As Jonah Freed takes the stage next week to receive his master’s degree, he may reflect on all the places that fostered his interest in mental health and helping immigrants—from Ghana to Peru to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Social Work.
The summer before his senior year of college, Freed found himself six thousand miles from his home in Oak Park, Illinois, helping teachers in the small Ghanian village of Odumase Krobo, to adapt an education program for their students. He wasn’t yet 22.
Despite the culture shock, to Freed it felt like exactly what he was supposed to be doing with his life
“It was nice to get out of the classroom,” said Freed, who taught math and English to 40 students that summer. “I liked being able to apply all of the reading and theory. But even more than that, I liked being able to learn something new every day, meet new people, and learn about a new culture.”
Finding the right fit
After receiving his undergraduate degree, Freed joined the Peace Corps and served for two years as a community health promoter in Jumbilla, a small town in the Amazonas region of Peru. Upon his return to the United States, he worked in international development and as a case manager for a child trauma program. “As I gained more work experience,” said Freed, “social work started to feel like the perfect fit.
Freed learned about the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program, which offers academic financial assistance to returned Peace Corps volunteers. UT’s College of Social Work and College of Nursing are two of only three colleges or schools in Tennessee that partner with the program.
“The work many professors in the College of Social Work are doing to support immigrant communities, especially Hispanic and Latino communities within Tennessee—really aligned with my interests,” said Freed, who graduates with a Master of Science in Social Work this spring.
As a Coverdell Fellow at UT, Freed received a scholarship covering full tuition and fees and a two-year graduate research assistantship. He spent that time supporting research projects focused on immigrant experience, well-being, resilience, and access to resources in East Tennessee and beyond.
Working alongside faculty
Freed, who was named 2022 MSW Student of the Year by the Tennessee chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, worked especially closely with Mary Held, assistant dean of the college’s Nashville campus, whose research focuses on mental health issues facing Latino communities. Over the past academic year Freed worked with Held, social worker and UT alumna Karen Latus, and three Tennessee attorneys, including Eric Amarante, associate professor in UT’s College of Law, to establish Serving Immigrants, or SÍ, a nonprofit organization that connects immigrants with free or low-cost legal, mental health, and casework services. Services are provided in Spanish, which Freed, who serves as SÍ s vice president, speaks proficiently.
“Connecting with a social worker and who invited me into the work she’s doing has probably been one of the best parts of my experience here,” Freed said. “I didn’t go into grad school thinking this is the kind of thing that would be possible.”
But that’s what faculty in the college have worked to provide every student who comes through their doors. During his two years at UT, Freed completed internships directly related to his career interests: first at Dogwood Elementary School in South Knoxville and later at Cherokee Health Systems in Morristown and Talbot, Tennessee.
“A really, really important part of every social work program across the country is field placements and internships,” said Ragan Schriver, associate professor of practice and director of the MSSW program on the Knoxville campus. “A lot of the other top schools have students go find their own internships. Here at UT we’re very intentional, and we help every student get opportunities where they get the most out of their experience.”
Supporting local families
During his internship at Dogwood Elementary School, Freed served a mentor to students, provided culturally responsive trauma-informed case management, and served as a liaison between the school and more than 35 Spanish-speaking families.
“Jonah basically built a caseload of Hispanic families and really focused on pushing resources out to them,” said Kara Strouse, a site coordinator for the Knox Education Foundation. That push included helping families with basic food and hygiene needs, medical care, housing, and other needs.
In April 2021, Freed applied for and received a $10,000 grant to continue supporting the work he was involved in at Dogwood after his time there ended. With the funding, the partnership supporting Latino families at Dogwood expanded this year to include Centro Hispano de East Tennessee and UT’s Hispanic Studies program.
“What separates Jonah is that he’s very perceptive,” Strouse said. “He took time to learn the ins and outs of our families. For years, we had not been able to engage with families at the level we had once Jonah came on board. He is the beginning of turning the tide for how we serve our Latinx families and students.”
Over the past academic year, Freed, who also completed a certificate program in trauma treatment, provided behavioral health consultations and individual and family therapy in English and Spanish to children and adults in Hamblen County. He specifically requested to commute to the location when meeting with Cherokee Health Systems. “I wanted to provide more Spanish speakers the opportunity to have therapy directly in their native language since otherwise, phone interpretation is required.”
That field placement has helped set Freed up for the next step in his career. After graduation, he will move to Denver to learn to effectively facilitate group therapy and be trained further in evidence-based treatments. Freed plans to continue serving in the role of vice president and board member for SÍ.
“The past two years at the College of Social Work have been invaluable in strengthening my resolve, developing new skills, and forming lasting connections with others committed to global social justice,” Freed said.
This spring the university will award approximately 5,250 degrees and certificates—3,816 undergraduate degrees, 1,229 graduate degrees and certificates, 122 law degrees, and 83 veterinary medicine degrees. Additionally, 14 Air Force ROTC cadets and 23 Army ROTC cadets will be commissioned.
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