Alumna Highlight: Michelle Brantley, big heart and big dreams
Michelle Brantley dreams big and makes those dreams a reality. In 2007, her father suddenly passed away, and it caused her to re-evaluate her life and how valuable time is. She decided to honor his memory by being “true to herself,” which was some of his last words to her. Along this road, Michelle not only balanced her growth, healing, and education but a growing family. She opened her heart and home through the adoption of five siblings, including two sets of twins.
“I felt compelled to keep the children together given my own experience of being isolated from my biological siblings,” Michelle explained. “I too am adopted.”
Through three adoption processes, she earned both an associate’s degree from Tallahassee Community College and a bachelor’s degree from Florida A&M University. While she received admiration and encouragement for her efforts, Michelle knew that it was only the beginning and she still had a long road ahead. All of the accolades from friends, church members, colleagues, professors, and onlookers could never compare to the feeling of making herself, her mother, and children proud, Michelle described.
Her next step logically pointed toward a graduate degree in social work. Michelle strongly considered the MSW/JD Dual Degree Program through the FSU College of Social Work and College of Law but realized that current life circumstances made the idea of pursuing a juris doctorate and master’s degree simultaneously a daunting task. Michelle knew she wanted to pursue her MSW because of her belief in the importance of, “a social worker has the ability to create change.” She was determined to pursue her dreams one step at a time.
As a social work student, Michelle was struck by the atmosphere at the College of Social Work that cultivated faculty-student connections. She noticed that the social work faculty were very transparent with their students and cared that students learned and retained the challenging content conveyed through coursework. Michelle appreciated that faculty fostered an environment that made learning exciting and enjoyable, including faculty members like Jane Dwyer Lee, Fran Gomory, Tomi Gomory and Dr. Tom Smith.
“During my time in the program, my personal life was being turned upside down,” she reflected. “My mom was very sick, and I was her caregiver. Many of my classes helped me to learn the skills I would need to cope with life.”
Her favorite courses were taught by social work faculty member Dr. Thomas (Tom) Smith, a faculty member she quickly developed a strong rapport with. In Dr. Smith, she found a strong mentor and advocate that would encourage her to continue to pursue her educational pursuits and dreams of creating change.
“He was always available to answer my questions and more than willing to share his experiences with me,” Michelle said about Dr. Smith. “I thought his background was fascinating. I felt drawn and connected to him because of the way he thinks.”
When contemplating life after graduation, Michelle did a lot of self-reflection and utilized key input from her mentors, including Dr. Smith, to assess all her career options. Her diverse background working with incarcerated individuals, disabled veterans, juveniles and pregnant/parenting teens, persons with intellectual disabilities, as well as people with mental and behavioral issues, opened up a lot of options for her. She realized she had been doing social work for twenty years, and that her ambitions to create change had grown along the way.
“I am a big thinker and dreamer,” Michelle stressed. “I don’t want to make small changes, although they also matter and are vitally important. My desire is to be involved at a different level.”
Ultimately, Michelle realized that a law degree was a necessary component of her ambitions to make the greatest positive impact that would touch the greatest number of lives. She hopes to bring the disciplines of social work and law together, along with their distinctive strengths, in ways that give her a seat the table with decision-makers and leaders enacting laws that affect the daily lives of citizens. Utilizing that special social work lens, Michelle envisions cultivating what she describes as, “an atmosphere of respect and appreciation for how important” both skill sets are to one another.
Long-term, Michelle also holds ambitions to run for political office to immerse herself in the governmental and lawmaking processes. She would like to influence social policy first-hand with the hopes of making a difference.
“I have already accomplished the ‘impossible.’ So, why stop now?” she said.
This fall, Michelle begins her first year of law school at the FSU College of Law and looks forward to the next chapter in her life with a strong vision for the future and the determination to make it happen.