Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.
As a child growing up in Phoenix, Bhavana Bellamkonda didn’t know what social work was, but she admired the “helpers” in her life.
“I observed how compassionately my pediatrician worked with my brother and sister when they were preemies, how kind the nurses at the hospital were when my family was in need and how patiently my teachers worked with my classmates who were struggling,” said Bellamkonda, the School of Social Work’s fall 2020 Outstanding Graduate. “As a child I was unaware of the field of social work, but I knew that I wanted to be a helper when I grew up.”
She said that she felt pressure from her community, as a first-generation immigrant in an Indian American household, to pursue a career that provided financial security. It led her to initially study nursing, “because I felt like it was the best of both worlds. I could be a helper and have the economic security that my family wanted for me.”
Bellamkonda, who will receive a Bachelor of Social Work degree, started college in a small Midwestern school in 2016, the year of an intensely waged, close presidential election. An introductory course in social welfare and public policy, where she learned that social work is much more than what is shown in TV and movies, increased her interest.
The chance later that year to study abroad in South Africa, observing the effects of apartheid on local low-income communities near Cape Town, led to Bellamkonda’s “aha” moment. She said she realized the importance of social workers in creating and implementing local, state and federal policy. She transferred to ASU and switched her major to social work.
“Choosing ASU was one of the best decisions I have ever made,” she said. “I do not think I would have had the opportunities or experiences that I have had anywhere else.”
Read on to learn about the five female ASU faculty members who influenced Bellamkonda and how her time at ASU made her aware of numerous opportunities.
Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?
Answer: During my time at ASU, I was surprised by the number of possibilities and opportunities that are available to students! I had no idea how many internships, scholarships and fellowship opportunities existed and was even more surprised by how willing my professors and faculty from other departments were to help answer my questions.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: Arizona was my first home. My family moved to Phoenix from my birthplace in India when I was 3 months old. I grew up surrounded by a really close-knit Indian community outside of school hours and supportive teachers during school. I loved exploring the desert and frequently went on walks and hikes with my parents.
I attended a small Midwestern school for a year and a half and then had the opportunity to study abroad in South Africa. The university I attended while abroad had a total of 31,765 enrolled students, close to 4.5 times larger than my school in Minnesota. During my time abroad I fell in love with the opportunities that larger schools had to offer and I made the decision to transfer.
Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson(s) while at ASU?
A: I first met Gisela Grant from the School of Politics and Global Studies when I was selected for ASU’s Capital Scholars program. While the experience was ultimately canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she took me under her wing and really helped me learn about the various career paths and opportunities out there. There were several times that I was told that social workers do not belong in policy-related fields, but Ms. Grant was always the first to tell me how valuable a social work education is in the world of public policy.
I had my first class with Brandie Reiner of the School of Social Work during the fall of 2019. It was my first policy-focused social work class at ASU. There were a few times I questioned if social work was for me. I just never felt that direct practice was my strength or calling. Attending Brandie’s policy class was truly an eye-opening moment for me. It solidified that social workers play an imperative role even in the creation of public policies. She is and always will be one of my favorite professors!
Jacqueline Davidson of the School of Social Work was one of my first professors after transferring to ASU. She has since retired but we clicked immediately and I loved attending her classes. She introduced me to the Social Work Baccalaureate Committee, where I had the pleasure of working with other School of Social Work faculty members including Melanie Reyes and Ivelisse “Evie” Lopez-Gonzales. Both of these professors have played a major role in my love for this field of social work. While global social welfare and foreign policy have always been my passion, Lopez-Gonzalez helped ignite a passion for cultural competency and intersectionality in this field of work! Reyes allowed me to take the skills I had learned in my classes and apply them to the real world during SWU 411.
I am so grateful to these five amazing women for mentoring me and for showing me the many different aspects of social work!
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: Apply for things that you do not feel qualified for! I spent most of my degree feeling like I did not have the experience needed to succeed at various internships, fellowships or opportunities that were presented to me. Take a chance and apply. Step way out of your comfort zone. Even if you are not successful at everything you apply for, I guarantee it will open more doors for you. I never thought I would have been chosen for the Capital Scholars program. While it was ultimately canceled due to COVID-19, the mentorship I received from ASU faculty has allowed me to land my dream internship with the U.S. Department of State, learn about various career opportunities and apply for graduate school programs I never knew existed.
Q: What was your favorite spot to study, meet friends or to just think about life?
A: Favorite on campus study spot: The outdoor atrium on the (I think) fifth floor of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law on the Downtown Phoenix campus. Always quiet, in a central location – and a little hidden so you can get work done. Other favorites: Lola Coffee or Songbird Coffee and Tea Shop (both downtown).
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: At this time, the future is a little blurry. I just finished working on a congressional campaign which was an eye-opening but demanding experience, so first and foremost, I will be catching up on much-needed sleep and time with my family in Texas.
I was accepted into the U.S. Department of State Student Internship program as an Embassy Intern at the U.S. Embassy in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, for the spring of 2021, a goal I had worked toward for a very long time. At this time we are still waiting to see if an in-person internship experience is still possible. Additionally, I hope to pursue a master’s degree in public policy or international affairs next fall somewhere on the East Coast. I am working through various grad school applications and fellowship applications at this time, but nothing is set in stone.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: After a lot of deliberation, I feel as though I would use this money to fund local nonprofit organizations abroad that focus on educating vulnerable populations. I think focusing on education is vital because it is the key to empowerment. By ensuring marginalized groups have access to education, we can break stigmas, increase job security and enable these groups to take charge of their own lives.