Ashley Elliston-Cowher

Episode Summary

On this episode, Ashley Elliston-Cowher shares how she applies her CASC experience and Social Work training to work in nonprofit organizations that support aging populations. Learn how she engages in self care, approaches challenges, and maintains health, wellness and mindfulness. Since the time of this interview, she has applied her social work training and skills into the management of research grants for faculty in higher education.

Episode Transcription

Amber Williams (00:04):

Hi. Welcome to Podcasc: Stories Of Community Action and Social Change In The Real World. And if you didn't catch that before, that's podcasc, as in the undergraduate minor here in the school of social work. This is an ongoing series of interviews that feature the diverse stories of CASC alumni who share highs, lows, and other revelations about community action and social change after college. Each interview captures unique stories about some of your earliest memories CASCing, how certain lessons learned carry with them or have been challenged or contradicted over time. Today's interview features Ashley Elliston hosted by Joe Galura, a long time advisor and faculty in the minor. Check out our story.


Joe Galura (00:51):

Welcome listeners to the CASC alumni podcast. I'm your host Joe Galura, a lecturer here in the school of social work, and it's my privilege to introduce today's distinguished guest Ashley Elliston-Cowher. Ashley was a transfer student from Michigan State. She double majored in psychology and Spanish. She also double minored in CASC and IGR. Ashley matriculated into our MSW program and served as the CASC Graduate Student Services Assistant supervising co-curricular student leadership and then delivered the CASC graduation address in 2018. Ashley is now the program coordinator of the Alzheimer's Association. For a deep dive into her work there, go online to Ann Arbor Exclusive 35. Welcome Ashley. Now as you look back, can you tell us more about who you are, your name, pronouns, community identities, kind of key experiences before you came to college?


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (01:55):

Sure. Thanks for having me. I'm really happy to be here. Yeah. Again, my name is Ashley Elliston-Cowher and my pronouns are she her hers. I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan and lived there until I did my undergrad starting at MSU in East Lansing and then coming to Ann Arbor. And I've been in the area here ever since.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (02:21):

So in terms of experiences that I recall pre college around social justice. I grew up in a pretty homogenous community and so a lot of the people I saw and grew up with looked like me and I think that a lot of times I had feelings that I maybe felt uncomfortable with the things people were saying or I would wonder why things are the way they are without really having the appropriate language to express it, so maybe if I had friends or relatives that was using language that made me feel uncomfortable but I didn't really know why. I always had a passion for fundraising and so I would do things like fundraisers, lemonade stands, can drives, that kind of thing to raise money for local nonprofits. So I think I always naturally gravitated towards social justice issues and thinking about those kinds of topics, but I really didn't have an avenue to explore that or understand my thinking around it until coming to college.


Joe Galura (03:29):

That actually, a nice transition to coming to college. I remember when you were my 401, you were talking about FreeHearts.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (03:39):

Yes. Good memory. Yeah. FreeHearts was an organization I joined pretty quickly when transferring to U of M. I came in the second semester of my sophomore year and it's kind of hard to find a community at that point because a lot of people have their friend groups pretty situated, they're involved in their student orgs. So coming halfway through the second year I was looking for a group to join and so I went to winterfest and stumbled across FreeHearts And the group seemed pretty nice. It was a organization focused on anti-human trafficking efforts, so both raising money for organizations that are fighting human trafficking as well as educating the campus about issues around human trafficking. I'm sad to say I don't know if it is still in existence, but I think those issues are still really prevalent. So I really enjoyed having that time to learn a lot about that issue and educate other people on campus about local all the way to worldwide human trafficking issues.


Joe Galura (04:49):

Can you talk a little bit more about some of the core lessons or takeaways from your undergrad?


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (04:55):

Sure. I think having the language to express myself is something that was really key in my undergraduate experience and that I've found is really useful today too in terms of, again, just having language on how to talk about topics that are challenging or talking with people who disagree the way I think. I think both CASC and IGR have helped me navigate those difficult conversations. I also think that another key thing I learned in undergrad was the importance of keeping an open mind and recognizing how much I don't know. And I believe that I have a pretty good willingness to admit when I'm wrong and take in new information and try to do my own research to better my understanding on a variety of topics. And so as we were in CASC classes and IGR classes and also social work classes in my graduate experience, and there was a lot times when I would say something that was wrong or bad information or was based off of my very limited experience that I was extrapolating to other people. So I think that's a really key takeaway from undergrad is, again, just that ability to admit that I'm wrong, take in new information to change my own perspective and do my own research, and to continue to build on my own experience in that way.


Joe Galura (06:24):

Yeah I don't want to cut things off as if your MSW experience doesn't exist, but for you there's kind of a transition, right? CASC minor, IGR minor, psych major, Spanish major, right into the MSW program and being the CASC graduate student services assistant. What was that transition like?


