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Distance program a godsend for social work student

Ruby Shah has experienced her share of peaks and valleys in life, but would undoubtedly tell you it was those low points that bolstered her resiliency and provided her with the tenacity it would take to pursue her vision of becoming a community-minded social worker one day.

“When things are meant to be everything just comes together,” Shah said from her home in near Toronto, where she’s enrolled in the off-campus Master of Social Work for Working Professionals program. “This program has been a God-send for me in many ways. My only regret is that I didn’t start this earlier.”

The mother of three children and a psychometrist at the Brampton Civic Hospital, Shah enrolled in the program in 2010. Over 32 months, she’ll take 17 courses in the Peel Region where they’re taught at the Centre for Health and Safety Innovation, and complete two three-month placements before graduating in 2013.

Balancing her job, family and her studies hasn’t been easy and she admits going back to school as a “mid-life” student was a little scary, but she’s travelled a sometime rocky path and gained a lifetime of experience that’s only made her more committed to her goals.

Shah moved to Richmond Hill from India when she was five years old. After completing high school, she studied both biology and psychology at the University of Toronto with a self-imposed workload she now realizes was completely unmanageable. She left school to marry and followed her husband’s career as a physician; they moved to several locations throughout the United States. Not long after setting up his first practice, her husband was killed in a car accident and she was left alone with two children and another on the way.

“You just don’t know what’s going to happen in life,” she says thoughtfully. “That was a big change in my life.”

She sold the house and her husband’s practice and moved back to Richmond Hill and to the support of her family. The loss was a devastating one, but by the time her youngest child started school, she eventually returned to her career as a psychometrist at the Hospital for Sick Kids.

Wanting more of a professional challenge, she heard about the university’s distance program and decided to give it a try, but wasn’t accepted on her first application. Feeling the university “didn’t really know me,” she asked for a meeting with professor Connie Kvarfordt and Brent Angell, director of the School of Social Work, hoping to appeal to them by explaining some of the extenuating circumstances and life experiences that she believed would enhance her ability to perform in the field of social work.

Accompanied by her brother and father, who came for emotional support, she travelled to Windsor to meet with Drs. Kvarfordt and Angell and to share her life story. She admitted having them along may have appeared a little odd, but said her family is a tight-knit group that’s always faced challenges together. Not long after that meeting, she found out she had been accepted.

“A lot of the learning I’ve done has been at a very personal level that you just don’t get in a text book,” she said. “I just felt like I had a lot to offer in terms of life experience and I think Dr. Angell really understood that.”

Shah says she’s thriving in the program now and is looking forward to soon practicing as a social worker in a mental health hospital setting. Given the increasing diversity of her community’s demographics, she feels like she has a lot to offer to help make it a better place.

“It seemed like the perfect program for me so I absolutely had to get in,” she says, reflecting back on her efforts to be accepted into the program. “You just know when something was meant to be.”