When she was growing up in a small South Carolina town, Emma Pedersen would watch the news and get angry.
“I remember the Flint, Mich., water crisis, and I would wonder, ‘How does this even happen?,’” Pedersen says. “I would listen to reports about issues – women’s rights, the racial divide, gender identity, the environment – and they would make me angry, or they would make me sad.”
Pedersen entered the university with a different major, but after meeting with advisors and focusing on the type of work she knew she wanted to do, she moved to the College of Social Work after her first semester.
“I want to do work that makes me feel something,” she says. “When I would watch those news stories, I felt hopeless, like how could I ever make a difference. If you're angry about something, get in there, get involved and do something. I see social work as a career that will allow me to do that.”
After taking an elective course her junior year that introduced environmental social work, something clicked.
Now a senior, Pedersen hopes to use her degree with a career in environmental advocacy.
“I want to tackle those big systemic issues through community advocacy work,” she says. “I want to help address the gaps in the system that are leading to the disparities in the quality of life.”
Environmental advocacy is an emerging field in social work. What about it appeals to you?
In social work, we look at the person and environment they live in such as their family life, their social life and economic status. I feel like a big factor that affects people's lives is the actual environment. It can lead to health disparities as well as an inequitable distribution of resources. When you look at communities and populations that are more affected by environmental issues, you begin to see a trend of that it is the lower socioeconomic communities that are most impacted by natural disasters and are consistently where factories or prisons are being built. They choose these places because they know that people in these communities don't have the knowledge or the resources to resist. I want to help educate and empower these communities with resources to fight back.
Your interest in environmental advocacy and macro social work led you to create a new student organization. You’re also involved in other leadership roles on and off campus. What motivated you to become involved with these organizations?
When I became interested in environmental advocacy, I realized I needed to be an advocate for myself and for other students interested in macro social work to create more opportunities in our curriculum to gain experience. Our organization, called Students Promoting Advocacy Through Macro Social Work, also hopes to strengthen the bridge between micro and macro work. They're so interconnected; what is passed and implemented at the macro level is what you practice at the micro level.
As our organization has grown and raised awareness of macro social work, the college has seen the impact and has been super supportive of events and the importance of students getting more experiences outside of class.
I’m also vice president of the Undergraduate Social Work Student Association, and I’m the student representative with the South Carolina chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, which provides another opportunity to raise awareness of the interdependence of micro and macro social work.
If you're not seeing the opportunities you want, then become your own advocate in creating them. That’s what motivates me.
Describe our experience at the College of Social Work.
I'm so happy I found this community. You can walk into Hamilton, and you don't have to leave the building or go anywhere else on campus to get anything I need – food, snacks, someone to talk to, a printer. Our cohort and the faculty and staff feel like a family. I get one-on-one time, and the professors are invested in you. It feels like I go to a small college even though USC is a large school.