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Leading by Example

Alumna and social work department chair supports students toward success

Tonya Ricklefs

From The Ichabod - Fall 2021
Story by Annie Flachsbarth

“Even though I have my doctorate, I keep my associate's degree up on the wall because it was a very hard degree for me to get. Just because you’ve been gone for a while, doesn’t mean you can’t come back,” - Tonya Ricklefs

Going to college can be exciting, but it can also be a lot of work and a lot of pressure – especially when life gets in the way. Some students may take a few years off or never come back at all. But in a profession where caring is crucial, the Washburn University social work department goes out of its way to instill core industry values from the start to help students find success. One alumna turned chair of the department knows all too well just how the social work department can make a huge impact on the lives of students and the community they serve.

Assistant Prof. Tonya Ricklefs, aas ’98, bas ’00, msw ’11, earned her bachelor’s from Washburn in human services. She grew up in in Meriden, Kansas, and she knew she wanted to go into social work because her mother was also a social worker. She saw a lot of what her mother did and how she helped people in her profession. In fact, her mother eventually became the director of Counseling Services at Washburn. But that didn’t put Ricklefs above the challenges that come with obtaining a degree.

While taking classes, working as a work study student in the social work department and working another part-time job, Ricklefs started to struggle and stopped going to some of her classes – eventually ending up on academic probation. She took a break from school altogether, but staff made sure she was welcomed back when she was ready.

“I didn’t come back right away, but the faculty and staff were very helpful in reaching out and checking on me and just making sure I was OK,” Ricklefs said. “I had about three semesters at Washburn at the time, but I can distinctly remember them tracking me down and not just letting me go.”

When Ricklefs returned to Washburn’s human services department she found the same caring approach: when her father passed away and she had a hard time coming back to class, staff and faculty reached out to her again.

“This time I was a mom and trying to do school as a single parent. I tried to make up a lot of excuses, but they called me,” Ricklefs said.

While a work study student in the social work department, Ricklefs helped prepare the paperwork Washburn submitted to create a master of social work program at the school. Now, back as a professor, she also has the honor of being chair of the department.

“What we hear from our students about reaching out is really true – I experienced that as a student, and I use that as an example of how I want to be as a chair and a professor,” Ricklefs said. “It’s the people at Washburn who make the University feel like home.”

Jaquita Clark, bsw ’18, had a very similar experience. When her father and several other family members passed away, she too had a difficult time with school.

Jaquita Clark“My teachers and classmates made sure I was doing OK. They helped me through the grieving process and keeping up with classes,” Clark said. “Many of those classmates became friends for life – there was a feeling of support in the social work program more than any other department I came in contact with.”

Clark, who returned to Washburn this fall to pursue her master's in social work, became a social worker because mental health has always been important to her, especially in the Black community.

“There’s not a lot of people of color in this field or in this region, so I feel like I can really make a difference and be a part of change,” Clark said.

That support is crucial to clients in the field, but also to students. The department is revising its strategic plan to focus on first-generation students and knowing what all students will need once they’ve graduated.

“I think that is why it is so unique right now to have someone who has knowledge of the history of the program who keeps us grounded and then also so many new faculty members who move us forward,” Ricklefs said.

“They’re teaching us how to support other people, and they showcase that through leading students by example,” Clark said.

The Ichabod Magazine Winter 2022 cover - Memorial Union with snow, pine needles in the foreground

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