Higher education is a significant investment, no matter which path a student chooses. Studies show that the increase in lifetime earnings provides ample return on the time, energy and money it takes to complete an undergraduate degree. But completing all of the academic requirements while balancing a host of other responsibilities takes long-term persistence and support. Social work professor Lamont Simmons’s research centers on identifying the factors that help students, especially men of color, persist to achieve their educational goals.
The Road to Salem State
As a social worker in Chicago, Simmons worked in foster care, mental health and alternative education. After a move to Memphis, TN, he gradually transitioned into professional development leadership and teaching, eventually earning his doctorate degree in education at the University of Memphis and joining the faculty.
After a decade in Memphis, Simmons was interviewing with a number of different social work programs. He was drawn to the warmth of Salem State’s faculty during his interview. In addition, “coming from a large research university, I appreciated the student focus,” he said.
Challenging and Supporting Students in the Classroom and Beyond
Now in his fourth year at Salem State, Simmons teaches introductory courses, cultural competency, and fieldwork courses, among others. In approaching his classes, he strikes a balance between challenging students to think differently while providing the support they need to be successful.
Social work students choose this major because they want to help people, but the field of social work involves much more than just helping, Simmons said. As undergraduates, students gain “an understanding of individuals, behavior theory, social structures and their impact on well-being, the importance of advocating for social policy, an understanding of group dynamics, research knowledge and how to engage in evidence-based practice,” he said.
In preparation for their fieldwork placements, social work students must also build cultural competency: the ability to understand and respect differences in culture to best serve their clients.
“Cultural competency begins with self-awareness,” Simmons said. “Students have to acknowledge their own identities and experiences and own their own biases, then be able to put those biases aside to help see clients as individuals who might be from a different culture. It’s about cultural humility, understanding difference and being introspective. It is ongoing, hard work.”
Historically, male students of color have failed to complete bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than other groups. Now in the midst of a historic pandemic and worldwide protests of racial inequality, maintaining academic progress is more challenging than ever. So what are the keys to encouraging persistence?
“A student’s individual motivation - being able to graduate, get a job and support a family - is a primary factor in persistent behavior for Black males,” Simmons notes. “Self-efficacy is also key: a student’s belief that he can be successful. Earning A’s makes you more confident that you’re capable, so you end up earning more A’s.”
For higher education leaders, understanding and innovation is critical to student success. Faculty and staff can encourage student persistence by connecting with at-risk students, finding ways to maximize support and reaching students where they are. Mental health and academic support programs are also critical resources in helping students overcome obstacles.
Ethnic-based student organizations can also play a key role in Black student success. “These spaces are critical to leadership development and network building. They also facilitate a sense of belonging in a university space that doesn’t always feel like it’s for them,” Simmons explained. Faculty and administration can help by being aware that these spaces exist as well as by promoting these organizations and inviting students in.
Simmons found his niche in studying factors that encourage persistence, specifically in Black men in social work programs. In the future, he hopes to both deepen and broaden his persistence research. He’d like to develop a theoretical framework around Black men in undergraduate social work programs, informing both curriculum decisions and support practices that help encourage persistence. In addition, Simmons hopes to expand his persistence study to include other underrepresented groups in academia, including Black women, students with learning disabilities, first-generation students and the LGBTQ community.
With ever-increasing calls for changes in law enforcement policy, Simmons sees an expansion in the need for social workers and an opportunity to advocate for the critical services they provide in the community.
“A cultural shift from a punitive perspective to a rehabilitation perspective is a hard change,” he reflected. “Policymakers need to see the value of what social workers bring to the table, and social workers need to walk the advocacy walk and speak out so their voices are heard.”
In the classroom, Simmons’s combination of challenge and support will continue to inspire future social workers to take risks. “My hope is that students become engaged in learning experiences that challenge them, and that they’re open to new experiences and ideas that allow them to think differently about the world. When I think of transformation, I think about growth - socially and academically - and how can you use that growth to inform your practice.”