ATLANTA — Catherine West (B.S.W. ’23) was born in China when the government’s one-child policy — aimed at addressing the country’s rapid population growth — was in effect. On what she estimates to be near her first birthday, she was adopted by a loving couple from Forsyth County, Ga.
“My parents told me about my birth when I was growing up, but I didn’t understand what it meant to be abandoned or born as a female in China until I was in middle school,” she said. “I watched a guy on YouTube reconnect with his birth family in Korea and realized then that I hadn’t explored my own history.”
Armed with her birth documents and the name of her orphanage, West (who prefers to be called simply by her surname), began exploring the circumstances surrounding her birth. The more she learned, the more passionate she became about helping vulnerable children and populations in general.
“In high school, my focus was on going back to China and helping orphans and other children, like those missing or on the streets, get out of bad situations,” she said. “At first, I wasn’t sure about college because I wanted to go straight to China to help them.”
West decided instead to attend Georgia State University’s Honors College and its online Bachelor of Social Work program.
“What I originally wanted to do for a career — foster care and adoption — stemmed from me wanting to go back to China,” she said. “I took language classes in Mandarin and, at about the same time, I decided to go into social work, which my mom had exposed me to. We had a caseworker when I was adopted.”
West chose Georgia State for its downtown location and student diversity.
“I knew one of the biggest limits for myself was that I didn’t have enough exposure to different people of different backgrounds,” she said. “The area we live in is a veritable bubble. As a social worker, I didn’t want to have any biases or be disrespectful of anyone, so I felt GSU was the best way to connect and understand others. I always knew GSU was wonderfully diverse.”
Still eager to start her career in foster care, West began searching for an internship during her first year, calling every local adoption agency she could find. Families First called her back and offered her a marketing internship. She worked there from January 2020 to March 2021, mostly remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
West’s experience as an older adoptee shaped her feelings about working in the system.
“It hurt me when potential parents didn’t want to deal with the trauma of some of the older children waiting for adoption,” she said. “I learned that I have a hard time explaining the system, and that I get too personally involved. The internship helped me realize that I couldn’t make a career in foster care.”
By her third year, West realized she needed more experience in the field of social work, so she reached out to Professor Elizabeth Beck for advice.
“Dr. Beck is a really inspiring, story-oriented teacher,” she said. “She provides a great perspective on social work history and its context, and I was interested in her work in restorative justice and education for the incarcerated population. I emailed her to tell her I loved her class and asked whether I could join her in any of her projects or paperwork. I just wanted to be involved.”
Beck gave West the choice of either joining a class she teaches at Phillips State Prison in Buford, Ga., or observing the restorative justice work she does. West joined Beck at the prison for the three classes she was allowed to attend as a visitor.
“The way she teaches the class is very Socratic,” West said. “She has them write a ‘letter to the professor’ stating what they want to learn, why they’re there to learn and how it will improve their opportunities. She asks questions and makes sure everyone is engaged — that they feel it’s a safe space. She builds the expectation of respect in the classroom.”
During the semester West attended, Beck taught women’s studies to a class of up to 20 male students.
“West appreciated being there,” Beck said. “She appreciated the students and their intelligence, hard work and kindness. She asked me if she could do a presentation on Chinese adoptions, and she was phenomenal.”
West taught on China’s one-child policy, standing before the class with her notes on a single sheet of paper since digital technologies were not allowed in the prison.
“Teaching these Georgia State students about my history was more rewarding than telling my friends about it,” West said. “They seemed to understand my experience and try to apply it to their own. In answering their questions, I could tell they were thinking about how the world really works — its different systems. I was able to add a new perspective.”
Afterward, Beck told West she should consider earning her Ph.D. and teaching. Then she asked her to do a research project with these students for the Georgia State Undergraduate Research Conference (GSURC).
“The students kept asking when West would come back,” Beck said. “She wanted to, so we talked about the Undergraduate Research Conference. It was agreed that she and the Phillips students would co-create a poster after collecting data on higher education in prison.”
The fall of her senior year, West did the training required to enter the prison to work with the students, and she returned to Phillips State in the spring.
“The students at Phillips are working toward their associate degrees, so for them to qualify for GSURC, I would need to partner with them and present the research on their behalf,” West said. “We tried to explain the impact their work could have, and some were interested.”
West and her roommate Charde Franklin, also in the Honors College, worked with four students. For their research project, "Analysis of Higher Education in Philips Prison Campus hosted by Georgia State University Prison Education Program and Common Good Atlanta," they did a literature review, conducted a focus group and surveyed their fellow classmates.
“Our project looks specifically at the Georgia State program at Phillips State,” West said. “I organized the survey, and they came up with where to start. Professor Beck helped me find literature reviews on the topic, and after we all looked through those, we talked about what we learned. From that content we developed our focus group and survey questions. We found benefits we used to build our presentation on. It was a little hard at the end to meet up with them — they were on a lockdown. So, Charde and I made sure their words were used and added a lot of their quotes on the poster.”
“Due to complications within the prison, a lot of times West was supposed to go work with the students, it never happened,” Beck confirmed. “She and her roommate Charde — they took the reins and made it happen. They took the data and lit reviews and work they were going to divide among their team, and they did it among themselves.”
They even found a way to add one student’s ideas as a drawing for the poster.
“I was really pleased that the Georgia State students at the Phillips State campus were able to participate in the conference,” Beck said. “That’s because of West. Her dedication, creativity and willingness to take on extra barriers to get something done is really something. And she does it all with gratitude.”
West may end up following Beck’s suggestion that she pursue a Ph.D. For now, though, she plans to enter Georgia State’s Advanced Standing MSW program in the fall, perhaps continuing her work with Beck.
“I chose Georgia State’s community-focused program over Kennesaw State’s clinical program because I realized during my internship that in working on a macro level there are more resources that benefit more people,” she said. “Or, if I work in areas or systems like nonprofits, law, policy or advocacy, I can make good change on a greater scale.”