Campus Life

UWF social work students travel Underground Railroad

Social work students from the University of West Florida recently relived the Underground Railroad as part of a study away experiential learning project, sponsored by the UWF College of Professional Studies Emerge Program.

The purpose of the trip was to help the students gain a deeper understanding of global conditions of diverse populations, specifically African Americans in their continuous path to freedom.

The group of 24 undergraduate and graduate students, accompanied by Drs. Laura Edler and Melinda Lewis, assistant professors in the Department of Social Work, spent April 1-6 visiting Underground Railroad sites from Memphis, Tenn. to Cincinnati to learn about the historic struggle for freedom in the United States and the courageous people involved.

Edler said she and Lewis organized the trip to provide a real-life experience outside of the classroom.

“Textbooks don’t always paint a clear picture,” she said. “This trip was a way to help the students get a real idea of what people have had to go through to meet their potential, despite struggles.”

Arthur McCovery, a senior social work major, said the trip enhanced his overall education at UWF and made him more eager to pursue a job in the social work field, helping those who need it most.

“It was an eye-opening experience to learn what the African American slaves had to go through, but it was wonderful to know there were people who were willing to put their lives on the line to help them gain freedom,” McCorvey said. “As a social work student, I look at those abolitionists who provided services to the slaves when they couldn’t free themselves, and it reminds me why I went into social work. I want to be a champion for those who are still being oppressed and treated unfairly, and to help them get resources so they can be as self-sufficient as possible.”

During the trip, each of the students was responsible for making a quilt square, symbolizing the quilts that were used on the Underground Railroad to mark safe houses or point slaves in the right direction. They also kept a journal to record their thoughts throughout the experience, and will present their findings as part of a post-trip reflection activity.

The graduate students who participated in the trip, under the direction of Lewis, focused on how the important historical events of slavery and struggles for freedom relate to issues of modern day human trafficking and global human rights injustices today.

“Understanding how historical factors relate to modern struggles helps to create better 21st Century social work practitioners,” Lewis said. “A great deal of collaborative planning and combined effort was put forth by all to make this learning journey an outstanding success for both undergraduate and graduate students alike.”

Latonia Jennings, a graduate student pursuing her master’s in social work, said the experience meant a lot on both a personal and academic level.

“Personally, I was blessed to be humbled by this experience,” she said. “As a professional, my thinking was challenged and corrected. I learned the importance of looking beyond what you are told and that which others would have you believe. As a social worker, I need to challenge my thinking, question the obvious and take advantage of opportunities such as this to learn and grow.”

This trip was part of the UWF College of Professional Studies Emerge Program, which was developed to help faculty design and utilize high impact practices, such as collaborative assignments and projects, diversity/global learning and learning communities, which deepen student learning and engagement. By using a combination of techniques, these practices raise levels of performance, retention and success for all students.

For additional information about the Emerge Program, visit