“I Know I Can Handle This Work Load Because I’ve Seen Her Do It.”

Shelby and Stephanie Bandsma

Jason Lee

Mother and Daughter Graduating from the School of Social Work in May

When your mom works with and advocates for children for so many years, you gain insight into the struggle, passion, and dedication of a social worker. It’s a scene not viewable to everyone, but growing up as the daughter of a committed social worker, Stephanie Brandsma saw the real-world effort the job requires.

“Being raised by a social worker you get a huge advantage in school,” Brandsma says. “There are a lot of concepts that you just have always understood,” including a “huge understanding of empathy.” In fact, Stephanie’s mom, Shelby, was the one who encouraged her to take social work classes from the start.

In turn, seeing her children explore and excel in college – including her son who graduated from UW-Madison – prompted Shelby Brandsma to go back to school to earn the graduate-level degree that matched her career and position.

Now both Stephanie and Shelby will graduate from programs in the UW-Madison School of Social Work – on the same weekend.

Stephanie will graduate with a BA in Social Welfare. Shelby will be hooded with an MSW degree from the Part-Time Program.

Three and four years of coursework leading to this moment did not come without challenges. Shelby works at least 40 hours a week, maintains 16 hours of field work and takes classes on Saturdays. Stephanie has worked throughout college to help support herself. But the mother-daughter partnership and timing provided advantages for both.

Stephanie Bandsma, Makena Guse (sister), and Shelby Bandsma

“I am blessed with intelligent children who helped me in technology, tutored me through statistics, proofread papers, and directed me around campus. They also gave me tips on following social norms,” Shelby said. “I gave her like 100 pep talks,” Stephanie said as she recounted what it’s like to have her mom in college with her.

The School of Social Work offers a BA/BS in Social Welfare, a Bachelor of Social Work, two Master of Social Work programs (full-time and part-time) and a PhD in Social Welfare. The Part-Time MSW Program takes four years to complete for students entering their generalist year. Because Shelby earned exemptions for her second year, she and Stephanie ended up taking a few classes together – including Introduction to Social Work – and were in-line to graduate in the same semester.

“I’ve really liked it because I always have someone to ask questions to, and she’s really liked it because I’ve guided her through the college experience part,” Stephanie said. “I have my own personal mentor in my back pocket.”

Their experiences enhance their learning and their learning informs their practice. “I think [being in college at the same time] has strengthened us both as students. My middle child has a degree in psychology from UW-Stevens Point and between both girls we can talk forever about the human condition. If one of us reads something interesting or if I’m working on a paper and I’m stuck at articulating my thoughts, I just talk to one of them and my thoughts are crystallized and my paper goes much better,” Shelby said.

The two also helped each other think outside of the box and explore connections between different but related experiences in their social work classes. “I don’t have a narrow view of what social work is because of her,” Stephanie said.

Shelby’s social work practice runs long. After receiving a BSW, she went to work with children and families, including in child protective services and juvenile justice. Since 2012 she has been the Director for Family Court Services in Dodge County. She’s worked in social services with Dodge County for nearly 25 years.

Stephanie is pursuing another route within social work – studying health and aging and preparing for her own career. She already has a full-time job lined up after graduation working on a health literacy program for senior citizens at a local non-profit.

“I don’t think I would have gotten any of these experiences without having her as my mom. I got there because of my own work and my own work ethic, but there are just some conceptual core things I’ve always understood because of having a mom who is a social worker.”

Talking with Stephanie about what’s she’s learning in health and aging-related classes has been enriching for Shelby as well. “This is a population that I have little experience [with] in the work world and so I’m fascinated by what she is learning and sharing.”

In May, both will walk across the graduation stage. “I can’t even imagine,” Shelby says. “I am a mixed bag of emotions. I am so excited to be done. I’m exhausted and just want to sleep for a week. I’m happy for Steph. I’m fantasizing over having my life back and I keep adding so many things for my husband to do that I think I’m overwhelming him.

“I do not have the words to express how glad I am to have done this.”

While some students might balk at having a parent in college at the same time, the experience for Stephanie has been enriching. “I’m not embarrassed that she followed me to school. It’s been fun. I’m really proud of her to see her overcome her fears to be an adult student. I think it takes a lot to be so established in her career and take the risk to go back to college,” Stephanie said.

Next year, Stephanie will follow her mom’s footsteps and start the Part-Time MSW Program while working full-time.

“I know I can handle this work load because I’ve seen her do it,” she said.