Social Work Month Alumni Feature: Heather

Name: Heather Burkhardt

Degree and graduation year: Bachelor of Social Work in December 1995, Master of Social Work in May 1999. Heather minors in Women’s Studies and also has received a certificate in Gerontology.

What brought you to ECU? 
The friendly atmosphere and focus on service learning brought me to ECU. It was the MSW advance standing program that brought me back.  

What is your favorite aspect of Social Work?
I absolutely love the diversity of settings and populations in which social work is provided. Direct service, macro work, children, adults, disabilities, education, substance use, health care settings, government, school settings….social work can be found everywhere! 

Can you tell us about your favorite Social Work course or professor(s) during your time at ECU?
If I had to pick just ONE course, it would be History of Social Work. It allowed me to better understand societal values in human welfare and showed me a path to working with organizations, communities and public policy.  My courses in policy and research are also on the top of the list of favorites. My favorite professors include Yolanda Burwell, Sheila Bunch, and Reggie York. 

Can you tell us about your current job/role/employer?
I am the Executive Director of the North Carolina Coalition on Aging.  The Coalition on Aging is a non-profit organization comprised of a dynamic group of organizations and individuals that work collaboratively to give voice to issues that affect older North Carolinians.  Our efforts focus on impacting change through advocacy, education and public policy work. 
What is a typical day like for you?
I am the only full-time staff of the NC Coalition on Aging.  This provides me with a unique opportunity to be involved in every aspect of the organization.  I may do a wide range of activities in a single day.  It may include talking to reporters, updating the website, planning board meetings, meeting legislators at the NC General Assembly,  serving on committee or doing public speaking

What has been your favorite experience working in Social Work/your profession thus far?
It has been an honor and pleasure to be invited into the homes of older adults. I value listening to the needs of them and their families and helping to solve complex problems to improve their daily lives and overall quality of life. 

Where do you see the field of Social Work headed?
I believe the value of social work will continue to grow in sectors in mental health, criminal justice systems and systems. It provides a great opportunity for social workers.

In your eyes, what is the greatest challenge Social Workers face?
In large part I believe most people don’t understand the social work profession and hold many misconnections. Social workers need to continue to create awareness about our work and evaluate the value we bring to families, community and society.   

This year’s theme for social work month is breaking barriers. How do you plan to use your education, experience and passion for the field to help break barriers for those you work with and in the community?
With a rapidly aging population, I want to continue to center meaningful dialogues on older adults. We need to ensure our public policies reflect and respond to the real disparities that many older adults have faced throughout their lives and are now exacerbated as they age—especially for women, people of color, low-income, LGBTQ+, and rural individuals.

Can you share a few sentences about your HHP/ECU experience or what ECU means to you?
I have a deep since of gratitude to East Carolina.  My experience at the School of Social Work gave me a solid footing on which I have built my professional career. It also shaped my perspective in the ways including the way view daily interactions and the world in which we live.  
Do you have any words of advice for prospective and/or currents students?
Soak it in!  Going through school can be stressful with lots to balance and distractions— but take full advantage of the opportunities being in an academic environment provides.  It goes by fast-enjoy it!