Meet the Smiths: An oft-delayed college experience puts mother, daughter in same M.S.W. cohort
Two-and-a-half decades after problems with her pregnancy delayed Felicia Smith’s second attempt at college, she is in the second semester of the M.S.W. Program at VCU’s School of Social Work.
She graduated from the B.S.W. Program in May 2020, serving as the program’s student speaker at Commencement. She is the current president of the Association of Black Social Workers at VCU, a student organization.
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But perhaps what most sets Felicia apart is that one of her current classmates is the product of that pregnancy, her oldest daughter, Raeven Smith, 25. Felicia, 50, credits faith rather than fate for this improbable circumstance.
“This is God’s way of saying, ‘You know what, Felicia, you didn’t understand back then why you weren’t able to go to school. I had something greater for you,’ ” the mother says. “I couldn’t orchestrate this, this is all God. I believe God put Raeven and me on this path.”
‘I never felt smart’
Growing up in Baltimore County, Maryland, Felicia says she was one of few Black students in her schools. “They didn’t invest in the Black kids, so I never felt smart.”
Paying her own way through college wasn’t sustainable, and she quit school to work full time. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have given up the car and wouldn’t have quit school to work full time at McDonald’s and pay a bill,” she says.
She married Raymond Smith, a U.S. Marine, in 1994. Before Raeven was born, she had a series of miscarriages. When she began to experience cramps with Raeven’s pregnancy, doctors put her on bed rest. “I didn’t want to lose her like I did with the other babies,” Felicia says.
Felicia made plans to attend introductory college classes through a program for military spouses when the family moved to Okinawa in 2008. But she fell and suffered a severe concussion, and doctors advised against starting school. “I had just signed up for classes,” she says. “I thought maybe it was just not meant for me to go to school because every time I try, something happens.”
‘I want to do this for a living’
When they returned to the U.S. in 2011, she decided her experiences as a church volunteer and organizer would translate professionally. “My husband and I worked as youth ministers, volunteered at homeless shelters, nursing homes,” Felicia says. “I was always trying to help and organize things in the community. I said, ‘I want to do this for a living. This is my heart, my passion.’ I went to the community college and did a test, the one that tells you what you’re good at, and it came up as social work. I said, ‘Yes, this is what I want to do.’ ”
She earned a 4.0 GPA at Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, while Raeven was in VCU’s undergraduate psychology program. “We were walking around campus, and I was like, I’m coming here, I’m definitely going to get my B.S.W. at VCU. My husband was like, ‘Don’t do that to our daughter,’ ” she says with a laugh.
They overlapped for only one semester, Felicia’s first in the B.S.W. Program before Raeven graduated in December 2018 with her B.S. in psychology and a minor in gender, sexuality and women’s studies.
‘If I can get a 4.0, my kids can, too’
Felicia says she had moments of doubt and struggle about her abilities during her B.S.W. studies, even after being on the President’s List at Germanna. “I thought, maybe it’s a little bit easier at the community college,” she says. But she maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout her B.S.W. courses as well.
She credits Associate Professor in Teaching Darly Fraser, her field liaison, and adjunct faculty members Erica Jackson and Nikole Jiggetts for their support and inspiration.
“I had one Black teacher since elementary school, but seeing these young, Black professors – younger than I – black social workers, that made me want to work harder. If these young people can do this, I can do this as an older woman.”
Setting an example for Raeven and her other children – Raymond Jr., 23, and Faith, 12 – is important to her. “If I can get a 4.0, my kids can, too. I won’t ask them to do anything I can’t do. If I ask them to bring home good grades, then I need to be bringing home good grades, too. My confidence is better.”
‘We have life experiences that are just as valid’
Raeven has heard her mother’s doubts, but she also knows Felicia is strong and a role model, even if she herself is more introverted like her father.
