Tuskegee native overcomes string of challenges to complete MSW

By David Miller

July 30, 2020

Cynthia Perry, MSW graduate

“Better late than never.”

“If at first you don’t succeed …”

Both of these phrases aptly describe Cynthia Perry’s path to completing her Master of Social Work degree at the University of Alabama School of Social Work.

Perry, a seasoned social worker, with over 11 years of experience in the social work profession, has a comprehensive background in various areas. This experience includes expertise in the area of medical social work, child/adult mental health, child welfare, child welfare policy, residential, and two years of post-graduate studies in special education-cross categorical.

Perry first applied to UA’s MSW program in 2004, just two years after earning her Bachelor of Social Work degree at Tuskegee University. At that time, she was keen to complete graduate school while her family was still young, but she wasn’t accepted to UA. She was also turned down by Auburn University’s MSW program.

Then, more than 10 years later, after the admonitions, encouragement, and support of a cherished friend and mentor, Perry re-applied to UA. She also began looking into applying to the MSW program at Alabama State University. She thought she hadn’t received any correspondence from UA until she was about to resend her reference letters to include with her ASU application.

“I saw that I had received a correspondence in my portal,” she said. “I cringed as I began to read the correspondence.”

To her surprise and jubilation, there it was: her acceptance notice to UA’s MSW program.

“I got that letter and I was so elated that I didn’t know what to do but thank Jesus. I ended up crying,” Perry said. “I was so excited, but I was still nervous; I saw the letter five days before the start of classes, and I got it confirmed on the first day of school.”

Now, with her MSW completed, Perry hopes to affect policy, particularly in child welfare. Her career motivation aligned with the School’s long-running Washington, D.C. internship program and its companion program, the Washington, D.C. Policy and Advocacy Fly-In, the latter of which she participated in during the Fall 2020 semester.

“So goes the laws, so goes the people,” Perry said. “I worked as a family preservation social worker and licensing specialist, with most of my experience at the Department of Human Resources, and I saw different things that could be amended or changed to better help people and families have a better life course perspective and trajectory. Changes in laws and policy can change the whole demographic of this country, which will inevitably, positively impact individuals and families to better affect communities and the world at large.”

While Perry proudly reflects on her hard work and support from her husband and three children, her path to earning her MSW was challenging. Her mother lost her battle with thyroid cancer, a “really trying, emotionally painful, and grievous” experience during Perry’s graduate studies.

“My mom’s cancer was very aggressive,” Perry said. “Three times I saw her at death’s door, but God brought her back each of those times. I’d spend nights at the hospital studying, then go straight into work.

“My mom was so proud of me, but it was traumatizing to see ma going down.”

Perry also endured a rough start to graduate school, as her financial aid was delayed by five weeks, which prevented her from buying books. Additionally, due to the narrow window to prepare for school, she was anxious about her first semester. But she found a guiding presence in Morion Siler, coordinator of student services for the School of Social Work.

“If it wasn’t for Mr. Siler, I don’t know how I would have fared,” Perry said. “I couldn’t mess up this opportunity – this was the University of Alabama. [Siler] eased my nervousness.”

Dr. Sebrena Jackson, MSW program director, helped arrange a postponement of tests for one of her classes to accommodate her delay in financial aid to purchase the necessary books for all classes. Perry read all supplemental materials and would use this period to cram the chapters she missed.

“I read so much, I felt like throwing up,” Perry said. “I wanted to ace every class.”

Perry would do just that, finishing her first semester with all As. She finished her MSW degree with a 3.857 GPA.

Perry completed her placement with the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group shortly after the Lee County Youth Development Center – where she’d worked previously while completing her MSW – closed in December 2019. She’s currently searching for her next career opportunity.

“I won’t give up my dreams and hopes of working in government, in policy, or conducting policy advocacy. God knows my desires and it will be Him that guides and solidifies my career path.”