While growing up in the small town of Kingsburg — just 20 miles south of Fresno — Julie Wright aspired to expand her horizons and explore beyond her comfort zone. The second-year Master of Social Work student said she always knew she had a purpose bigger than herself.
In 2011, she found that purpose across the globe in Kenya, where she was interning for Empowering Lives International — an organization that provides orphans and families with self-sustaining skills to succeed beyond poverty.
During that trip, her life was forever changed. She met women who were struggling with substance abuse and the effects of sexual violence. She also taught English to orphans and first-aid to village elders living in some of the most rural and desolate areas of the region. Those stories and experiences left her yearning to learn and do more.
“This organization met their clients where they were: in slums, clinics, orphanages or on the side of the red clay roads,” Wright said. “A fire was ignited within me during this first trip to Kenya. Not only did I grow this huge passion and love for Kenya, but at the same time, I fell in love with being a social worker and being able to help people and serve people.”
She planted her goals in East Africa, and watched them flourish while at Fresno Pacific University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in social work. She later returned to Kenya in 2017 — this time as a graduate student in the Fresno State Master of Social Work program.
While there, she helped Hope Matters International develop a psychosocial assessment prototype that she hopes will one day be used by Kenyan social workers in the region. She said the goal is to take a holistic approach with individuals by understanding them as a whole person — physically, spiritually and emotionally — in an effort to better serve them. Today, she is expanding on this work, incorporating it with her master’s thesis on the same subject.
Her dedication for helping others on a global scale earned Wright the Council on Social Work Education’s prestigious Partners in International Education Award, which honors the contributions of social work students as partners in advancing education for international social work. Wright said receiving the award came as a surprise. Faculty in the Department of Social Work Education see it as well-deserved.
“Having worked with Julie very closely, she is exceptionally culturally sensitive and does not believe in merely enforcing Western values and concepts on a developing country. Rather, she works in collaboration and lends what she learns and discusses with the local partners [as to] what is appropriate and what is not and acts in the capacity as a servant learner and guide,” said Dr. Dheeshana Jayasundara, an associate professor in the Department of Social Work Education at Fresno State.
Wright was presented with the award during the Commission on Global Social Work Education meeting, held Nov. 16-20.
This is the second year in a row that students from the Department of Social Work Education have been honored with this award. In 2019, a group of 15 undergraduate and graduate students were recognized for their own global endeavors. In the summer of 2019, the group traveled to and presented their research projects at the International Consortium for Social Development in Indonesia. To this day, they are the first-ever student group to receive the Partners in Education award.
Wright, set to graduate in May 2021, plans to return to Kenya to continue her thesis work when it is safe to travel again. This time, she wants to take the knowledge she gained from her academic experiences to work collaboratively with her Kenyan counterparts.
“For me, social work doesn’t just end in the U.S.,” Wright said. “I want to take what I’ve learned here at Fresno State to serve and empower others. The University provided me with opportunities to seamlessly combine my love for Kenya and the passion I have for this field of work. As a social worker, I know for certain empowerment makes for the most radical course for all transformations.”