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (06:47):

Yeah. I've thought about this a lot in terms of the benefits of going straight into a master's program versus taking some time to work. With the GSSA position with CASC that was kind of too good of an opportunity to pass up. So that made my decision a little bit easier. I think the transition logistically for me was pretty easy in terms of workload, in terms of class schedules, group projects, that kind of thing. It felt like a pretty natural transition because I was accustomed to that in undergrad and I saw that some people who had been out of school for a little longer and then come back that those, again, like logistical pieces like writing papers and group projects and that kind of thing took a little bit more of an adjustment.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (07:35):

And I will say, at the same time, those other people who did work and then come back to grad school for any variety of reasons, whether it was intentional or they didn't know they would want an MSW or financially or time-wise it didn't work out, the experience and context that they were able to bring into the classroom as we're learning about theories and different activists and that kind of thing, the experience, and again, context and application of how these things manifest in the quote real world, I think was really fascinating and I benefited a lot from hearing their perspective. So I remember talking a lot with other students who had gone straight to the MSW program and think we don't know nearly as much as these people and Oh my gosh, we are learning so much from them and there's so much we don't know. So I feel really fortunate that I was able to learn from the other people in my classroom. But I think that potentially there were some courses or topics or things that I could have gotten a lot more out of had I had a chance to work full-time a little bit and then come back to the program.


Joe Galura (08:45):

So here's an interesting piece to this. And I remember, right, when you were the GSSAS, having conversations about not only the skills and the content, but also how that did translate into the real world, right, because a lot of what you were learning, right, actually moved you into your current position, right?


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (09:06):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Joe Galura (09:06):

So can you talk a little bit about the learning, the skills, the competencies, and how that transitions into what you're doing now?


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (09:15):

Yeah, definitely. So I kind of fell into my position a little bit. When I had enrolled in the MSW program I was enrolled under children in youth and IP. And by the time I was graduating I had switched to aging adults and management. So it was a total flip-flop there.


Joe Galura (09:40):

Yes. I remember some of those conversations.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (09:41):

I think a lot of that originally came from feeling like IP was quote, true social work and fundraising and making budgets and macro practice and changing policies. That was something that I was really excited about and came easier to me than the interpersonal practice classes and topics.


Joe Galura (10:05):

And it was stuff that you have had a track record of doing right back to pre college.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (10:11):

Right. Yes, exactly. Yeah, that's what my experience was in, but there was a part of me who felt like that macro social work basically was less than micro social work. And so I put myself into IP children and youth because I have this picture that that's what a real social worker was. And then after coming to the MSW program, when I was in my fundraising class or other classes that were more macro focused and I would hear other people saying, this is terrible, I hate doing this or I don't want to make budgets or this is not my cup of tea kind of thing and I was like, Oh wait, okay, maybe I do have a role to fill here. And just because I like this, that doesn't mean everybody likes it. Maybe I like it because it comes naturally to me and it's okay that budgets and fundraising and macro practice are all, that's how organizations keep running a lot of times. And both macro and micro, we always say you never do fully just one or the other, there's a combination everywhere, but they really both have a place.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (11:13):

So yeah, that's how I switched to management. And then I admitted to myself too, I did a lot of volunteering and past jobs were working with kids, but I just didn't see it as a passion long-term for a career. I love kids, but in terms of my job I didn't see myself wanting to move forward in that direction. So I talked with advisors at the school of social work and was like, okay, what are my other options? And I basically picked aging because it was a new skillset. It was something new that I could learn about that I didn't know that much about. I felt like it was a specific skillset too that I could leave with because I didn't quite understand maybe what some of the other tracks were. I felt more comfortable that the aging adults in society would kind of have this specific role or unique role in terms of what types of jobs I could look for outside of the program. So with those two I kind of just picked those two pieces and jumped and I ended up loving it and it was a really great fit and got matched at the Alzheimer's Association for my field placement.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (12:18):

And so I was there for about a year and then, well it was a year, and then it was time to pick my second field placement, because I was on the 20 month track, and I actually worked to create my own field placement. I got there and it wasn't the right fit and I just wanted to be back at the Alzheimer's Association. And so I called my old supervisor and I said, "will you take me back please?" And I talked with my field instructor that was at the place that I had created that internship. She wasn't able to commit the time she wanted to commit to what I was doing and I spent a lot of time without anything to do, trying my best to ask questions and come up with projects, but she just wasn't able to really be there very often or help me get started on any projects or anything like that. So after a few months of sitting there with nothing to do, I thought, okay, I need to speak up and move somewhere else because I'm not learning in this position.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (13:12):

