I’m Not Your Average Social Worker or College Professor



My formative teenage years occurred during the height of the crack epidemic when Washington, DC, was the murder capital of the United States.

I was 14 years old the first time I stepped foot on a college campus. It was where I was assigned as a camp counselor for the Mayor Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program.

I never took an SAT Prep class although it was offered at my high school. I wasn’t prepared for the SAT at all, and I knew I didn’t do well when I put down my pencil. I decided as I sat in that exam room at 17 that the test was not an indication of my intelligence and there was no need in me taking it again. Nothing that I missed seemed important enough for me to go study or cram. I just didn’t see how the information was useful to me. No, I didn’t retake it.

Many people enter the social work profession because they want to provide people with something that they lacked. I went into social work because I wanted to give teen moms in foster care the sense of family, safety, and community that I had growing up.

As a Salutatorian of my high school class and soon-to-be first-generation college student, I turned down acceptance to George Washington University because I felt the tuition was too high – I never talked to my parents, guidance counselor, or any of my teachers about my decision. I never asked about scholarships or increasing my financial aid package.

When I was a young mom pursuing my undergraduate degree, I would always say that I had mastered delayed gratification and sleep deprivation. I earned an A in my Public Speaking class, but my professor warned me that I needed to get a life outside of motherhood. She didn’t understand that the way I juggled being a mom, student, and an employee was to connect all parts of my life together. Being a good mother was my priority and that included being a good student so that I could graduate. Yes, there were a few days that took my daughter to class with me.

I didn’t transfer to a well-known institution because I realized that my race was as much a factor in my acceptance as my grades but the financial aid offered wasn’t high enough for me to willingly fill their need for diversity.

The first time I ever received a D in a class I was paying for it as a college senior. I got a D in World Religion during the fall semester (because I earned an A on the final exam) and a D in statistics in the spring semester (because I got an A on the final exam). It was never about my ability to comprehend or do the work, it was about exhaustion. I was in survival mode. I earned A’s (and maybe one B) in my other 4 classes each semester so that I would not screw up my GPA and could graduate in the timeframe I set.

It took me 6 years to earn my bachelor’s degree, then I worked for 7 years before enrolling in graduate school. I completed my master’s degree in 3 ½ years while working and parenting a teen.

The first time I went on a real college tour I was a paid chaperone (Director of Programs) with a master’s degree in social work.

I was recommended to apply for an adjunct position at my alma mater because I decided to start an internship program.

I understand my students because I was my student. As a hiring manager, I understand that theory learned in the classroom often takes a back seat to real-world experience.

I created the exact career that I decided upon in my senior year of high school. I want current social work students to experience the same level of career fulfillment. I also want to help students avoid pitfalls I experienced like professional burnout.

I still love social work 30 years later!


Nicki Sanders, MSW, ushers high-performing women of color in mid-level social work and human services leadership through promotion to senior leadership. As Founder and CEO of Nicki Sanders Leadership Consulting, her mission is simple – to eliminate toxic workplaces by developing skilled, empathetic, and goal-oriented leaders who have the vision, support, and resources to create a culture where business prospers, and employees thrive individually and collectively. Nicki has an extensive background in nonprofit management leading high-functioning, multi-disciplinary teams. She is an accomplished professor, coach, trainer, and group facilitator who has combined her gift for authentic relationships, Master of Social Work degree, and over 20 years of diverse work experience to create a life and career aligned with her values and purpose. Nicki is a lover of cupcakes, travel, and 80’s hip hop and R&B music.

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