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Graduate Spotlight: Brenda Ray – Putting Mentors in the Driver’s Seat

One Woman’s Campaign to Boost Big Brothers Big Sisters Mentorship in Central Indiana

When Brenda Ray learned Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana was overlooking volunteer mentors because they didn’t have Indiana driver’s licenses, she went on a one-woman mission to change the years-old policy and open the doors to help at-risk children.

Thanks to Ray, and her tireless work as a Case Western Reserve University Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA) student, new mentors at the Big Brothers Big Sisters branch are no longer required to hold valid Indiana driver’s licenses to be eligible as volunteers.

Now volunteer mentors at the organization can use valid identification cards from any state as part of the qualifications. Instead of being required to own vehicles, mentors can also utilize public transportation with a guardian’s approval.

Ray, who advocated for the change during her practicum course in the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences Online MSSA program, said the new policy reflects the shifting ideals about public transportation and the trend to reduced driving.

“I thought it was silly that people had to have an Indiana state driver’s license. There are all kinds of people who ride the bus, including doctors and lawyers,” she said. “The world is changing, so we needed to change the policy.”

The policy change went into effect early 2017 and already has opened several doors to new volunteers, Big Brothers Big Sisters management said. For Ray, the new policy also demonstrated the changes that have happened in her life and her drive to success.

Mandel School Online MSSA graduate Brenda Ray affects policy and promotes mentorship at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana.

Changing The Future By Reflecting On The Past

Ray, 51, started on a path as a social work master’s student in 2009 when her eldest son Ryan was a sophomore in high school and diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As she went through the process to help Ryan, who is now 27 and in remission, she saw other families suffering from life-threatening illnesses and decided to pursue a career helping others. Weeks later, when a 16-year-old family member took his own life, she knew she needed to help teens.

“They just need somebody to hear them and listen to them. I just felt a calling to work with teens and families,” Ray said. “I decided to go back to school to pursue my degree in social work.”

Ray started her college career at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, earning an associate of science degree in human services in 2012, followed by a bachelor’s in social work at the University of Indianapolis in 2015.

When it came time to earn a master’s degree in social work, Ray needed the flexibility to continue working full-time as an administrative assistant for Ivy Tech’s nursing program. Looking at her options, she learned Case Western Reserve University’s Online MSSA program would provide her the advanced educational opportunities she desired to become a change agent.

“It’s one of the top ten schools for social work,” Ray said of the university’s national ranking in U.S. News & World Report. “That along with working around my schedule, it just seemed like a good fit. Everybody who I talked to in the beginning was very nice and helpful.”

As part of the field education requirement for the Mandel School’s MSSA program, Ray interned at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana, working in various aspects of the agency, including enrollment and matching. While there, she learned some 800 children were on the waiting list to be paired with mentors. She knew she needed to help.

Finding A Need, Filling A Need

The real impetus came when Ray took the Child and Family Policy and Service Delivery class as part of the social work master’s program. The course challenged students to learn about public policy and how they can help effectuate change. When Ray learned Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana required all of its mentors to possess a valid Indiana driver’s license, she questioned the policy, examined why it might be necessary, scrutinized rules at other Big Brothers Big Sisters organizations worldwide and determined the best path forward.

In convincing the organization a change was in order, she reminded officials that a growing number of people choose not to own vehicles, instead opting for public transportation or ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft. Many of those riders are young professionals, college students and parents who are looking for ways to curb costs and go green.

The organization’s board was moved by the presentation, and they approved the change immediately. Camille Brugh, director of program support and evaluation at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana, said there have already been some inquiries by potential mentors.

“We’re always looking to find better ways to match more children. If there is anything we can do to be more inclusive, we will do it,” she said. “As the community changes, we want to be able to respond to it.”

Mandel School Associate Professor David Crampton, PhD, who taught the online public policy course, said Ray’s helping attitude and perseverance enabled her to follow through on the course objectives, which include understanding how policies are enacted and how changes are executed.

“She was so focused on getting this done,” Crampton said. “She did everything I teach them to do in the class. She did it with a lot of gusto, and it really paid off.”

Leading The Way For Future Students

Ray credits her success in Crampton’s class with his dedication to his online graduate students. He was always available to answer questions and brainstorm. Ray is also grateful for Case Western Reserve’s Online MSSA program, which provided her with opportunities to grow and succeed. She graduated in August with her MSSA concentration in Direct Practice (Children, Youth and Families).

Ray’s adventures in education won’t soon come to an end. In August 2017, she started as a University of Indianapolis adjunct professor, overseeing a practicum seminar in the university’s social work program. At the same time, she is continuing to work at Ivy Tech’s school of nursing with an eye on retirement in a few months.

Come January, Ray will start as a full-time assistant associate professor at the University of Indianapolis, where she will continue to oversee social work practicum seminars. She looks back at her time at Case Western Reserve University with fondness, despite the challenges of juggling work, home-life, school and the practicum.

“The most rewarding part of doing the online degree was the people,” Ray said. “My classmates were so supportive, and I will miss talking to them and hearing about their accomplishments.”

Case Western Reserve University Online Master Of Science In Social Administration Program

Case Western Reserve University’s online MSSA degree program is nationally recognized for excellence. It is the first university-affiliated professional social work graduate program in the country.

U.S. News and World Report ranked Case Western Reserve University’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences No. 9 in the nation and No. 1 in Ohio for top social work school.

The online master’s degree in social work at Case Western Reserve University prepares graduates for advanced-level careers in social work, with concentrations in Community Practice for Social Change, Direct Practice (Children, Youth, and Families), or Direct Practice (Mental Health with Adults).