MSW@USC Student Makes a Run for State Senate
Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s life could have been very different.
Having spent nearly a decade in foster care and enduring physical, mental and emotional abuse – she was lied to, manipulated, beaten, forced to run laps and squat for extended periods of time, and told to bathe in feces-laden bath water and sleep in urine-soaked bed sheets – Rhodes-Courter could have given up. She could have decided to let the system that placed in her these situations swallow her whole. She could have failed in school or fallen in with the wrong crowd.
But she didn’t.
Rhodes-Courter, who is earning a Master of Social Work through the USC School of Social Work’s Virtual Academic Center, is not only an exemplary student, but she has also become a prominent advocate for foster children. She won a full ride to attend Eckerd College in Florida, and in 2003, The New York Times Magazine published her prize-winning essay about her adoption day that she expanded into a bestselling memoir, Three Little Words. She has been part of the USA Today All-USA Academic Team, which recognizes outstanding college students with scholarships, and is a Do Something Golden BRICK Award winner for outstanding advocacy for community change. She has been one of Glamour magazine’s Top Ten College Women and has received the Kids to Kids National Service Award from the Child Welfare League of America, among other accolades.
And now Rhodes-Courter is taking her advocacy to the next level: running for Florida state senate.
“Florida needs new voices and fresh attitudes. There are too many voices not being heard, people being disenfranchised and services being cut. I’m going to step up,” Rhodes-Courter said. “I’m only 26, but advocacy is not new to me. I’m willing to learn and grow and be told ‘no’ periodically because I’ll be serving something beyond myself.”
Rhodes-Courter, a resident of St. Petersburg, is running unopposed in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary for District 20 of the Florida senate. The general election will take place Nov. 6.
Rhodes-Courter grew up in Florida, where she spent most of her childhood in foster homes and orphanages after being taken away from her mother at age 3. She experienced first-hand the flaws of a state charged with taking care of children in need, and she wants to help fix those problems as best she can. That’s why she decided to get a master’s degree in social work.
“Ever since I was a teenager, I felt that the circumstances I was faced with were unfair and unjust, and I always had the firing need to speak up,” she said. “It turns out there’s a profession where you can do just that.”
Even though Rhodes-Courter knew that being a social worker could be a thankless job, she also knew that it was an important one. Though she encountered her share of ineffective, and some times negligent, case workers in foster care, she also had teachers who recognized that she was being abused at home and tried to help, as well as a guardian ad litem (a court-appointed volunteer who represents a child’s interests in legal matters) who worked tirelessly for her.
“These were regular people who changed my life,” she said. “Small acts of kindness and caring can change the outcome for a child.”
Because she is often invited to speak to and attend social services, legal and political conferences and events all around the world, Rhodes-Courter relishes the opportunity and flexibility the school’s Virtual Academic Center gives her to earn a master’s degree.
“The VAC allows me to be in a program that has the prestige and academic fervor that I was looking for, but allows me to be anywhere,” she said. “I can practice what I learn in a classroom by working in the field in which I’m studying.”
Rhodes-Courter is also practicing what she preaches by being a foster parent herself. She and her husband currently foster three kids and have had 12 altogether. Her goal is to change the negative perception the public may have of foster children and parents. Even though she was a victim of foster parent abuse, she also had some good experiences.
“It’s not enough to complain about something if you’re not going to be part of the solution. To change the way the system works, you have to be a part of that process,” she said. “There are people from all walks of life who are fostering children. You just have to have a safe and clean heart.”
Rhodes-Courter, who is a Families and Children concentration student, said that studying social work has helped her be a better foster mother. She is able to identify the mental health needs of the kids she has fostered, some of whom have had severe issues.
“I may not be a practicing clinician, but I love having the social work experience in so many different realms,” she said. “Everything I’m doing in my personal life is about children and families. I want to create environments for kids to be successful.”
- Master of Social Work