Psychology student to pursue doctoral program

April 11, 2017
Sakara Wages

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Sakara Wages, a senior psychology major at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville from Chicago, Illinois, hopes to improve the quality of life for those who are vulnerable by helping improve social welfare policy. She will accomplish the first step toward reaching this goal when she earns a Bachelor of Science in psychology in May, and she recently found out that she is another step closer to attaining her goal – she has been accepted into the Social Welfare doctoral program at the School of Social Work at UW-Madison.

The doctoral program works with the State of Wisconsin to improve the effects of public policy on vulnerable populations. According to the UW-Madison website, the program strives to develop scholars, leaders and social work educators who will advance knowledge about social work, social welfare policy and intervention strategies from a behavioral and social science perspective to improve the quality of life of individuals, families, groups, communities and organizations. The program will take approximately five years to complete: three years for course work and two years for dissertation. Wages’ future peers recently assessed the impact of income on reunification among families with children in out-of-home care and their results led to changes in Wisconsin law.

“Learning was so empowering, and I was always left with questions. Somewhere along the way, I stopped pursuing a degree, and started chasing knowledge.”

                                 –Sakara Wages

Wages first became interested in applying for the Ph.D. program when her advisor, Dr. Elizabeth Gates, chair of the department of psychology at UW-Platteville, suggested she look into social work. Initially, Wages considered social practice, but as the child of two social workers, she decided against it because she knew the toll it would take on her emotionally. After doing further research, she discovered the types of research produced at UW-Madison, including articles responsible for changing laws. “I was immediately interested in the ‘Wisconsin Idea,’ the idea that education should affect the lives of the communities,” said Wages. “I was sold when I found they were working on an article investigating the well-being of sibling caregivers, as I have been my teenage brother’s guardian for a number of years.” 

Gates said Wages possesses the knowledge, skills and abilities to be successful in the doctorate program endeavor. “Sakara stands out as one of my favorite students I have taught during my 16-year tenure at UW-Platteville,” said Gates. “She is curious and articulate and asked thought-provoking questions in class addressing sensitive topics such as racism, sexism, discrimination and poverty. Because of her knowledge of current events and public policy, she always kept me on my toes. I greatly appreciated having her in class, as she was not afraid of sharing her opinions, even if they differed from her peers. The trait I admire the most about Sakara is her tenacity. She has struggled with many life stressors that a typical 20-year old college student who has financial support from his or her family does not. However, no matter how stressful life gets, she puts her head down and focuses on her studies. She always perseveres.” 

Dr. Amy Nemmetz, assistant professor of criminal justice at UW-Platteville, agreed. “I have truly enjoyed having Sakara in my Introduction to Criminal Justice class this semester,” Nemmetz said. “She is vocal in class, addresses tough controversial issues and is academically strong. She also poses excellent questions and thinks critically about course topics. Furthermore, she is a driven student; while working on the necessary paperwork for her upcoming Ph.D. program, a move to another city, and graduation, she continues to excel in the classroom. Sakara is truly a role model for UW-Platteville students. I look forward to hearing about her professional success in the social welfare field.”

On Dec. 1, 2016, Wages applied for the doctorate program. The application process included the submission of a writing sample, official transcript, statement of reason for graduate study, résumé, three letters of recommendation and official graduate record examination scores. On Feb. 15, she was elated to find out she had been accepted into the program. “I felt vindicated,” Wages said. “There was no longer any question as to whether I’d be successful. I was awestruck when I realized that I could actually affect change with my work. What better way to spend the next five years?”

The field of social welfare faces many challenges, noted Wages. “Social Welfare encompasses many areas, including welfare systems, child welfare and elderly welfare, to name a few,” Wages said. “The most difficult challenges facing these areas are the questionable practices that sound the proverbial dog whistle, often discriminatory practices such as the teen parent restrictions on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, mandatory child support for welfare recipients and unemployment restrictions.”

The journey that led to Wages being accepted into the doctoral program began with a personal decision she made to return to school after a period of time working after high school. “I came back to school just like most people; a high school diploma was only enough to survive, and not enough to live,” Wages said. “I began with the sole intention of improving my life. However, when I became a student at UW-Platteville, something shifted. Learning was so empowering, and I was always left with questions. Somewhere along the way, I stopped pursuing a degree, and started chasing knowledge.” 

As a student, Wages has faced a number of challenges. At about the same time she enrolled at UW-Platteville, she became the legal guardian of her teenage brother. She receives little financial support, so she must work to support herself and her brother. Trying to balance the pressures of academics and work with the pressures of providing for her and her brother’s needs as well as the pressures of providing her brother with the guidance and emotional support he needs as he navigates through high school has often been difficult, financially and emotionally.

“As a student, employee and guardian to a teenager, I have found it challenging to find a healthy, yet sustainable balance,” said Wages. “I have very little financial support, so working is necessary; I have to clothe and provide for my brother and me. As much as I would like to take on every employment position possible, I recognize that a hectic work schedule isn’t conducive to my education and overall wellbeing. It has taken meticulous budgeting and this would not be possible if not for professors ensuring that I have a steady stream of employment opportunities, scholarships and grants.” 

Wages offered advice for students facing challenges and adversity: “I advise them to take advantage of their resources and professors,” Wages said. “Even as a Peer Assisted Learning leader and tutor, I use the Algebra Skills Center, the Writing Center and office hours. I have my people in the UW-Platteville community whom I can be candid with, and who fight for and with me. Both of the abovementioned challenges were ameliorated because of my people.”

Wages has been actively engaged in academic experiences throughout her tenure as a student at UW-Platteville, including a summer internship with the Grant County Drug Treatment Court in Lancaster, Wisconsin, and she is confident that her learning experiences have prepared her for the doctoral program at UW-Madison and her future career. “At UW-Platteville, I learned objectivity,” said Wages. “I learned critical thought. I was taught how to ask questions and equipped with the methodological tools to answer them. I was treated as a junior scholar and molded into a scientist. My specific courses were the exact preparation required to succeed in the School of Social Work at UW-Madison, thanks to the foresight of a very keen advisor, Dr. Gates.”

Wages will complete her education at UW-Platteville this May, maintaining a 3.67 grade point average and earning straight A’s for the fall 2016 semester. She will serve as one of the College of Liberal Arts and Education’s commencement speakers.

Upon graduation, Wages hopes to continue spreading interest and knowledge within the field of social work. “I have uncovered a dedication to learning and mentoring, and I plan to spread this passion for science and service through my work as an instructor/scholar,” she said. 

Wages’s long-term goal is to open a transitional living program for youths in addition to becoming a professor. “I want to be the change in every life I touch,” Wages said.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, Communications Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, hamerl@uwplatt.edu

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