SSW Program Assistant Reflects on Relationships in School, Earning Two Degrees

By David Miller

July 30, 2021

Gwen Montgomery’s path to a graduate degree at The University of Alabama is 13 years in the making.

Nearly that entire span has run concurrently with her time as a program assistant for the UA School of Social Work, where she’s served both undergraduate and graduate students since May 2007.

The daily interactions with students have yielded continual reminders of how impactful her work is, which can sometimes be lost in the hierarchy of student supports and instruction.

“I have often had students tell me how much they appreciate my help and have heard from colleagues how they have overheard students refer other students to me,” Montgomery said. “I was helping them in ways I didn’t realize. Sometimes I’d wonder, ‘what did I do? … I’m simply doing my job.’”

A black woman poses for a photo outdoors
Gwen Montgomery has served the School of Social Work since 2007. She’s earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in that span.

These experiences, combined with her previous work with nursing students at Bevill State Community College and a motivation to work with students in an advising setting, inspired Montgomery to seek a graduate degree in higher education administration at UA. Saturday at Coleman Coliseum, her three-year journey will conclude when she receives her master’s degree.

“I’m excited for what the future holds,” Montgomery said.

Like many who’ll earn their graduate degrees Saturday, Montgomery has navigated the challenges of virtual education during the COVID-19 pandemic – more than 1/3 of her time in graduate school. Montgomery said the pandemic affected group work, and she did miss the face-to-face interaction with her professors and peers. But she credits her faculty and advisor for “always being there when I needed them.” Learning during the pandemic also illustrated how vital academic support staff are at UA, and it affirmed her decision to pursue a master’s in higher ed administration.

“Also, through graduate school and the interactions with other students, I learned a lot about what students were experiencing in other parts of campus,” Montgomery said. “Often, when you work in one college or school, you’re typically focused only on your own students and what unique circumstances or needs they have. So, I learned a lot during these discussions.”

Montgomery’s experiences as a non-traditional student precede graduate school, making the transition to virtual learning relatively smooth. Montgomery earned an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree in December 2010. She completed her degree in just two years, taking 12 hours each semester while working full time as an program assistant for the School of Social Work. During that span, she completed all her coursework off campus. While she “had some anxiety” about missing the in-class experience and balancing coursework with job and family responsibilities, her most significant challenge was dealing with the loss of her mother, Jean Alice Morton, who passed away with cancer in 2009.

“It was really stressful during that time,” Montgomery said. “But I had instructors that were sympathetic and allowed me more time to complete assignments.”

Montgomery said her undergraduate and graduate school experiences with faculty and support staff at UA, combined with more than 14 years of work at the School of Social Work, will strengthen her future impact on student services on campus. Her eagerness to apply new skills in a greater role at UA is buoyed not just by her fruitful relationships with students, but also by her working relationships with faculty and staff. Montgomery said that seeing faculty like (former PhD program director) Brenda Smith’s dedication to helping international students in the program was inspiring. She also credited Drs. Jo Pryce (retired) and Cassie Simon for their dedication to students.

“I admire the way Drs. Pryce and Simon act as advocates for students and are committed to seeing that students are treated fairly and equally. I want to advocate for students in that same way to ensure that students have the best college experience and meet their academic goals.”