Gilbreath’s giving helps students who want to follow in her macro footsteps
With a laugh, Allison Gilbreath (B.S.’11/GPA; M.S.W.’16/SW) explains that she’s a law school dropout.
It turns out that macro social work was really the career she was looking for.
“Law school was the only pathway I knew to do what I know now as macro social work,” says Gilbreath, who was accepted to – but never actually started – law school. “I wanted to stand up for social justice, to give a voice to communities that don’t have a voice; that’s what macros social workers are trained to do.”
Gilbreath found her path as an M.S.W. student at the VCU School of Social Work. In 2015, she was a recipient of the school’s Social Work Administration, Planning, and Policy Practice Scholarship for macro-focused students. The fact that there was a scholarship specifically for macro students was affirming.
“Knowing there was a scholarship just for SWAPPP students meant a lot to me as a student and more so to know I wasn’t the only applicant for that,” she says. “To know they saw my application, read about my dreams and passions. … Sometimes, you’re sort of questioning, ‘Am I capable? Can I do this?’ It’s a mental roadblock. So to have donors – and some of them are alumni and faculty – genuinely believe in me meant a lot.”
That belief is why, since graduating, she’s given back to the school, making her one of nearly 1,400 alumni who supported social work fundraising efforts during the university’s eight-year Make It Real Campaign. In total, the school received $3.2 million in gifts and commitments, surpassing its goal of $2.25 million.
Gilbreath has given multiple years to the fund for the same SWAPPP Scholarship she received, in addition to the school’s annual fund, and has reached the Dean’s Circle level of giving.
“When I graduated and had an income, I was just really grateful to have the opportunity to pay it forward and help another student who was in the same position I was in,” she says. “It’s something I’m committed to doing for the long term.”
She remembers the stress of student expenses and the elation of learning she had earned the scholarship.
“I was really trying to ensure that I graduated from the program with the least amount of student debt to pursue my dreams,” Gilbreath says. “The program is very difficult, for people who haven’t been through it and may not know. Working part time in addition to a field placement. … Gosh, I’m just trying as hard as I can, but I could still use support with books, a new computer. When I received the scholarship, I screamed out, ‘Yes!’ I was so thankful to receive some support, and specifically that someone supported my dream of being a macro social worker.”
The M.S.W. Program prepared Gilbreath for her work with Voices for Virginia’s Children. After four years as a policy analyst, she has recently been promoted to policy and programs director.
“I use the skills I received on a daily basis at my job,” she says. “A big part of my personal mission is to raise more awareness about what macro social work is. You can find us in tons of environments, but sometimes, we don’t go by the title ‘social worker,’ so people don’t know that we have an M.S.W. So I might be a policy analyst, but people don’t know I’m an M.S.W. They might refer to me as a lobbyist.
“I’m a very unique policy analyst because of my macro social work background. I look at things through a different lens. I’m a collaborator because of my training. I’m always focusing on ensuring the right people are in the room, that we are being strategic about decision-making. To me, the process is just as important as the outcome, and that’s not how everyone was trained to do this work. I think that’s really important.”
Gilbreath’s support for the school and contributions to students doesn’t end with her scholarship donations. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member, teaching a first-semester social justice course, and as a field liaison for a cohort of macro-focused students.
“One of the issues in higher education is a lack of people of color in positions as faculty or adjuncts,” she says. “I could sit around and complain or do something about it, so I decided to inquire about being a field liaison, and have loved it and each of the students. It’s a different teaching style, so engaged. I’m more of a motivator than a teacher – that’s partly because of who I am as a person but also as a social worker.
“I want to show them real world experiences, but also give them tools and encouragement to be the best social workers. When I talk to my students, I say, ‘Don’t just be a social worker; I want you 15 in my class to be the greatest social workers Virginia has.’ That’s just how important social work is to society. I think about what I want the field to look like when I’m no longer in it, how do I contribute? My students today are the social workers and teachers of tomorrow. I want more from them.”
Gilbreath says supporting the School of Social Work starts with being invested and connected.
“Learn about what students are doing, hear from the students,” she says. “My advice would be to consider what it would look like for you to support a student in their dream. Sometimes when it comes to being a donor and giving, you can get caught up in the number and not the impact. I didn’t start giving at the amount I give now.”
Giving to the school is a family commitment Gilbreath shares with her husband, Ryan, whom she says is “a social worker by marriage. … I gradually worked my way up to make the School of Social Work more and more important in my family’s budget. I designated a lot of my gift to SWAPPP because it’s really important to me. Think about what’s really important to you.”