In honor of her academic and humanitarian service accomplishments, Alicia Keesler will be the banner bearer for the 2017 College of Education and Social Services (CESS) Commencement ceremony. As a Social Work major from Washington, D.C., Alicia is both an outstanding scholar and an activist who is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of refugees and disenfranchised communities.
Last summer, Alicia volunteered in Greece to support Syrian refugees. She worked with an organization called Together for Better Days, which was founded in response to the refugee and migrant crisis, with a mission to provide humane solutions for people seeking protection. Alicia served on a pilot project at Elpida, an abandoned textile plant in Thessaloniki, Greece. The goal was to create a welcoming and dignified refugee camp for families in dire need. Working with several partner organizations, they turned the factory into a housing and medical facility for up to 700 refugees.
“We worked day in and out to prepare the space for families to arrive,” she says. The effort involved construction, cleaning, and clearing out scrap metal and trash. “When families arrived, we worked with them to make the environment they wanted. Workshops and classes were held all with the goal of having people run their own spaces.”
Now in her final semester of UVM’s Social Work program, Alicia is an intern at WomenSafe, an organization dedicated to working towards the elimination of physical, sexual and emotional violence against women and children. It has been an eye-opening experience. “That will surely inform how I practice and the work I end up doing,” she says.
Before finding her way to UVM, Alicia tried various experiential learning opportunities, such as living with a community to address homelessness, working on organic farms, and living and working in a residence for adults with disabilities.
Ultimately Alicia chose to study social work because she has strong feelings about social and political change. “I believe in the power of transformative and creative thinking,” she says, “and I wanted to develop my communication, listening, and human understanding skills. What better way than to study social work? Both my mother and brother also happen to be social workers; it’s in the blood maybe.”
The supportive culture of UVM has been a good fit for Alicia. “Their belief in social justice and teaching/learning from a social constructionist lens is unique and necessary more than ever in the current climate and consciousness of the country and world,” she believes. “The faculty and staff are welcoming and they encourage creative and challenging thought and practice, even if it ruffles feathers. I have felt supported and encouraged to push myself and to challenge the status quo from within the classroom, the school at large, in our communities, and outward. That is the special and unique opportunity this program offers.”
Her peers have left an indelible mark on Alicia. “The cohort of students that I intend to graduate with are incredibly unique and I feel privileged to have spent the last four years with them. They are some of the most open-minded and kind people I have met. I value their opinions deeply, admire their ability to challenge their own beliefs, and look forward to hearing their thoughts.”
Having immersed herself in a wide range of courses at UVM, she feels particularly thankful for the inspirational faculty she encountered along the way. “They are people who especially challenged me and helped me grow.”
One of Alicia’s most rewarding experiences came from a travel course in Finland called Social Work in a Global Context. The course allows students and faculty from around the world to gather together and learn about similarities and differences in social issues and practices. “That was an amazing course and opportunity,” she says.
After graduation, she will travel through Spain and Greece, farming and continuing to learn and participate where she can within the refugee situation and crisis. She plans to continue exploring social work and community organizing, and hopes to impact policy for change within the realm of social justice and political work.
“I feel drawn to refugee and migrant communities, agriculture and food systems, the arts, alternative economies, and most recently to domestic violence and sexual violence work. Who knows where I will end up, but it will be in solidarity with the continuing struggle for human rights, marginalized communities, black and brown lives, beauty, peace, justice and the rebirth of political structures that embody those beliefs.”