While sitting inside Kansas Wesleyan University’s Pioneer Hall as she pursued a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, it was not uncommon for a student to tap Kelly Hopkins ’15 on the shoulder and say, “You’re a mom. Do you have any Tylenol?”
Hopkins, who is the current KWU Social Work Program Director, was a non-traditional student and a mother of four children. Surely, she had medicine in her purse that could ease a fellow student’s headache, right? Regardless if she had medicine to relieve someone’s physical pain, Hopkins knew the real reason for sitting in that classroom was to help others overcome their emotional pain.
A few years prior, Hopkins and her husband were having a conversation, when he asked her what she wanted to do in the future once their children graduated.
“From that conversation, I decided to seek out volunteer opportunities in the community,” she said. “I thought that if I got involved in some volunteer [work], it would translate into something I could do when the kids were grown and gone.”
In 2012, Hopkins began volunteering with Child Advocacy and Parenting Services (CAPS) in Salina. She soon entered the organization’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program and was sworn in after completing the required classes.
“It was through that experience of working with kids in foster care that I started to feel a calling,” Hopkins recounted. “I started to see the need that was out there for these children – trauma situations that were happening, and I was suddenly very compelled that it was what I wanted to do.”
Hopkins met with her family and expressed the desire to turn her volunteer work into a career. As her children enrolled in public school, she also sought to expand her education. In searching for a degree to fit her calling in the human services field, she chose to start her journey in Kansas Wesleyan’s psychology program.
KWU Chair of the Division of Social Sciences, Dr. Steve Hoekstra, was one of Hopkins’ professors. Hoekstra now has the privilege of being her colleague, but he remembers the dedication she put into finding her purpose.
“She was very conscientious and worked very hard to do what she needed to do and balance everything with her family and the extra challenges that are associated with being a non-traditional student,” Dr. Hoekstra said.
Hopkins added, “Through that education and what I learned, I then discovered the direction I need to go was [to become] a social worker.”
During her undergraduate studies, Hopkins found another opportunity to help others, as she began serving at the Central Kansas Mental Health Center as a case manager, supporting parents with children suffering from severe emotional disturbances.
“I think because I was a parent, it was just kind of a good fit that I could use my knowledge to help support these other parents,” she noted.
Upon graduating from KWU in 2015, Hopkins immediately pursued a master’s degree in social work. As she expanded her education, more opportunities emerged. In 2016, she began working part-time as the CASA supervisor for CAPS, while also starting a private practice at Cornerstone Clinic.
Hopkins recalls sitting in family court on multiple occasions and hearing the judge say, “I wish we could deal with the grief these children are suffering from.” Through those comments, Hopkins’ private practice was born. She soon established “grief groups,” developing curriculum for children suffering from traumatic events and creating an environment for them to share their feelings with peers in similar circumstances.
As she thrived as a CASA supervisor and within her private practice at Cornerstone, Hopkins’ work in the community was not going unnoticed. In 2017, CAPS promoted her to Program Director for Chris’s Place Child Advocacy Center (CAC) and the Saline and Ottawa CASA program.
While managing the day-to-day operations of the CAC, Hopkins also served as a forensic interviewer and worked with law enforcement officials in the prosecution of cases. Her position also allowed her to interact with other social workers. She saw some of the struggles they went through and the trauma they experienced themselves, and thought maybe there was a way she could help.
“In those types of experiences, I saw the opportunity to teach social workers and share these experiences, [and felt] I could make a bigger difference in that,” she stated.
Hopkins’ desire to help educate other social workers came to fruition when she was offered a position as an adjunct professor at KWU in 2017. Two years later, she made the leap to full-time educator, becoming the director of KWU’s social work program.
One of Hopkins’ main tasks as director is to oversee the accreditation of the bachelor’s degree program. Navigating through the paperwork-filled process requires the program to hit three benchmarks before being fully accredited. The program will remain in the candidacy phase for the next two years, with the expectation of achieving accreditation by February 2023. Hopkins then hopes to complete her doctorate in social work three months later, allowing her to seek accreditation for KWU’s master’s program.
Tyler Paulson ’14, a fellow non-traditional student and Psychology major, struck up a friendship with Hopkins during their time as undergraduates. Together, they helped one another through the challenges of balancing family and education in order to achieve their career goals. Paulson is not only excited about the strides KWU’s social work program is making, but is also pleased to know his good friend is leading the charge.
“It’s a very special thing, especially in this climate that colleges find themselves in – for KWU to be seeking this and to be putting people in a position to have careers in a field that is always going to be expanding,” he said. “What makes this even more special to me is that it is kind of being chauffeured by a KWU alum, who is very competent and very motivating, not just to students, but to her fellow alumni.”
As she sat in those classrooms at Pioneer Hall several years ago, Hopkins likely did not imagine herself one day standing in front of students as a professor. What started as a desire to volunteer in the community has now transformed into impact that will last for generations. As a social worker and clinician, she’s helped countless children, parents and first responders overcome their emotional pain. Now as an educator, she is paving the way for future social workers to do the same.
Story by Eric Brown