Education Journeys share real-life stories of how education can impact life. We believe that education makes us better citizens, enhances progress, and makes the world a better place.
We recently spoke to Dr. Jason Ostrander, Assistant Professor of Social Work at Sacred Heart University. He discusses the obstacles he faced as an adolescent, how he discovered opportunities through higher education, and what motivates him to keep going.
Tell us a bit about your background, including your education path.
I grew up in rural western Massachusetts in a low-income family. My father worked in a paper mill and my mother worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant, and in other direct service provider jobs. We always worried about my mom and stepfather having enough money to pay the bills. Additionally, my home life was shaped by violence, drug addiction, and alcoholism. The only place I ever really felt safe was in school.
Nobody in my immediate family had ever gone to college. It wasn’t until I went to high school that I started to get an understanding of what college was. My friends were talking about the PSAT and SAT, and I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. This was a time when computers were not readily available, so I used the computer in the guidance office to explore. I would search for things like: What are SATs? What is a standardized test? What is college? I was intrigued by the college path but perplexed that nobody had ever talked about this option with me.
While doing my college research on the school’s computer, I stumbled on a Massachusetts law that pays for high school seniors to go to community college during their senior years. My high school vice-principal was very helpful, and he approved my application to attend the local community college, where, once matriculated, I realized that I learned better in the college format. Much as I had already felt safe in school, in community college, I felt ever freer to be myself, be curious, and be encouraged to learn about things outside the paths between home and the immediate community.
After two years of community college, I transferred to Elms College and completed my bachelor’s in social work. From there, I earned my MSW and Ph.D. from the School of Social Work at the University of Connecticut.
Did you ever encounter a hurdle in your higher education journey, and if so, how did you overcome it?
I have struggled with post-traumatic and related mental health issues since childhood. Mine is one of those “invisible” disabilities, the kind that no one knows you have until you let them into your inner sphere of friendship and camaraderie. At various times throughout my schooling and professional life, my PTSD has been both a hindrance and a strength. I have actually felt compelled to achieve more, for example, by focusing on my work as an antidote to anxiety.
During my first semester at Elms College, I thought hard about taking a break between my BSW and my MSW, largely because I was struggling to stay at Elms at all. I had had such a difficult time just as I transferred into the four-year college. But during my first semester, I managed to convince myself it would be better to stay. By Spring semester, I was embraced by an amazing group of friends and was lifted in their company to become very socially and academically active in the Elms community. Together, my friends and I organized and participated in food and clothing drives, held a peace vigil, and otherwise enjoyed the social release typically enjoyed by undergraduates. I was determined that my mental health struggles were not going to prevent me from engaging fully in the life and activities of my education and in the enduring friendships to be made in a college setting. Despite the challenge of PTSD, I was determined to be successful across all the areas of my young life.
What inspired you to work in higher ed?
My focus within social work is policy and politics—an itty-bitty piece of our profession that most social workers don’t embrace outright. But, as a doctoral student, I became an instructor to BSW and MSW students. Working with them to connect policy to clinical practice became an unwavering passion and many of my students reinforced the passion by embracing the rigor and relevance of policy practice themselves. Although I have been inspired as well by many fine social work educators, I believe the greatest inspiration in my pursuit of a career in higher education has been—and continues to be—my students.
I have also been inspired by students who, in their own journeys, have disclosed to me the challenges they have struggled with from time to time, especially as these challenges have prevented them from engaging fully in classes or in completing assignments on posted due dates. Their honesty and integrity in facing depression, anxiety, and other issues inspires me to reflect on and be driven all the more to pursue with vigor and purpose my career—and to stop when necessary, to take care of myself. Students are a constant inspiration to me in carrying on during rough days, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to offer the support and flexibility—hallmarks of social work practice—to my students in their experience of social work education.
In sum, my students are constantly teaching me. They make me a better professor.
Is there a mentor or a person you’ve looked up to throughout your journey?
The person who has had the most influence on my life is Dr. Mary Brainerd, who I came to know when she directed the BSW program at Elms College. With her support, I was interned in a legislator’s office, which lead, in turn, to my first experience as a caseworker.
Another mentor was Nancy Humphreys. Dr. Humpreys pioneered the idea of political social work as a profession. I interned with her and, through her contacts, worked with Congressional offices in their efforts to influence and create policy.
Both Dr. Brainerd and Dr. Humphreys encouraged me to apply to doctoral programs and earn a Ph.D in social work. They saw something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself—that as a social work professional, I should be teaching. I was hesitant and pushed back quite a bit because I wasn’t sold that I wanted to be in school rather than working directly in policy practice. But I trusted their guidance, applied to programs, and I received a full ride to the University of Connecticut. I finished my Ph.D. in just over four years, then began as Dr. Ostrander to work full time in education.
What advice would you give to students who are facing obstacles similar to yours?
Offering advice to students whose diversity and uniqueness I recognize and respect requires unique conversations to be worthwhile. However, for all my students—as well as family, friends, and colleagues in social work faculty and practice—I would suggest that your success is determined by your belief in your ability and the passion that drives you to achieve your goals. I’d add that students shouldn’t let the comments or criticism of others define them; rather, students should define themselves. Students can be highly successful when taking but one class at a time and should embrace that approach if it’s the logical path to achieving longer term goals. I also urge students to find a mentor or mentors who know the systems they wish to navigate and will guide them and support them with their experience and knowledge. I offer this advice from my experience and fully from my heart—after all, my mentors guided and supported me in taking a career path that I wouldn’t trade for any other social work role.