So that's how I ended up back at the Alzheimer's Association for almost another full year. And then maybe a couple months before I was getting ready to graduate they had a position open up, which was funny again because my field placement was in fundraising there and the position that opened up was a program coordinator position, which was more micro focused. And so I said, well, I love the association. I thoroughly read the job description and talked with my supervisors about it and I still thought it would be a good fit for me and I figured, hey, if I don't like working in the programs department, at the very least it's going to make me a better fundraiser because this is what the fundraisers are fundraising for is to do these programs.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (13:57):

So long story short is I ended up getting that position and worked part-time until graduation and then switched to full-time. And then I'll add as one last part, it's kind of funny that they are really doing a large shift in what the program coordinators do at the Alzheimer's Association and it is really moving to a macro focused position, more volunteer management, changing policies, that kind of thing. So I've really had this back and forth which I think goes to show you're never really going to have just one or the other in terms of macro and micro.


Joe Galura (14:33):

Let me ask you to clarify a little bit. Can you talk more specifically about what the Alzheimer's Association does, what your job description is, and then maybe reflect back. Are some of those skills and competencies and lessons things that relate to what you were doing in CASC?


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (14:53):

Definitely. So my, again, my position title is Program Coordinator and the Alzheimer's Association, our vision is a world without Alzheimer's. So that's the very high level goal. And our mission focuses more on providing care and support to all affected, promoting brain health and helping to reduce the prevalence of the disease or risk of the disease, and raising money for research. So we're actually the third largest funder of research for Alzheimer's in the world behind the US government and the Chinese government. So we raise a lot of money for research and we try to provide care until there's a cure is kind of what we say.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (15:38):

So in my specific role, I do a wide variety of things. A lot of what I do is overseeing our volunteers because I cover six counties and our chapter covers 23 counties so we have a lot of ground to cover. And we couldn't do what we did without volunteers in terms of facilitating support groups locally, having education programs locally, showing up at health fairs in all of these different counties.


Joe Galura (16:05):

Just sounds a lot like CASC.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (16:06):

Yes, exactly. Definitely working at CASC in my GSSA position too, there's a ton of overlap there, again, in terms of coordinating with volunteers. Working with the CASC student board for example, there's a lot of that that overlaps. Event planning, again health fairs, all those types of things overlap a ton in the position so that was really helpful. And I think in terms of CASC classes, just it was so terrible sometimes in the moment, but those group projects and working together is, I would have to do all the time. And sometimes you're working with people that you really click with and it's super efficient and gets done immediately and sometimes I have a very different working style than the person I'm working with. And I think that doing all those projects, especially around issues that are sensitive sometimes with CASC, has prepared me to be able to do that in my job now. Obviously always sometimes things are uncomfortable, but I feel more confident navigating those situations.


Joe Galura (17:08):

Have you faced new challenges in your present position? New challenges, new lessons, new tensions? Have they emerged in this position?


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (17:16):

Yeah. I think one major thing, and I'm not really sure how to articulate this well, is at my core, in my position I am supporting people who are affected by Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia. So that means I'm helping people care plan about where does my loved one go if I can't take care of them at home or my loved one cannot be driving anymore and how do I take away the keys. Or one family I worked with not that long ago came to me and said, "my spouse just got diagnosed with Alzheimer's and the doctor gave us the diagnosis as if it was strep throat. We didn't even get a pamphlet. And I happened to see your sign. Like what is Alzheimer's disease?" And so a lot of education. And so that is my core responsibility.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (18:07):

And there are a lot of times, maybe not a lot, but there are a number of times when I'm working with families and individuals who express views that are very different than my own that I want to speak up about, that I find problematic, different comments or ideas that they might be sharing during that process. So that's one challenge that I've come across is how to navigate serving individuals who think very differently than me, but they're not there to talk about that and I'm not there to talk about that. I'm there to help them with their current situation, which is Alzheimer's disease. So a, how to navigate those conversations because I don't feel good saying nothing and then leaving and ignoring it, but I also know that it's not necessarily going to be helpful or productive in that moment either, especially if they're in a different type of crisis situation. So that's something that has come up and I've talked about it in supervision and those types of things is how to navigate those conversations and how to think about that too during and after those conversations.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (19:17):

And maybe I just missed it, but I feel like it wasn't talked about so much in... There was some conversations around it, but I think I would have benefited from more conversations around that. At the same time though, it can be hard to really talk about those kinds of things until you're actually in it to understand practically what that would look like. So that's one thing


Joe Galura (19:38):

Yeah. Out in the field there's a certain amount of triaging that you need to do, right? So there's a crisis, right? As a social worker you need to respond to the crisis and there's other stuff too, but the first thing you need to do is respond to the crisis.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (19:58):

So yeah, that has been interesting for me. I think another challenge that I'm working through too is how to be empathetic and really care for the people that I'm working with. And at the same time, not leaving a meeting and letting my mind spiral of, oh my gosh, this could be me in 50 years or what would I do if I lost my spouse in this way or my parent in this way. And I know a lot of people have gone through that and I'm sure that could be applicable to many different fields and voluntary health organizations, but that balance of being empathetic and building those relationships and also not taking that on in an unhealthy way and bringing it with me, that has been a tricky balance to learn too.


