Campus News

Growing social workers: Prof’s garden project to teach students, community

Imagine a public elementary school program where kids learn about the environment, sustainability and nutrition by growing foods in their own garden at school and then using the foods they grow in their meals, helping them to build a different kind of relationship with food, nutrition and the environment. Shari Miller, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, is collaborating with three other UGA faculty to pilot an interdisciplinary, service-learning course this spring that will turn this idea into reality. The course is being supported by the Office of Service-Learning.

“For me personally, the physical environment and ecological issues are a primary concern and a passion as well as the health and functioning of our kids,” Miller said. “As a school of social work, we have a responsibility and also an opportunity to connect with the community in a way that can and should be empowering. This school garden effort is a means of capturing the passion, the skill set and strengths of our students so that they can contribute to the community and model for the elementary school students, a different perspective about the world around them-a way of being in the world.”

Miller along with David Berle, an associate professor of horticulture in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; and Jung Sun Lee, an assistant professor of foods and nutrition in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences; and Mary Ann Johnson, the Bill and June Flatt Professor of Foods and Nutrition in FACS, have selected 15 students to serve five after-school garden programs in Athens-Clarke County elementary schools. Each interdisciplinary team will be made up of a social work student, a family and consumer sciences student and a student enrolled in “Project Focus,” a service-learning course that places college students with a science background in a local elementary school to help improve science awareness.

Miller always has been oriented to helping people and as a lifelong Brooklyn, New York, resident, she’s had the opportunity to experience the richness of diversity. After getting her bachelor’s degree in sociology, Miller worked as an ESL teacher in an inner-city high school and later at a community center with children and teens. Her experiences with youth living in challenging circumstances cemented her inkling that she wanted to be a professional social worker.

Miller’s social work practice, after earning her master’s degree, was devoted to mental health. She worked as clinical social worker in a community mental health clinic, providing direct services to children, adolescents, adults and older adults. During her eight years in practice, Miller began to observe a culture among social workers.

“The idea of the culture of the profession started to become so distinct to me-peoples’ motivations for entering the profession, for becoming part of the culture, the ways in which they reciprocally influenced the culture and how that culture fit within the broader social context became a focus for me, and I really wanted to try to understand more,” Miller said.

The professional socialization of social workers became the focus of her doctoral dissertation and continues to inform her current research. Miller’s overarching research explores social work education. She also is studying critical thinking and looking nationally at the social work curriculum and where and how environmental and ecological justice issues fit.

Miller’s goals for the future include finding a way to financially sustain and develop the school garden program, to develop a study-abroad offering for social work students in Costa Rica and to bring an international perspective to her own research.

The native New Yorker had not imagined she’d find her way to the Southeast, but she knew once she interviewed at UGA’s School of Social Work that it and Athens were a fit for her and her family.

“There is so much value in the opportunities here at this university. . . There’s just amazing stuff going on across this campus and beyond,” she said.