Social work student Sydney Drennen looking to support UMSL community as Newman Civic Fellow
Sydney Drennen is clear in her commitment to push for social change.
It’s one of the reasons she found her fit in the University of Missouri–St. Louis School of Social Work after trying out a few other academic paths. Drennen immersed herself in children’s advocacy and eagerly took advantage of service opportunities, including a trip last summer to the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, for the RedCan Graffiti Jam.
“I’ve always wanted to help people,” said Drennen, who started a suicide prevention organization while still in high school and helped raise money for other organizations in St. Louis.
“She has a natural affinity for others and a natural tendency toward advocacy – toward wanting to make sure everyone has equal access and is cared for appropriately,” said Dana Klar, an associate teaching professor of child advocacy studies.
It’s precisely why Klar thought to nominate Drennen to serve as a Newman Civic Fellow during the 2022-23 academic year. Chancellor Kristin Sobolik and Patricia Zahn, UMSL’s director of community outreach and engagement, supported her nomination for the yearlong program from Campus Compact.
The program is designed to recognize and support student public problem solvers at member institutions. Campus Compact selects students based on their potential for public leadership and their work with communities, and the fellowship helps them develop strategies for social change.
Campus Compact looks to build a network of connected and engaged student leaders who can support one another in making positive change. Drennen was among 173 students from 38 states and Mexico selected for the 2022-2023 cohort.
“I felt so supported and seen and valued by Dana, Patricia and the chancellor and everyone at UMSL that brought me to where I am now,” Drennen said. “I just feel really grateful and honored that they trust me to do this.”
Drennen appreciates it that much more because of the roundabout path she’s taken to this point.
Finding her calling
A native of Ballwin, Missouri, she first enrolled at Missouri State University after graduating from Marquette High School. She had planned to study kinesiology and thought she’d one day become a personal trainer.
But neither the major nor the school wound up fitting her.
“I just did not have a great experience my first semester,” Drennen said. “It was like a two-day turnaround where I came home over winter break and broke down to my mom and I was like, ‘I don’t want to go back there. I can’t do it. But I don’t want to drop out of college.’”
Drennen’s father had graduated from UMSL and she knew Associate Professor Jim Henry from being involved in the local music scene, so she decided to transfer to UMSL without even touring the campus.
She started out taking courses in music and for a brief time was weighing whether to focus on performance or education. But she ultimately decided she needed to go in a completely different direction.
Drennen credits her grandmother, a social worker, for telling her to give social work a try in her second semester on campus.
“She’s my grandma, so she’s going to say this anyways, but she just thinks that I’m genuine and caring and empathetic and persistent and driven to make change,” Drennen said.
After Drennen started in social work, her advisor suggested she enroll in a child maltreatment course, offered jointly with the Child Advocacy Studies program. She found herself fascinated by the subject matter and made a connection with her professor, Klar.
It was enough to convince her she’d found her passion.
Drennen has developed relationships with a number of other professors in the School of Social Work and Child Advocacy Studies, and she’s appreciated how knowledgeable they are about their subjects and how supportive they are of students.
She also loves how connected and invested they are in the community – both near and far.
After teaching Drennen in two classes, Klar approached her about being an Active Learning Assistant, specifically working with a cohort of nine Alaska Native social work students from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks receiving virtual instruction in three core courses of UMSL’s Child Advocacy Studies certificate program as part of an initiative being funded by a $500,000 grant from the Department of Justice.
“She was just excellent – always available, always there working with the students,” Klar said. “I just saw an extreme commitment and a constant willingness to go above and beyond. I just became very enamored with her abilities and capacity and commitment to service.”
Midway through the same semester, in March of 2021, Drennen began working at the nonprofit Girls in the Know to fulfill her undergraduate practicum. She facilitated programming for 9- to 13-year-old female-identifying individuals on empowerment, body image, safety and puberty among other topics while providing them a safe space to share, explore and learn about themselves.
Drennen continued working at Girls in the Know through last December while completing her bachelor’s degree. But she took a break last summer to volunteer for the trip to the Cheyenne River Nation.
“That was a super big learning experience for me,” Drennen said. “We supported the organizations there in a Graffiti festival, which was super cool, and we got to talk to the different agencies that were on the reservation and hear from the people that live there and the elders and the highly respected people in the community.
“I cannot imagine getting those opportunities anywhere else. I just feel really grateful that I made those connections with my professors.”
Preparing for her career
Once she committed to social work, Drennen knew she’d eventually pursue a master’s degree, recognizing its significance in landing a job and getting ahead in the field.
Her comfort level with the faculty made it an easy decision to remain at UMSL.
She’s found herself learning from her classmates almost as much as her instructors since beginning the MSW Program in January.
“Most of them have full-time jobs and have worked for so long and just have more life experience,” she said. “I feel like I’m learning a lot from them just about leadership and professionalism.”
Drennen would ultimately like to work with children recovering from trauma. She is interested in becoming a forensic interviewer and has thought about working in a hospital setting, either in a sexual abuse and maltreatment clinic or in an emergency room.
She currently has a job as an office assistant at Children’s Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis, which is on the UMSL campus. She greets families when they come in, creates files for each of the children and helps out wherever needed. She also gets to attend staff meetings and trainings.
The job and her classes will keep her pretty busy in the year ahead, but she didn’t hesitate to add the Newman Civic Fellowship, thinking it would serve her well in the future.
“Being a social work student and growing up to be a social worker, collaboration is something that is super important to me, and I love learning from other people,” said Drennen, who’ll attend a national convening of all the fellows at the end of October in Boston. “I thought that it was an opportunity that I could not pass up.”
Drennen knows she wants to make a difference at UMSL, but she doesn’t presume to have all the answers as to how.
“To figure that out, I’m going to need to ask the people of UMSL,” she said. “I’m probably going to put out a survey and send that out to see what people’s needs are. I don’t feel comfortable picking anything to address before I talk to the people that actually go to UMSL. Things like childcare, food insecurity or generally just making higher education more accessible to people are big issues.”
As the new semester gets underway, she’ll be working with Klar to determine how she can have the biggest impact.
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