From FBI to UK: How Online Students Discover Passion for Social Work

LEXINGTON, Ky. (January 24, 2023) — Joel did not begin his career in education with any intention of pursuing a job with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—let alone studying for his master’s degree online at the University of Kentucky.

“I taught for 13 years as a science teacher at the high school. My wife and I were having our second child and decided we weren’t making enough money to have another child,” said Joel (to protect his identity, we refer to Joel only by his first name). “So I decided to get a job in a laboratory because I had a biology degree.”

But a surprise was in store.

After announcing to his class that he would not be returning the following year, the parents of one student—who was employed by the FBI—suggested that he consider a career with the agency.

“I went ahead and applied,” Joel said. “A year later I went to the academy.”

Fast forward 19 years, he’s making another career change—this time to serve the growing need for mental health services and resources for law enforcement and first responders.

Joel credits his own career and life experience as the inspiration behind his decision to specialize in social work.

“In this type of career, you see a lot of things that people shouldn’t see, and it accumulates over time. I had a hard time processing it and I didn’t know how to deal with it,” he said. “Our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at the FBI was a beneficial resource for me. I became an advocate for EAP and was interested in helping others. As I got closer to the end of my career, I thought I would continue this type of this work.”

Enter the UK Master of Social Work (MSW) programme.

Joel currently serves as the FBI EAP peer and EAP coordinator for the San Antonio Division where he is based. With a demanding schedule, the opportunity to pursue an online degree has been crucial.

“There was no way I could promise I could be in class in person because my job takes me away for weeks at a time,” he said.

The MSW is completely asynchronous, meaning that the interactive curriculum can be completed when it is convenient for the student. However, instructors offer opportunities for “live” support through optional synchronous classes, as well as through online office hours.

“Joel exemplifies the versatility of the Master of Social Work degree,” said Kalea Benner, associate professor and associate dean for academic and student affairs in the College of Social Work (CoSW). “His desire to better support the individuals and families affected by trauma and loss is commendable and certainly reflects his dedication to the people he serves.”

In addition to the courses, Joel completed a practical field training experience at an alternative law enforcement center.

“I learned that there are many different roles a social worker can play — even within just one organization,” he said.

The opportunity to help law enforcement handle mental health calls, gather research for a new program, and assist with therapy sessions gave Joel a new perspective.

While he admits returning to the classroom was not without its challenges, Joel encourages non-traditional students to pursue their passions.

“The biggest piece of advice I can give a prospective student is just to be patient — it’s all going to be new at first,” he said. “Remember to focus on the end product, not on how hard it is this week, but what it leads to.”

As he works to complete his degree, Joel’s final goal serves as an important reminder — mental health matters.

From FBI to UK: How Online Students Discover Passion for Social Work

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