Danielle Redhead, BSW ’19, has been selected by her peers as commencement speaker.

Hometown: Baytown, Texas.

Why social work: I initially came to UT Austin to be a biology major and eventually a doctor. After I took the basic courses, though, I realized that I didn’t actually want to do that. I took a career aptitude test and my top result was social work. At that point I didn’t even know that UT had a social work school! I talked to Alexis George about how I wanted to help people, which is why I had wanted to be a doctor. And she told me about all the things you can do with social work, especially in terms of social justice.

Favorite experience at UT Austin: Co-founding P.O.C.K.E.T. (People of Color Keeping Everyone Tight). I’m grateful for this group and the space we’ve created. Our goal is to celebrate marginalized identities, so for example we coordinated a student-led, inaugural celebration of Black History Month in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. We held an end-of-year social with professor Michele Rountree at Bombay Bistro, and everyone was thanking me for starting this — it was quite an experience! My biggest takeaway is that if you don’t’ feel like you have a space, then you can create that space for yourself.

Most challenging time on the Forty Acres: Honestly all four years have been challenging for different reasons. This semester was definitely the most trying because of the internship. As students, we’d been accustomed to being in a traditional classroom setting. But now I had one class, I was juggling working 30-40 hours a week while trying to potentially balance extra curricular activities. It is also an important transition period because we’re graduating. Trying to think about the future while you’re juggling the present is hard!

Best social work internship moment: My internship was at the UT Law School Criminal Defense Clinic, which mostly serves Travis County individuals who have misdemeanors but can’t afford their own attorneys. If clients needed social services, I connected them. One of the best moments was talking to a client who was a year younger than I. He’s homeless, but he wants to go back to school and get his degree. We talked for an hour and a half about his goals and dreams, his experience in high school and athletics, and he asked about college. I explained how admissions work, how to look for scholarships — things I learned by going through the process and wish I had someone to tell me about that. During one of our last conversations, he told me how thankful he was for all this information. It’s been very fulfilling to see how much drive and resilience people have. Getting to know clients’ backgrounds and seeing them pushing to achieve their goals was an amazing experience. Before going into our field placements, we had only read about client scenarios, but the internship really showed me the value of people’s personal narratives.

Favorite professor/staff member: Vicki Packheiser, who is now retired, ignited my fire. So many times I went into her office hours to talk about homework but we ended talking about bigger issues. I had Shane Whalley for my first social work class, which made me realize how passionate I am about how social work intersects with social justice. Shane has been there for me this whole time to help me work through self-doubt and other issues. Shane is a great professor and role model. Michele Rountree took me under her wing and made me think more about grad school and life after the 40 Acres. I like to call her my “Austin mom,” especially since I haven’t been able to go home during this semester, so she’s been a major source of support. Many other professors and staff have also been so helpful to me: Fiona Conway, Johnny Sullivan, Diane Rhodes, Lori Lewis Connerly, and Alexis George.

On graduation: I’m going to black graduation and also Lavender graduation to support those students. I also helped plan the first-generation graduation program, so I’ll be there to speak, but I won’t receive the stole since I’m not technically a first-generation student. My family is going to come to my own graduation ceremonies. My parents are immigrants from Trinidad and most of my family is there, so I have a lot of people supporting me from afar.

Plans for the future: The current plan is to take a gap year, and do a dual master’s degree in public affairs and social work. As for my immediate goals, I will be relaxing throughout the summer after these four years! I’m excited to do some very Austin things that I’ve never done, like going to Barton Springs, or the Greenbelt or the 360 bridge overlook.

Words of wisdom for the incoming class: It’s okay to not know all the answers for your future. Trust your gut with certain things. Surround yourself with people who fill your gas tank, and do things that fill your gas tank. It’s okay to have a small friend circle. GPA isn’t everything; your grades aren’t a reflection of who you are, they don’t define you, and in the grand scheme of things, employers want to see experience. Don’t overextend yourself for the sake of success. It’s okay to be involved in a few small things and to take care of your mental health. Go to office hours! Professor won’t judge you, and they actually like when you ask for help. Take care of yourself, college is hard!

By Lynda Gonzalez. Posted May 22, 2019.