Tessa Hickman, a December 2021 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, transitioned from her practicum placement at Valley Associates for Independent Living to a full-time position as an independent living specialist. She speaks with Holly Prochaska, the organization's finance operations, and compliance director at their Harrisonburg office building. (Photo by Rachel Holderman)

Social work grad finds calling with independent living organization

When senior Tessa Hickman interviewed for a practicum during her final semester at Eastern Mennonite University, she was called back a few days later – not just for her acceptance – for a job interview.

Hickman, a December 2021 graduate of EMU’s social work program, now works as an independent living specialist at Valley Associates for Independent Living, Inc. (VAIL). She teaches skills such as money management, organization, and grocery shopping to individuals with disabilities. She has recently been transitioning into a service coordinator position that focuses on serving low-income individuals. 

VAIL is one of 17 different independent living centers in the state of Virginia. The organization provides transitional services, house modification services, options counseling, technical and waiver assistance, and peer support services. VAIL is also consumer-driven – 51% of VAIL’s staff and board of directors are people with disabilities.

Learn more about studying social work at EMU.


The distinctive EMU experience with its values on community and intercultural learning provide a fabulous home for a social work program.

Professor Carol Hurst, director of EMU’s social work program

Tessa Hickman in her office at Valley Associates for Independent Living.

Internship and intercultural: two best EMU experiences

Besides her intercultural semester abroad, Hickman says the internship at VAIL was her best experience at EMU. “It gave me insight on how to put theory to hands-on work. It showed me what lies beyond EMU’s walls.”

The connection to VAIL was made when Gayl Brunk ‘92, the organization’s executive director, came as a guest speaker to a class in social policy analysis. Hickman was inspired by Brunk’s account of policy work on behalf of disability services and immediately drawn to the work of VAIL.

Like many college students, Hickman recalls that her career path was not initially clear. She transferred her second year to EMU, unsure of what major to pursue. She thought social sciences might be for her, and after networking with students and staff, had a conversation that proved to be a turning point.

“I have to give thanks to Deanna Durham,” Hickman says.

Durham, a professor of social work, helped Hickman think about the possibilities of future jobs with a bachelor’s degree in social work and all the different areas in which she could work in the Valley. “Tessa clearly expressed her desire to work with people in direct service and wanted to jump right in,” Durham says. 

A couple years later, Hickman had a job before she even graduated. “In April 2021, I got an interview for my practicum at VAIL during midterms,” Hickman says. “A few days later they wanted me back for a job interview.”

Social work majors grow in unique EMU community 

Hickman says her experience was “unique in a good way.”  During practicum she worked with Brunk as her field instructor and was immersed in learning about VAIL’s work in the community, day to day work with consumers, and the organization’s policy efforts.

EMU’s social work program is a professional degree program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, meaning students can go straight into professional social work roles with their BSW degree.

“In social work, we call field [work] the ‘signature pedagogy,’” says professor and social work program director Carol Hurst. “We mean that a social work education is not complete without really working with people. You can’t really know how to practice without doing it.”

While the practicum requirement is an essential part of the social work program, Hurst says that what really makes the program unique is the fact that it is a part of EMU. “The distinctive EMU experience with its values on community and intercultural learning provide a fabulous home for a social work program,” she says. “Professional social work values demand respect for the dignity and worth of every person, and emphasize the importance of human relationships, service, and work for social justice.” 

After graduation, Hickman and her supervisors regrouped and thought through her ideal position. She took on a new caseload and is now figuring out her role while expanding her knowledge. “There have been a lot of exciting times building rapport with consumers,” Hickman says. Hickman is extremely passionate about the disability community, having a disability herself. “This opportunity seemed like the stars aligned.”

Join the Discussion on “Social work grad finds calling with independent living organization

  1. I’ve always known Tessa to be a very hard worker. She is passionate in what she believes in. As her aunt, I’m so proud of her and the field she’s chosen. I’m in my 80’s, and know how important it is to have the kind of help that a program like VAIL can give. Keep up the good work, Tessa! I’m so proud of you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.