“If I would have known better, I would have done better.”
Angela Washington listened to the repentant cry of a mom in anguish. Sitting in a cold courtroom, watching the mom huddled close with her loved ones awaiting the upcoming verdict, she saw a judge decide the fate of this family.
“I was at court for a teen meeting,” said Washington of watching the mother’s parental rights terminated. “This hit home for me because I looked into her eyes and saw that her addiction weighed so heavily on her and held her in such a bond that she ended up losing her child. Her words kept ringing in my ear and stayed with me.”
This experience was one of many that ultimately led Washington, who graduated from Union College in 2009 dreaming of a career in marketing, to ultimately work at St. Monica’s Behavioral Health Services for Women in Lincoln helping mothers who have lost their children.
At St. Monica’s, Angela works with moms to help reconnect them with their children based on a court-ordered parenting plan—often including bonding and attachment exercises or engagement with the child. Angela also oversees family services and two childcare centers, and teaches parenting classes four days a week.
Clients usually stay at St. Monica’s for six to eight weeks to learn coping skills and access spiritual counseling, group therapy, family classes and much more. Some women transition to the secondary program where their children come stay with them. If they don’t have children, the secondary program also helps them find jobs in the community or go to school. This structured environment helps women overcome substance abuse and gradually reintegrate into the community.
I want to be a track star
Social services didn’t show up on Washington’s radar when looking at colleges the summer after she graduated from high school. She wanted to go to a university and become a track star. But her mom had other plans. She convinced Washington to visit Union, where they met Buell Fogg. “Well, are you planning to come to Union in the fall?” he asked is his friendly way.
“Not really,” she replied.
Washington explained all the things she was wanted in a college—what Union didn’t have. “We may not have all those things, but we do have a lot of things to like,” he replied as he started naming off Union’s features that began to appeal to her.
After she toured the campus, she and her mom met with a financial aid counselor. The youngest child in her big family, Washington felt she wouldn’t be able to afford Union because she didn’t want to put a financial strain on her parents. But everything changed when she mentioned her summer job selling Magabooks in Chicago.
The counselor explained that Union would match her Magabook earnings. She and her mother set a summer goal that would give her the money necessary to enroll at Union. She worked hard, her mom prayed and in the end Angela made just enough to cover her college expenses.
At Union, Washington enrolled in the leadership certificate program (which has since become the leadership minor). One day while sitting around a table in Dr. Linda Becker’s office with other leadership students, the teacher asked, “What type of leader do you want to be?”
“CEO,” said one student.
“Politician!” piped up another.
“I don’t know,” Angela said. “I just want to have a job at the end of the day.”
“Angela, this is a leadership class,” replied Becker. “You have to figure out what type leader you want to be.”
Becker then assigned the students to research leaders in popular culture. As she read, Washington discovered she admired a variety of characteristics in different leaders. “I want to be the type of leader who is right there with whoever is following,” she told her teacher. “I want them to know that we’re only as strong as our leader.”
“What type of work do you want to do?” Dr. Becker pressed.
Washington didn’t know where she wanted to work, either.
“I don’t know. I think I want to work in the nonprofit area—doing whatever I can do to help someone be a better person.”
Growing up a city girl, Washington had her first camping experience on a canoe trip for leadership students to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota. Sleeping on the hard floor of a tent surrounded by bugs and critters, and carrying her canoe between lakes all seemed very foreign. “That experience really taught me how much work goes into being a leader. It was all about teamwork, working together as a team, and taking charge,” she explained.
Finding a calling
During her senior year studying communication and marketing, Washington met with her academic advisor, Michelle Velazquez Mesnard, her professor and then chair of the Division of Humanities, to discuss finding an internship. Angela explained that she liked helping people, but wanted to work in business or management.
“Have you ever considered working for a nonprofit?” Mesnard asked.
In fact, Washington had recently fallen in love with the idea of working for an organization that gives back to the community while creating a nonprofit organization as part of a class project in Institutional Development class.
She eventually landed at People’s City Mission, a local homeless shelter, where she pitched the leadership team on creating a campaign to raise donations for food. The project allowed her to use skills from health and human performance, business and communications to help market the campaign. The project drew citywide attention and Washington received the Nebraska Governor’s Point of Light Award for her volunteer service to the community.
Finding a career
After graduation, Washington intended to work in marketing. But, after her internship by People’s City Mission, she was hired full time as their volunteer coordinator and office manager at their free clinic. She stayed in the social services field when she took a job at KVC Behavioral Healthcare as a foster care specialist and an admissions liaison. The skills she learned while working with foster parents and biological parents during the placement of children into foster homes prepared her to work with the moms at St. Monica’s.
“After doing research on the children’s advocate position [at St. Monica’s], I learned that the position was to help mothers learn to reunite with their children,” she said. “The phrase, ‘If I would have known better, I would have done better,’ came back to me. During my time at KVC, they gave me lots of training working with foster parents.”
Although her career journey and life calling landed her in a quite different place than she imagined when graduating from college, Washington’s training at Union—especially the leadership classes and internship—and guidance from caring professors helped her find a career she loves. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn everything you can about the degrees offered at Union,” she advises current students. “Everyone at Union is very helpful and will point you in the right direction to find answers.”
By Megan Wehling, student writer