By Sydney Hakes
In a small department at a small college, social work major Rebekah Pepin is anything but small with her ambitions.
At 34, Pepin has lived all over the country before settling in Plattsburgh. From Portland, Oregon to St. Louis to Brooklyn, New York, she found herself missing the life she grew up in, one in rural Vermont.
“I’m a fifth generation Vermonter,” Pepin said. After living many different places, she “wanted to be closer to family. I also decided it was time to come back to school, and I really wanted to give back to these rural communities that I came from.”
Majoring in social work, and being heavily inspired by her grandfather who worked as an attorney for 59 years, was her way of giving back. Pepin emphasized social work being a practice, that the skills learned in it can be applied to anything. Her main interests focus on mitigation and forensic social work.
Pepin currently interns at the public defender’s office, working with people who have been accused of criminal action, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. She interviews them, assesses them from a life-course perspective, which means that she analyzes their lives within their social, structural, biological and cultural circumstances. She then hands the information over to defense attorneys who analyze the data and then use that information as a part of their defense.
“It’s investigating how the psychological factors of a person can impact those who are tied up in the legal and criminal justice systems,” Pepin said. “I love the work that I get to do there.”
The fall semester brought new opportunities for Pepin and the social work department. They received a grant of $75,000 from the state to research and develop new programs and resources aiding local at-risk youth.
Pepin, Social Work Program Director Akanksha Anand and Assistant Professor Kim McCoy Coleman are heading this project and collaborating with 12 other organizations in the state that received the grant.
The grant was awarded by New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services and Office of Youth Justice to participate in a new initiative, Communities of Practice, designed to support rural youth on a preventative level.
The project is still in its infancy, just getting off the ground, so Pepin is hoping to bring awareness to the work they’re doing and the issues facing rural communities that aren’t commonly addressed.
In an email from the Trauma-informed Learning Collaborative in the North Country and Social Work Community Assessment & Regional Educational Support System explaining the grant, they highlighted three main objectives: “1. Fostering community resilience by conducting a comprehensive needs assessment of the rural youth-justice and family serving organizations of the North County and building learning modules designed specifically to meet them. 2. Promotes organizational resilience by working directly with rural youth-justice serving agencies to measure organizational resilience indicators and provides them with specific resilience-building, trauma-informed recommendations. 3. Seeks to train and sustain the youth justice workforce by designing educational supports, as determined by the needs assessment, and including training on evidence-based practices and policies that have been shown to improve the lives of rural justice-involved youth and those working to help them.”
The National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services reported in a 2009 study that rural areas have higher rates of childhood poverty and a higher probability of adverse childhood experiences than urban areas. Pepin said focusing on youth can pave the way for more successful futures for entire communities.
Pepin is involved in all three aspects of the program. She was not handed this opportunity, but rather advocated for herself to be involved in something she saw as important and relatable. Growing up in a small Vermont town with “not even a stop light,” Pepin personally knows the lack of access to resources the project is working on to provide. The connection has only furthered her drive.
“I’m working as a research assistant and associate for Kim. Along with that, I’ll write articles about our work, communicate with the other state-wide organizations involved, share our research and analyze it,” Pepin said.
Pepin and McCoy Coleman work closely with one another.
Pepin cites her, Ananad and Associate Professor Julie Richards being great mentors for her.
“They’ve essentially kickstarted my career,” Pepin said. “I feel more excited and passionate about this work now more than ever.”
The sentiment is returned by McCoy Coleman, who spoke extensively and ardently about Pepin.
“Rebekah is an exemplary student who is passionate about criminal justice and social work,” McCoy Coleman said. “She is incredibly goal-directed and has chosen forensic social work as her career path. She is a genuine advocate and she brings her unique advocacy skills, passion and professionalism into the classroom and beyond.”
She took the time to highlight Pepin’s work outside the department, volunteering and advocating for incarcerated women. She has been writing letters, giving advice and providing resources like books to those women for years. McCoy Coleman said “She offers them empathy and provides them with hope as they navigate the cold and often unforgiving legal and penal systems.”
Richards, who is also Pepin’s adviser, recommended Pepin as one of the department’s top students.
“She is truly pursuing her calling by interning with the public defender’s office and working on the [youth justice] grant,” Richards said. “She is a champion for all things criminal justice.”
Passionate faculty is a big part of a department that has a unique program, one that Pepin says is specific to Plattsburgh.
“I would describe it as an intimate setting,” Pepin said. “We’re all in the program together for two years, so we’re all in the same classes. It fosters a sense of learning among peers that I don’t think happens in other majors or schools.”
After she graduates in the spring, Pepin said she wants to continue her education. While she takes pride in the work she is doing in Plattsburgh, she’s open to new possibilities. As long as she can continue giving back to the communities she loves, she’s happy to see where the road takes her.
“I chose to leave Vermont, but I also chose to leave New York City and come back to a rural area because I was ready,” Pepin said. “Ready to help out my community and be a part of it again and help those who need services that are lacking.”
For future social workers, Pepin brought her point back to the flexibility of the practice.
“Find your unique skill-set and go from there,” Pepin said. “There is a population for everyone. Explore your options and always remember that you are your own biggest advocate.”