First Generation College Student Breaks Barriers Pursuing Online Social Work Degree

Author: Laken Wright

Last Updated:

Category: Featured Story | Social Work

UT’s online BSSW degree-completion program was a perfect fit for a first-gen college student who had 60 transferable credits and an associate degree from a community college.


Life enrichment through distance education

At the age of 18, Caitlin Steele kick-started her career as a direct support professional assisting those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  During this time, Caitlin fell in love with helping enhance the lives of others, and she also became aware of systemic cracks that created barriers to providing a high quality of life for those she closely supported. 

Caitlin shares, “I knew that my goal was to enrich the lives of others in whatever capacity I could, but I realized that in order to provide effective change, I needed a guided education to amplify my skills.” 

As she continued working in this space, she became more self-aware of the gaps that higher education could help her address, which led her to begin her formal education in Social Work.  After completing her associate degree, Caitlin enrolled in UT’s Bachelor of Science in Social Work online degree-completion program with aspirations to sharpen her social work skill set and act as a change agent in enhancing her professional and personal lifestyle.  This second step in her higher education journey has provided her with invaluable learning. 

Flexibility & increased access in online programs

As a Knoxville native, the BSSW online program appealed to Caitlin as she watched the success of the program grow in undergraduate social work program rankings, becoming more competitive in the collegiate space.  

When weighing her options, Caitlin chose an online program versus an in-person program for convenience as well as continued work capabilities. As with many online students, Caitlin relies on her income to financially support securing her bachelor’s degree.  

The flexibility of earning a college degree online allows working students like Caitlin, to fund their education and not compromise their work schedules to do so. The fully online, asynchronous format of UT’s BSSW program allows her to work and take classes concurrently.

I am thankful that UT has so many valuable resources for students like myself who are trying to build a successful future.  I have had multiple professors who made me truly feel like they were invested in my education. I’ve felt so strongly supported and lifted up. 

– Caitlin Steele, online student, Bachelor of Science in Social Work

“The BSSW program at UT has really exceeded my expectations,” shares Caitlin. “Not only am I learning valuable listening, communication, and practice skills, I am also learning how all of these things are interrelated. Learning the layers of how one action, thought, etc., impacts totally different systems has made me feel more confident navigating the world.” 

The journey to becoming a social worker

For the last five years, Caitlin’s role has been dedicated to social work related to managing programs in the nonprofit sector, specifically aging. Currently, Caitlin works full-time as a program coordinator for the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee. 

Online learning allows me to “have it all”. I get to thrive in my workplace, further strengthening my resume while earning a degree that will enhance the work that I’m doing.

– Caitlin Steele

Caitlin saw that UT’s online BSSW program is filled with benefits–flexibility, increased access, and quality education.   

“I knew that an in-person program wouldn’t be able to fit into my work schedule,” Caitlin shares. Once enrolled in the BSSW online program, “It felt like a dream come true to take care of my family while pursuing higher education.” 

Additionally, she is an active member of the Tennessee Healthcare Social Workers Society and was recently awarded a paid research assistantship at UT, partnering with two separate research studies to achieve their respective goals. 

UT’s faculty & staff support online students

Caitlin explains, “I have been blown away at every single turn. From the professors who carve out time with me to help me enhance my own learning to the advisors and administrative staff that answer all of my questions at any point in the day.”   

A great example of this is when Caitlin met with Professor Horn during office hours to discuss an assignment.  

“During that meeting, I never felt rushed. That professor took an hour and a half out of his time to go line by line through my assignment with me, so we both understood each other’s perspectives. He also asked about my goals and wants from my education, explaining that it helps him give the best feedback for what I’m working toward. I just found that interaction profound, and it really gave me confidence that the College of Social Work team really does want each student to succeed individually.” Caitlin adds, “Shout out to you, Professor Horn!” 

Caitlin’s goal is to use her education to better the lives of others and leave the world a better place. With the support of UT’s staff and professors and program peers, she feels better prepared to fulfill this aspiration. She encourages current and future students to say “yes” to the vast opportunities that the program offers and tap into the village UT builds around them to facilitate their success.  

Conquering challenges as a first-generation college student

Pursuing higher education as a first-generation college student comes with its own set of challenges, which was no different in Caitlin’s situation.   

“One thing I wasn’t prepared for was how much support I would need to be able to navigate my own experience,” Caitlin states.  

Figuring out how to apply for scholarships, utilize campus resources, and find campus resources, have been challenges Caitlin has had to overcome with the university’s assistance. However, Caitlin is confident that beyond this program, the problem-solving skills she has learned during her time at UT will play a key role in her quality of life and her effect on the world. 

As someone who wears many hats as a wife, student, and employee, Caitlin has been able to balance and conquer the challenges that have arisen. After completing the program, she feels she will be in a better position to achieve her future goals and continue her higher education.  

After she completes her BSSW, Caitlin shares, “My goal is to graduate with my master’s degree and, hopefully, be in a position to obtain my doctorate as well. I am interested in the macro aspect of social work, meaning I would like to partner with policymakers and nonprofit organizations that address the continuing needs of marginalized groups. I’ve worked under the social work umbrella for nearly a decade, and I want to continue building on that foundation.” 

two women sitting at picnic table near a cherry blossom tree

For More Information

Would you like more information about the bachelor’s online program in Social Work? Take the first step by completing and submitting a Request Information form on the program page.