Illustration of a degree

April 16, 2020

By Ashton Nichols | Longform Editor

When Tashia Pollard was released from the Ohio Reformatory for Women in early 2017, she knew her life had been changed. After starting college in prison and receiving her advancement and transition services degree in social work from Sinclair Community College, she realized she wanted to help people. Today, she’s a junior at Ohio University.

Pollard hopes to pursue her career in human services where she can help people who may be struggling with addiction, depression, abuse, behavior issues or other issues. To achieve this career goal, she’s working to obtain her bachelor’s degree in human services at OU.

“My journey started with human services professionals believing in me, which led me to believe in myself and to tap into a part of myself I didn't know existed,” Pollard, 38, said.

“This program should have started at the very inception of OU. Look around. Human services are everywhere.”-Jacob Okumu, one of the program coordinators and a professor of counseling and higher education

The bachelor’s in human services program first began at OU last Fall Semester. Just six months old, the program has 51 students but is expected to at least double by fall and grow immensely in the future.

Jacob Okumu, one of the program coordinators and a professor of counseling and higher education, was one of the people involved in making this program come to life.

“This program should have started at the very inception of OU,” Okumu, Ph.D., said. “Look around. Human services are everywhere.”

Careers vary vastly within the degree program, but most are about advocating for vulnerable populations in a community. Some jobs include emergency services workers, crisis intervention counselors, rehabilitation case workers, child and adult protective service workers, case managers and more.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, employment of human services workers is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2028.

The program is completely online and only takes two years to complete, so students can choose to learn from anywhere, Okumu said. While some students are taking classes just for the degree, others are combining the human services degree with other majors like education or hospitality.

Traditionally, to have a job like licensed social worker or counselor, people have been expected to have both an undergraduate and graduate degree, then gain 3,000 hours in a hands-on environment in order to qualify for the license. The human services degree surpasses that and allows people to instantly enter the workforce, Okumu said.

Okumu said most students are “adult learners in the field.” The average age of a student is 35, and most are already working a career. This allows students who are just starting out to already have connections with seasoned professionals who are back in school. When the program initially began, students were required to have at least an associate’s degree or 60 undergraduate hours before being admitted. In January, the requirement was changed, so students only need to meet OU’s standard admission requirements.

Parveen Coomar is one of those adult learners based out of California. She’s a 38-year-old student who is currently employed but has decided to return back to school to finish her degree.

“I've always been passionate about helping others and serving within the community,” Coomar said in an email. “I’ve learnt so much about this profession in such a short period of time.”

There are several classes that make this program unique, such as psychology, hospitality, education and counselling. Okumu teaches a class about the Food and Drug Administration and teaches students about FDA requirements and how this impacts what people choose to purchase.

“When you go to Walmart, what should you be looking for?” Okumu said. “What will impact positively the well-being of our communities, especially the marginalized communities in Southeast Ohio and other poor low socioeconomic neighborhoods in the US?”

Yegan Pillay is also a program coordinator and professor of counseling and higher education. He said the program has further reach than many on-campus programs, which has helped students be able to work while continuing their education.

“Offering courses online has given us a different perspective on how to meet students in a generation of students where technology is such a big interface,” Pillay, Ph. D., said. “We have been adding and adopting that interface as well with current students and learning the direction that education is going.”

Okumu also encourages students to participate in service learning, such as working in Ethiopia or with Red Cross International while or after they are taking classes.

“I’m making human development,” Okumu said. “My goal as a program coordinator down the road is so that we are the flash, that we are churning out individuals, ready to go for humanitarian work, ready to go to help with disaster relief, ready to go to help with the opioid crisis.”

“We all have to work with people, but we don’t always know how to work well with people. Building human understanding and human service skills is vital for advancement in the growing fields of today and tomorrow…”-Renee Middleton, dean of the Patton College of Education

Patton College of Education Dean Renee Middleton was one of the core people in creating the program. She said it took about four years of research and course planning to make it happen. She wanted to add this degree program to Patton because the faculty were expertised and desired to help teach students from near and far about human services.

“We all have to work with people, but we don’t always know how to work well with people,” Middleton, Ph. D., said in an email. “Building human understanding and human service skills is vital for advancement in the growing fields of today and tomorrow…”

Even though everything is online, Okumu said he does have office hours where students will drop in and talk to him about anything. Sometimes they talk about school, while other times it is about life in general. He said this is how he knows students are truly understanding their work.

“I know they get it because of my pedagogical approach,” Okumu said. “Why am I here? What am I learning? How do I apply what I have learned?”

Pollard understands. When she graduates in about a year, she said she will have learned about cultural competence, ethics, legal skills to avoid negligence cases and fatalities and more, which has all prepared her for her dreams.

“I am looking forward to working in this field. I believe I have so much to offer because of what I have experienced personally,” Pollard said. “I know life can be (rough), but I know first hand people can change, and situations can get better, and most of all, I am living proof things can and do get better.”

Illustration of Patton College
AUTHOR: Ashton Nichols
EDITOR: Ellen Wagner
COPY EDITOR: Bre Offenberger
ILLUSTRATION: Rilee Lockhart
WEB DEVELOPMENT: Taylor Johnston