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Back to school

November 3, 2023

Alumni bring about change for young students


Jessica Kain followed her parents into social work, including her mom, Lisa Durham, assistant dean of strategic initiatives and community engagement. “My undergraduate degree is in women’s studies and religion,” Kain says, “but I knew I wanted to work with kids and reach into their untapped potential. Social work made sense.”

Kain is the school social worker in the alternative education program at West Side Middle School in Elkhart, Ind. “I work with a small population of at-risk students, most of whom have a trauma background,” she says. “They haven’t learned social skills, and many are overcoming addiction.”

Kain helped build her school’s social/emotional learning curriculum for the seventh- and eighth-graders. “I think middle school is the biggest growing time of a kid’s life,” she says. “It’s challenging because they come in as elementary-schoolers and leave as high-schoolers.

“I love this age, but it’s not for the faint of heart. The nuggets of hope are when the students start to see results of their efforts. I see the life come back in them and the good things ahead.”


Tai Cornute, principal at the Columbus City Preparatory School for Boys, sums up how his role has impact: “I am making a difference by changing the narrative of and for Black boys.”

Cornute says his studies at Ohio State laid the groundwork for his career. “Social work is the fabric of our society; it weaves and connects all people together. My experience at Ohio State prepared me for becoming a principal. I learned a lot about my capacity for leadership and service.”

Cornute earned a bachelor’s in social work and served as an administrator in the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion before earning his MBA. In 2020 he was named to his current post at the preparatory school, which enrolls nearly 150 scholars in grades six through eight.

Cornute’s advice for current social work students: “Stay the course. Everything you need to be successful already exists within you. Use your degree as a springboard to go throughout the world and leave it a little better than you found it.”


Broadening its scope beyond academics, the Office of Whole Child Supports in the Ohio Department of Education addresses an abundance of needs facing the state’s children. Jennifer Vargo headed the office for more than three years.

“We focused on helping schools support students’ physical and mental health and safety, engage parents and community organizations as partners, and meet the specific needs of vulnerable student populations,” she says.

Vargo’s office created Ohio’s Whole Child Framework and its implementation guide, which covers programs, policies, guidance and funding for districts across the state. That was in 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The framework identifies and addresses children’s needs from a holistic perspective,” Vargo says. “During the pandemic, health and well-being and the safety of children were a real concern, and the framework gave schools the guidance to address and build systems to help.”

Vargo, who now works in private practice, said it was gratifying to lead an office that focused on supporting the whole child so that students have a foundation to meet their academic potential.


With an undergraduate degree in music from New York University and MSW, MPA and MBA degrees from Ohio State, Jason Fullen was well prepared to enter public school administration. But it was his stint with Teach for America that inspired him to go into school social work, leading to his current job as principal at McVay Elementary in Westerville, Ohio.

“As a principal, you wear many different hats: principal, teacher, social worker, counselor, nurse, recess aide and parent,” Fullen says. “My social work background allows me to do that, and it gives me a better understanding and perspective to connect with kids and their families and support them as we try to remove nonacademic barriers and help kids be successful academically.”

Fullen agrees with experts who say the U.S. is in a youth mental health crisis. “Leading 600 students and 70 staff members daily, it’s important I have an awareness and understanding of how to take care of people’s mental health.”


Claire Sobecki came to Ohio State unsure about which degree would prepare her to enter a helping profession and work with kids and a diverse population. “I discovered social work and realized that was
it!” she says. “The profession lets me work in my areas of interest. Plus, studying social work prepares you to be a critical thinker. It gives you a valuable whole-person lens.”

Today, Sobecki is a student support specialist at Thomas Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio. She also is site director for Ohio State’s LiFEsports summer program for Dublin. She directs a cohort of teachers in the program, which focuses on the positive influence of sport for elementary- and middle-school kids with lower social and emotional skills.

“My job experience helps me find connections with kids, engage with them and see them develop confidence,” she says. “When I see kids start to have that spark and believe in themselves, that’s really special.”


Hilary Joyce earning her PhD at Ohio State after receiving her MSW from the University of Kentucky. “I felt I had the skill sets that would lend themselves to this profession. It was a good match for me,” she says.

A decade later, she is director of the BSW program at Auburn University in Alabama, where she sees students striving to make a big impact. “I’m definitely seeing social work students having a more justice-minded lens,” Joyce says. “They’re just as interested in advocating on a macro level as they are in helping people on a one-on-one level. They are motivated to change the world, to make a difference.”

She also helps students learn to understand themselves. “I encourage my students to stay curious, to be open and self-aware,” she says. “I like to see their passion and energy. To see them exchange ideas and have ‘aha’ moments brings me a lot of joy.”


Taylor Fletcher provides school-based mental health services to students at Preble Shawnee High
School in Camden, Ohio. She’s contracted in that full-time role through the private Gebhart Counseling Services.

“I work individually with the students, addressing nonacademic barriers to their learning,” Fletcher explains. “But I’m not someone who just comes into the school periodically. I work closely with the whole school’s team. I’m part of the culture there.”

Fletcher has seen growing acceptance of her presence. “This is a very rural population, and I think at first there was some denial about the need for a social worker,” she says. “But now the administration and the community are seeing the positive impact of social work in the school. I’m more widely accepted by the administration, the faculty, the community. Now they come to me when there is an issue. I’ve become a go-to person for them.”


From urban Atlanta cop to school social worker—that’s Keshawn Harper’s career path.

Harper studied criminal justice at Ohio State, then landed a job as a police officer in Atlanta. “I was staunch into law enforcement, working in tactical field operations,” he says. But he found he had a knack for talking with the teenagers he was arresting while en route to jail.

“We’d have really good talks, and they’d thank me for listening. It occurred to me if we’d had these conversations earlier, perhaps they wouldn’t have ended up here.”

Fast forward a few years, and Harper returned to Ohio to pursue his master’s degree in social work.

“I never set out to do school social work, but the doors just kept opening up,” he says. At KIPP Columbus, he works one-on-one with students and also engages more broadly with them in group settings. “In today’s climate, it’s important to provide them with some space to just talk. The cool thing is they know I’m here for them.”

His advice to students: take a chance. “After leaving the police force, I wondered if I’d be good at anything else,” he says. “Now I know I am. Looking back, all of my experiences happened because I was able to make a leap.”


Read more stories like this in the Stillman Magazine