“Her being a Black woman, the barriers were always put up against her even before she was born,” Raeven says. “I would hear her make comments hurtful to herself, and even I do it sometimes: ‘Oh, my professor didn’t really read it, they just gave me an A because they had to hand out good grades. I’m not good enough, not smart enough.’
“We have to challenge each other: ‘Why couldn’t we get those good grades? We’re smart, we read books, we do research, we have life experiences that are just as valid as anyone else’s in the classroom.’ I think we try to keep each other in check about that and try not to speak so negatively about not being in these spaces, even though these spaces were created for us.”
Raeven says their mother-daughter relationship is more well known in the program in the spring semester than when they started in the fall. The two have had a couple of classes together each semester. “I’ll go to a class without her and one of my classmates will say, you’re Felicia’s daughter, she’s so funny. They’re usually like, Felicia, you don’t even look like you have a daughter. It’s always a positive reaction. I do enjoy it and get a laugh out of it.”
‘Pushing each other out of the comfort zone’
The classroom is also a space where students have honest conversations about their own experiences, but the Smiths are the only ones with a family dynamic involved.
“There are a lot of things about my identity as a Black queer woman, when she says some things that are questionable, I know she needs to learn a little bit,” Raeven says. “I question her, she questions me, we have a conversation. We’re pushing each other out of the comfort zone. She’s exploring my identity that she doesn’t understand or comprehend, while I”m understanding some parts about her and her life while being in class.”
Felicia says the social work curriculum has helped her better understand Raeven’s identity and perspectives. “The students are a family in the classroom. We’re transparent. I would say how I feel, and they would educate me on it, and we still love each other when we leave the classroom. Being in social work, you take the code of ethics – the dignity and worth of everyone is important.”
Not surprisingly, they are complementary partners on group projects. “You can always count on me writing notes down and you can always count on her to be the presenter or getting people to discuss things more,” Raeven says. “If you’re a quiet person on Zoom, she’s like, ‘What do you think about this?’ I lean on her more to get people active or present, and I’m pretty good at doing research and typing it up. We’re a pretty balanced team when we work together.”
‘She’s a quiet storm’
Raeven credits her mom with the idea of a career in social work. “I would run around the house challenging my dad and brother and even my mom on perspectives they believed in. My mom was going around saying, ‘You sound like a social worker, you need to go into social work.’ She definitely pushed me to look into it, but I did my own research and gravitated to it a little more than my original plan of a mental health counselor.”
Felicia says Raeven started to become an advocate in high school. “She was beginning to voice her opinion more about people being treated a certain way because of who they are. In her room, she had books on different Black women who were activists. I was like, oh, wow, she’s a radical. She’s a quiet storm. She may be introverted, but when it comes out, she’s a storm. There’s a lot of fire and passion in her.”
‘Ride or die’
The two are on schedule to graduate together in December 2022. The question is what comes next and if they see a working future together.
“Now that Raeven and I are doing this together, I’m like, ‘OK, Lord, let’s see what’s going to happen,’ ” Felicia says. “I see Raeven and I opening up a nonprofit for families, women and children who are transitioning out of their homes after being evicted, until they can find their next place. The shelter will be Faith Place. Raeven will be doing the micro aspect and I’ll be fighting for policy change in the community. I can see it happening.
“My son is at Old Dominion, majoring in criminal justice and minoring in sociology. I can see him speaking to young Black men: ‘If I can go to college, you can too.’ ”
Raeven is a bit more “cautious” about her mother’s vision, she says. “I love the idea of practice together, and when do you see a Black family coming together and having a practice to better serve the community? I rarely see that. I’d love for it to happen, but there are a lot of boundaries to discuss before we do it.
“Her idea is beautiful. If we were to work in this capacity together, I would love to emphasize working with the Black queer community as well.”
For the time being, they have two more full semesters together as classmates.
“The term we use, ‘ride or die’ – Raeven and I, we’re going to excel in this or fail in this, but we’re in it together. I think God allowed me to have this opportunity to do this journey with my daughter.”