Criminal and Social Justice Students Help Make the Holidays Special for Families

Joliet, Ill. – Students in the University of St. Francis (USF) criminal and social justice program recently had a unique opportunity to bridge academic coursework with practical application while making a difference for the families of some of Will County’s incarcerated. The result of the opportunity provided Christmas gifts for area children with a parent currently participating in Will County’s Problem-Solving Courts.

In mid-October, USF assistant criminal and social justice professor Stacy Dewald, Ph.D., and her students partnered with Diana Murillo, social worker for the Will County Problem-Solving Courts, and Julie Sterr-McCabe, Will County Problem-Solving Court coordinator to facilitate the Reading Project, which engaged participants in Will County’s four problem-solving courts (drug court, mental health court, veteran’s count and Adult Redeploy Illinois). Incarcerated participants were able to select a children’s book to read to their child(ren) as USF students videotaped them reading. The USF students burned the recordings to DVDs and then gift-wrapped the DVDs and books, which were given to the participants’ children during the holiday season.

“Because of my prior professional career in the criminal justice field, I recognize the importance of bridging academic courses with practical application,” said Dewald, who formerly served as an investigator in the Will County Public Defender’s Office. “As a teacher, I want to connect the students to their own larger professional world as a way to encourage them to network and engage with those in the criminal justice field. I was thrilled when the opportunity arose to help the court participants of Will County Problem-Solving Courts.”

Dewald added that the experience was one that not only gave back to the community, but that also reflected the Franciscan values of USF.

“This was my first time incorporating a service-learning project and I believe that the project enriched the learning experience, taught civic responsibility and strengthened the community. I enjoyed watching the students grow as they gave back to their community. One of the best parts of the project was that it supported the Franciscan values of respect, compassion, service, and integrity as students humanized people that oftentimes our society views as invisible,” she said.

The project also had a positive impact on Dewald’s students, who were able to see a different side of the criminal justice system.

“I am very pleased that I got the opportunity to participate in the Reading Project. It gave my classmates and me a chance to contribute to the greater good and help those who are less fortunate. This experience allowed me to understand the benefits of problem-solving courts and how they help those reach program goals by living out better and non-criminal lifestyles,” said USF criminal and social justice major Steve Smock.

“This project marks a rare opportunity – an opportunity to re-humanize individuals in the court systems, be it problem-solving courts or otherwise. A reminder that despite the uniform of corrections, these are still people, with families they care about and people they love,” said criminal and social justice major Daniel Simmons.

The University of St. Francis, in Joliet, Ill., serves close to 4,000 students nationwide, offering undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs in the arts and sciences, business, education, nursing and social work. There are over 50,000 USF alumni across the globe. For information, call 800-735-7500 or visit

University of St. Francis: Bigger thinking. Brighter purpose.

# # #

Social Work Student Named a Kott Gerontology Scholar

May 10, 2019 | Joliet, Ill.

University of St. Francis (USF) social work graduate student Gwendolyn Scott of Pearl City, Ill., was recently named a Kott Gerontology Institute Scholar. Scott will receive a $10,000 scholarship and will participate in a 720-hour internship that she must complete between September 2019 and May 2020 at a specified agency in the Will County area. She will also participate in group meetings during the internship period and must also develop community- or agency-based projects with other interns in the program.

Scott actually learned of the opportunity through a chance conversation with her departmental advisor, Alicia McLaughlin, Ph.D.

“I have to give all the credit to Dr. McLaughlin for connecting me with this opportunity,” Scott said. “I would have never even known about it if she hadn’t mentioned it in passing.”

Upon learning of the opportunity, Scott initially contemplated whether or not she was even going to apply for the program.

“The Kott program requires more clinical hours in comparison to the program I’m currently in at USF,” she said. “But then I thought that, at the end of the day, this is such an important step in my career and the program could provide me with invaluable experience, so I applied.”

A few weeks after submitting her application, Scott was notified that she had advanced in the process and was later invited to a panel interview with Kott Gerontology Institute members in Oak Park, Ill.

“I met with a panel of six people, many of whom were former Kott Scholars that have since become directors at agencies in the region,” Scott said. “It certainly didn’t feel like an interview. It was more like an exchange of ideas, which I really enjoyed. I actually ended up walking away with a lot of knowledge about those agencies that I would not have received had I not applied.”

The panel interview went as well as Scott had hoped, and she was offered a Kott Scholarship shortly thereafter.

While she has spent most of her time over the past few years working at a residential facility for children, it has been Scott’s recent experience with providing long-term care for seniors that has shifted her academic and professional focus to gerontology (the study of aging and the age-related challenges senior citizens commonly face).

“The senior population is one that is growing rapidly. Unfortunately, that population is a forgotten one, especially homeless seniors. They just need someone to care and to give them a fighting chance, and that is what I am extremely passionate about,” she said.

Scott, who is eager to complete her master’s-level social work program at USF while participating in the Kott Gerontology Scholar program, credits USF for providing her with a high-quality master’s degree experience.

“I love how USF is preparing me for the next step in my career,” Scott offered. “I love that it is a small university and that all of your professors know you. It is almost as if they are able to tailor their classes around the interests of their students. I feel like I am able to research my own professional interests, but at the same time am able to learn more about the professional interests of my classmates, too.”

“I also love that USF is so involved with the community,” Scott added. “Students in our program are placed in a wide variety of agencies in the area, and I can’t commend USF enough for that. As students, we are able to actively get our name out there with the agencies, but USF also benefits from their feedback on how well students are being prepared by USF for productive, successful careers.”

Upon earning her master’s degree in social work, Scott, also aspires to earn a gerontology certificate from USF.

“I congratulate Gwen on receiving the Kott Scholarship.  Gwen is very dedicated and excited about working with the older adult population.  Gerontological social work requires a high level of skills and knowledge of family dynamics.  Gwen is well-grounded in social work knowledge and skills, and she is a warm and caring person with a good nature.  I am confident that she will continue her growth as a fine leader in the caring community of the social work profession,” said USF social work professor Kyung-Mee Choi, Ph.D.

According to the Kott Gerontology Institute’s website, advanced graduate students enrolled in university programs accredited by the professional organizations they represent are eligible for scholarships. Interested applicants must complete an application, submit a resume and provide two personal letters of reference. Representatives from the Kott Gerontology Institute and its consortium agencies then review applications and select candidates for individual, in-person interviews with the admissions committee. Based on applicants’ work and field experiences, provided application materials and interviews, the consortium coordinators select potential awardees.

The University of St. Francis, in Joliet, Ill., serves over 4,000 students nationwide, offering undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs in the arts and sciences, business, education, nursing and social work. There are over 49,000 USF alumni across the globe. For information, call 800-735-7500 or visit

University of St. Francis: Bigger thinking. Brighter purpose.