans to pursue a master’s degree to become a licensed clinical social worker in a hospital.

The Detroit native’s ultimate career goal is to empower and encourage all members of her community by opening her own Boys and Girls Club of America-style establishment. She is passionate about finding ways to help others one-on-one, as well as addressing the root causes of a variety of social issues.

“I just have the itch to help everyone regardless of their ethnicity, their background, or what they’re going through,” Gaskin said. “Being a social worker is not just about helping people, it’s about correcting social injustice.”

Although Gaskin knew she needed to go to college and earn a four-year degree to achieve these goals, she wasn’t always sure that she would begin college immediately after high school. She attended Chandler Park Academy in Harper Woods, a charter school authorized by SVSU. Her teachers encouraged her to pursue a college education and her parents were supportive of this path as well.

But no one in her family had gone to college before her and she was worried about the change in environment.

“I felt nervous but also excited,” Gaskin said. “I’m a family person and I’ve never spent that much time away from home.”

A dedicated sister and daughter, Gaskin knew that college was the right choice, for her and her family. As a role model to her younger siblings, she knew that, if she went to college, she would open the door for them to pursue higher education as well. She wants to empower them to set their goals high and know that they can achieve them with hard work and determination.

“I thought going to college was important because I have young people that look up to me and I knew that me going to college would inspire them to go too,” Gaskin said. 

Gaskin was also concerned about the financial cost of her education. She originally considered staying home and working while pursuing a degree, but she knew this would not provide her with all of the opportunities she needed to make her dreams a reality. 

Scholarships played a big role in Gaskin’s decision to pursue a four-year degree, and she discovered that financial assistance is much more accessible than students often think.

“There’s a lot of scholarships. Students just don’t apply because they don’t know the resources available to help them get to college,” Gaskin said.

These opportunities for scholarships became one of the main reasons Gaskin chose to pursue her education at SVSU. Access to scholarships, one of the best social work programs in the state, and the proximity from home all led to SVSU being the perfect fit, Gaskin said. 

Part of this financial assistance from SVSU included the Public School Academy (PSA) scholarship, which also provides recipients with support— in and out of the classroom— as they transition into college. As a mentee in the PSA Transition Program, Gaskin had the resources and guidance she needed to thrive during her freshman year, including access to one-on-one tutoring, volunteer and leadership experience, and academic advising. Her devoted and friendly mentors helped her feel welcomed on campus and prepared her to take on any challenge.

“For my first year, we had coaches and mentors that kept us on track,” Gaskin said of the program. 

The unwavering care and dedication she received as a mentee inspired her to find ways to give back and support other students like herself. She now serves as a mentor in the King Chavez Parks (KCP) program to provide support and tutoring to first-generation college students in their freshman year. Her mentors guided her during a challenging time and now she wants to do the same for others. 

Many of these students are facing the same struggles Gaskin encountered when starting college, including financial obstacles, difficulty with time management, and learning how to adjust to a college mindset. Gaskin loves to connect with them and share her own experiences in order to help them succeed.

“I like the experience because I understand how they feel,” Gaskin said of being a mentor. “I like to tell them that I went through the same thing and I understand.”

The guidance Gaskin received at SVSU has allowed her to excel academically— earning her a spot on the Dean’s List as a freshman— and has helped her grow and thrive on a social and personal level as well. Prior to starting college, Gaskin was very reserved and had been in school with the same small graduating class for years. She worried about feeling like she wouldn’t belong in college but soon met many welcoming and friendly individuals that dissolved her concerns. Joining organizations like the Organization of Black Unity and Impact, a campus ministry organization, helped her build a community on campus that broke her out of her shell.

“My favorite part of being in college is meeting new people,” Gaskin said. “It opened me up more and helped me experience a lot of new things and opportunities.”

As Gaskin reflects on how much she has learned and the genuine relationships she has built since starting college, she wants all high school students considering pursuing higher education, especially minority and first-generation college students, to know that it is okay to step outside of their comfort zone and embrace something new. Although there may be challenges, if they open themselves up to new experiences and opportunities, they will have the support and resources they need to succeed, she said.

“I learned that if you stay you won’t get anywhere,” Gaskin said. “In order to have opportunities and actually experience college, you have to open up.”