Kaleigh Emerson’s story is a testament to the versatility of a social work degree. Looking to the future, she is excited about working in the healthcare space, especially when it comes to increasing access in primary care settings. Regardless of the specific role she will eventually take on, her goal is to incorporate clinical knowledge into systems work.

Kaleigh’s Master of Science in Social Work from SHSSW is actually her third higher education degree. She received her bachelor’s degree at Texas Lutheran University and her Master of Public Health at Emory.

She wanted a clinical degree focused in mental health that complimented a more macro-structural perspective. UT Austin, as the flagship school of Texas, was her choice for her second master’s degree.

Kaleigh’s passion for working from a policy and systematic perspective is rooted in her upbringing in rural central Texas. Rural communities, she points out, often have fewer resources and access to care. Many elements affect a community’s access to quality care:  social determinants, age, race and ethnicity, insurance status, and geographic region. Rural areas, like Kaleigh’s childhood community, tend to not have enough providers, let alone specialty providers. She has seen how these issues play out across the lifespan of the individual and the community.

To alleviate this problem, Kaleigh knows that bringing social work values into healthcare leadership roles is vital. Right out of public health school she worked for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, testing models and reimbursement types for primary care transformation. While working in a clinic setting, she particularly noticed the work that social workers were bringing into that space. She believes that social workers can lead the way in increasing mental health in healthcare because of the inherent values in the social work field. “There’s a really important role for social workers to play in healthcare. Our values guide the work we do: social justice, self-determination, dignity,” Kaleigh explains. To her, leading with these values can push towards a lot of change.

During her time at SHSSW, Kaleigh has been proud to be an Integrated Behavioral Health Scholar. This has allowed her to work from an interprofessional perspective and explore and focus on integrated behavioral healthcare, an area of study unique to SHSSW’s program.

As a swimmer, Kaleigh’s favorite part of Austin is the natural swimming pools, particularly Deep Eddy Pool. After graduation, Kaleigh will dive into new projects with the Center for Youth Mental Health at Dell Med. When she looks forward to the horizon of her life, Kaleigh anticipates working in roles that advance innovation. She hopes to take the lessons learned at SHSSW and use them to influence policy and community leadership in healthcare spaces. Her desire is to increase community-driven social work, advocate for the self-determination of clients, and keep working towards justice for all communities. She notes that this isn’t anything different for her—after all, it’s been her goal all along.

Congratulations to Kaleigh Emerson, MSSW ’22.