How Leadership Students at Macomb College Are Channeling Their Histories Into Action

The Community Leadership Certificate at Macomb Community College in Detroit is often used to enhance any number of degrees at the college, including those in the public service and business management sectors. But many social work students, in particular, have found the certificate program particularly useful as they continue pursuing their careers and professions.

“Social work is a natural fit for the leadership certificate,” said Professor Rachelle Zarenek, who oversees the CLP program at Macomb. “It helps enhance what social workers will be doing, naturally, in their careers, so it’s kind of the cherry on top of their education.”

Many of program’s students, moreover, have used the Macomb College leadership certificate to channel often difficult elements of their past into action that can benefit others. We caught up with three graduates of the CLP-affiliated Community Leadership Certificate to see how the program has prepared them to pursue careers, or further their education, in the social worker sector.

“I realized, through this program, that where I actually wanted to be was in the community.” –Christina Young

Prior to pursuing her degree in social work, Christina Young, a 33-year-old graduate of the certificate program, and a mother of two, already had a lot of experience in the field of mental health. She had worked as a medical assistant for many years, as well as in a couple of group homes for adults with intellectual disabilities.

It was through this work that she eventually met Professor Rachelle Zarenek, who  encouraged her to enroll. “The program really sucked me in,” Christina said. “I was so eager about other ways that I could benefit the community.”

If it weren’t for the certificate program, Christina—who is now pursuing her social work degree at Wayne State University—suspects she’d still be working in a hospital setting. “That’s what I had done before, and it was great work, but I realized through the program that where I actually wanted to be was in the community.”

While Christina points to many skills and invaluable lessons from her time with the program, like the ability to work with diverse groups of people and organize them to affect change, she says the most impactful part of her time was what came after. “I found my job through Professor Zaranek,” she said. Christina’s current boss, who works at the Macomb County’s Crisis Center, spoke to her class one day about her work. Christina was so inspired, she “went right up to her afterwards and asked if they were hiring.” They weren’t, at the time, but Christina was determined, and sent along her resume anyway. “She saw how much I wanted this, and basically created a position for me.”

Christina is working within the area of suicide prevention, she says, in part because it’s an issue close to her heart. “I went through a domestic violence situation,” she said. “And so did my kids.” While this was eight years ago, and Christina says she and her children have all moved on, she remains struck by the lack of resources available to people in similar crises. “I want to be able to help people who are feeling as bad now as I did then,” she said.

Christina has wasted no time applying her leadership skills to her new job. Soon after starting, she came up with a simple but impactful idea after one of her kids came home from school with a painted rock as part of a school project. Inspired, she gathered a bunch of rocks and paint, and took her kids and their friends to a park around the block. They spent the afternoon painting rocks, some with inspirational quotes, others with bright designs. The activity encouraged other neighborhood kids to join. As they painted, Christina was struck by how the art project helped many of the kids open up about their struggles with anxiety and depression. One boy spoke with Christina about his fears coming out to his mom as transgender. Another spoke about a friend’s mother who had recently passes away.

Recognizing the power of the project, Christina applied her leadership training by reaching out to the City of New Baltimore to ask for funding to expand her rock painting project. The city agreed, and there are now three of Christina’s “Kindness Rock Gardens” located across the county. “Before I would have been a nervous wreck if I had to go before a city panel and ask for money like that,” she said. But her social work training, and her education at Macomb, “helped me to apply certain skills and be more confident.”

“I learned how to deal with people, which you need if you’re going to go into social work” – Bob Anderson

Bob Anderson, a 52-year-old graduate of the certificate program, originally from Troy, Michigan, spent 28 years in prison prior to enrolling at Macomb College. And at first, he had little interest in pursuing higher education.

“I wanted to be a truck driver when I first got out,” he said. “I figured it would be easy, and a decent paycheck, but I couldn’t get the funding to afford the license.” So instead, he enrolled in school. He figured he’d eventually be able to find the money he needed, through a combination of grants, loans and work, to afford the license, so at first he said he just enrolled in “whatever coursework tickled my fancy.” He took a geology course, for instance, and a welding class.

Eventually, however, he met Professor Rachelle Zaranek, who introduced him to the CLP program, and helped inspire him to consider his educational future. “Once I realized I wanted to pursue a degree, I got everything together, and took all the coursework I needed to for the community leadership certificate,” he said. Eventually, he transferred to Oakland University, where he is currently pursuing his social work degree.

He completed the certificate program at Macomb last year, and says he’s taken much of what he’s learned with him as he continues pursuing his studies. “I learned a lot about politics, politicians, lobbying, activism, social policies, workplace psychology, organizations, types of people, types of leaders,” he said. But probably the most useful takeaway from his time in the program, he said, “is how to deal with people — you need to know how to do that if you’re going to go into social work.”

As for his plans once he graduates with his degree, Bob says he’ll be “somewhere helping people,” he said. “I’m trying to turn my negative past into a positive future.” He says he specifically wants to work with others who have experienced incarceration since he knows, first hand, the many barriers that come along with those touched by the criminal justice system.

“I want to be an example to others to take advantages of the opportunities like the community leadership certificate when they come your way,” he said. “Once you’re out of prison it can help you stay out.”

“If what you hope to do is deal with people or care for people — really, anything to do with people — I definitely encourage you to look into the program.” –Isaiah White

Isaiah White, a 34-year-old graduate of the Community Leadership Certificate from Highland Park, Michigan, enrolled in the army in 2002, where he served until receiving a medical retirement discharge in 2014. That same year, he started at Macomb College with a simple goal in mind: “I wanted to find ways to help other veterans,” he said.

Isaiah figured the best way he could do so was through pursuing a social work degree. “I suffer from PTSD myself,” he said, using the acronym for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said he personally understands, then, the beneficial role that psychology and social work fields can have on the lives of veterans. “There’s such a high suicide rate among veterans, we really need people to talk to, but it can be hard for a lot of people to relate,” he said.

The most impactful part of the Community Leadership Certificate, he says, was the internship, a required component of the program, which he fulfilled at the Veterans Service Department of the college. “I learned there how important it is to not just have the veterans involved in these conversations, but their families, too,” he said. “Change doesn’t come without the families.”

Isaiah sees the applicability in the organizing and leadership components of the program to his future career in social work—skills that couldn’t be more different, he says, from the way he was taught leadership in the military. “It’s easy to just point at someone and give direction and say, ‘do this,’ and expect people to not question whatever your superior tells you,” Isaiah said of his military training. “It’s a lot harder to understand what might motivate someone to do something, or how to guide someone to where they need to be.”

Isaiah plans to continue his studies until he earns his degree in social work, after which he hopes to open his own private social work office that will strictly serve veterans. The role the Community Leadership Certificate and Professor Zarenek played in helping inspire and encourage this vision, he said, “was beyond anything I expected from anybody.”

As for other students at Macomb who are considering the Certificate, Isaiah has this piece of advice to share: “If what you hope to do is deal with people or care for people — really, anything to do with people — I definitely encourage you to look into it,” he said. “The program helps you start to pay attention to things you might have been ignoring before.”