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Helping Others Is Personal for Penn Social Work Student

Ashley Blake

Authored by: Jill DiSanto

Photography by: Courtesy of Ashley Blake

Student Life


Ashley Blake’s family has gone through a lot.

Blake, now 30 and an advanced standing master of social work student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice, sees her personal experiences as a foundation on which to build a career focused on helping others.

She grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and earned her bachelor’s degree in social work at Eastern Michigan University.

Blake says as a young child, she witnessed poverty and families torn apart from substance abuse and incarceration. It was these heart-wrenching challenges that inspired her to become a social change agent.

“My childhood has played a huge role in my interest in the social work field,” Blake says. “Knowing in every way, physically, mentally, emotionally, how crucial it is for individuals to have access to resources, services and people who care, I feel compelled to ensure those supports are available to anyone and everyone who needs them.”

She has a deep understanding of how accessibility ties closely to social policy initiatives and social justice.

As a part of her studies at Social Policy & Practice, Blake’s field placement is with the Goldring Re-Entry Initiative, a program designed to assist incarcerated people transition back into society. The program’s mission is to break the cycle of recidivism, or the likelihood that someone will re-offend and return to jail, while simultaneously providing skills training for graduate students interested in social work and criminal justice.

Students meet with currently and previously incarcerated men and women, conduct weekly group seminars and coordinate with community agencies on behalf of clients.

This year, Blake will be assigned a caseload of approximately seven clients.

Three months before each client is released from the Philadelphia Prison System and three months after, she will meet with him or her.

The continuum-of-care model that the GRI uses bridges the service gap between the jail and the community in order to support clients in the transition process.

People leaving prison face numerous barriers to successful reintegration. A large majority of the population in prison has limited work experience, low educational levels and few vocation skills; also, many have health-related issues such as mental illness or substance abuse.

The social work students play a crucial role at GRI. Without them, the formerly incarcerated people they serve would have limited access to resources and inadequate support, a recipe that increases the likelihood of going back to jail.

“A big part of my interest in this field placement is the opportunity that I have to just be a resource and an advocate to those folks who have the debilitating label of ‘felon,’” Blake says.

This semester, she’s hoping to join the Association of Black Social Workers on campus, while juggling her field placement, academic studies, as well as her recent relocation to Philadelphia. Blake, her husband, Jason, and their dog moved from Portland, Ore., earlier this summer.

Blake will graduate in May. She then plans to look for a position in the Philadelphia area that combines her program management and practice skills.

“We need people out there who are willing and able to call out inequities while working to fix them,” Blake says, “and I don’t think I’d be happy doing anything else.”


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