Kandra Knowles, MSW, ’14, has had her career trajectory mapped firmly in her head for years. She always assumed that it would incorporate psychology, which she studied as an undergraduate at Bard College. While applying to graduate programs and working at a Bard-run crisis hotline, a supervisor with a social work degree from NYU introduced Knowles to the field, and her career path suddenly and irrevocably shifted.
“She told me a lot about what social work does, and what I’d be able to do, and how it’s similar [to psychology],” Knowles says. “Through her and her encouraging me to come to NYU, I got to know more about the advantage of working in social work as compared to psychology. I did some more research, and learned how versatile the degree is, which spurred me even more to see that this was exactly what I wanted. “
Since arriving at the NYU Silver School of Social Work, Knowles, from the Bahamas, has hit the ground running, joining the National Association of Social Workers and helping to organize the Students of Color Collective. A challenging first-year placement at a private, parochial high school in upper Manhattan provided clinical experience and exposed her to the enriching world of school social work. She also found innovative ways to merge her placement and her home country. Knowles organized a spring break trip to the Bahamas for the school’s choir, where they sang at a local Seventh-day Adventist Church, toured local schools, and performed at the governor general’s house.
Asked what inspired her to plan the trip, Knowles replies, “For me, it was about getting the students exposure. They’re limited in what they think about, and as teenagers they often think of themselves. They got to see what school is like in a different country. You see the advantages and disadvantages of where you live, and I think that was good for them. And cultural exchange was a big part of it—their being able to minister abroad.”
Knowles’ ties to her home country remain an active part of her student identity, and inform her work at this year’s placement at the Ali Forney Center in Harlem, which provides housing for homeless LGBT youth. In addition to seeing clients for therapy and running groups, she often works in the kitchen, helping to serve lunch or dinner. One evening, Knowles prepared a traditional Bahamian meal of chicken souse for the residents there.
Knowles is grateful for the opportunity to work with a population with which she was heretofore unfamiliar. “I’m learning a lot,” she says. “The kids expose me to a lot. They talk to me, and they’re very open with me.”
Knowles’ enthusiasm for the work she does is inspiring, and her ambitions large and wide reaching. With graduation a semester away, she is hard at work on applications for PhD programs in international education, and home is on her mind.
“I want to go home in order to work with youth in our school systems,” she says. “I feel like one thing that is missing in the Bahamian educational system is that educators are not sensitive to the social and environmental factors that influence students.” The Bahamian school system still operates under the British educational system, which Knowles describes as “old-school: gender differences, developmental needs, and different learning styles of kids aren’t taken into consideration.”
Knowles wants to help modify and revamp adolescent education and give Bahamian youth more exposure. She explains, “There’s a very narrow-minded view of the world because we have a lot of archaic values about raising kids and youth. So I’m hoping to merge the fields of social work and education and work structurally to see what changes we can make for the public school system.”
The reason Knowles left the Bahamas was so she could come back and implement change. She says, “The scholarships that I’ve gotten from the Bahamas have committed me to that, ethically and morally: you’re getting this money to this, so go home, make a change, make a difference. A lot of people get educated and then just leave.” Knowles, a leader in the making, promises to be the exception.
Reflecting on her decision to attend social work school, Knowles acknowledges social work’s emphasis on macro-focused, widespread change. “Psychology doesn’t talk about anything related to community advocacy, or changing laws. It’s more individualized, so I think that’s what drove me to social work. I’m getting exposed to the exactly the things I wanted to get exposed to. I just love it.”
By Penelope Yates, MSW ’16