Joe Galura (20:47):

Yes. The real challenge in social work there, to balance the personal and the professional, which in CASC we do talk about it as self care, but there is a level of intensity when it's your job and you're committed to doing that 40 hours a week to then draw boundaries.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (21:09):

Yeah. I think one, in terms of self-care too, something else I learned from CASC was just the importance of community and reaching out to mentors or friends or anything like that. And I think I really did find that in CASC and IGR too while I was an undergrad, just a community of people that I really trusted and could lean on and seek advice or just a listening ear. So that is something that I think is really foundational to what CASC stands for. I mean, it's the first word, community action and social change. And so building those communities, the importance of building relationships and relying on those relationships and being able to give in those relationships as well as accept support in those relationships too.


Joe Galura (21:56):

Yeah. That's an interesting point you're bringing. To relate this to your story, I've read some research recently about college success. Write down. What these researchers found is yeah, that's one of the primary things, right? Does the incoming student link to a community? And then you're talking about it, social workers building community in a therapeutic sense, but there's also the need for social workers to also be part of a community for their own support.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (22:31):

Yeah. I do remember too kind of along the same lines as FreeHearts and CASC, it really was a home for me or a place to meet other friends, again mentors, professors, advisors, those types of people who I could rely on as a community when I was in this new setting. And so I think that applies as I'm in these other new settings of work or my MSW program and those types of things is I can remember how beneficial that was for me to have that community at CASC and the importance to spend time and some energy as much as I can and building that in whatever new setting I find myself in. And staying connected with CASC friends and those things too and keeping those relationships up.


Joe Galura (23:14):

You're always welcome here Ashley. looking to the future, all right? So what are you looking forward to, right? What skills, knowledge, approaches do you want to build on? How do you see yourself doing that?


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (23:29):

Yeah, I think one thing that I look forward to continuing to build, and I know that it will just come with time, is confidence in the work I'm doing. The more I interact with other colleagues and professionals, the more I think, okay, everyone's a little bit making it up as they go on a day to day basis. May be people who I look at and I'm like, Oh, they have it all figured out and know exactly what they're doing and then you get to know them a little better and work with more people and I'm like, Oh, everyone's a little bit confused about how they're going to accomplish their next goal or the best way to approach an issue. So it's kind of a balance of being comfortable with ambiguity and being comfortable not knowing the answers to everything, but also building up my confidence as I have just been working longer and learn more tools on how to support families and community resources and all those things.


Joe Galura (24:28):

Any final words? Because I remember, right, you did do the graduation address in 2018, right? Any final words? Any things you want to say to current CASC students as a distinguished alumni?


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (24:46):

To current CASC students. So one thing I've learned about self care is that it's very important and it's not always easy. And by that I mean that, I think for a long time I had, for myself at least, I had this impression that self-care was like, Oh, just letting myself do whatever I feel like doing or I can just watch TV all night. And sometimes that's what you need, but the more I've learned that I'm like no, self care isn't easy, it isn't always fun. It's going to the gym because I know I'll feel way better and less stressed if I have some exercise or doing a little extra food prep so I have a healthy lunch. Or even if I'm maybe a little bit tired still, maybe I feel really busy, but still scheduling time to meet up with friends and keep relationships going.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (25:37):

So that's been a shift in mentality for me, that self-care isn't always super easy or super convenient, but it pays off in the long run. Things like, again, eating healthy, exercising, maintaining relationships that are important. And sometimes, maybe that means Netflix, but it's not just Netflix. So that's been good for me to learn and the importance of maintaining boundaries. And that's another form of self care that is not easy. And I decided that I'm not going to look at email after 5:00 PM except on rare cases I have to and that's okay. And if I just set that boundary and set that standard for myself, then that's what people will expect of me. And so I think really considering what do I need to feel good and healthy, what do I need to feel energized, what do I need to feel supported, and work really hard at maintaining those things even if it takes some extra time and energy as much as someone can.


Joe Galura (26:37):

Even as program coordinator at the Alzheimer's Association you're not on call 24/7, 365 days a year.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (26:45):

No I am not. But it can be easy to fall into that though. I mean there is always more work that can be done. So unless I really say I'm going to put this away so I can do X, Y, and Z tonight and be focused again tomorrow, that's what I found I have to do for myself because there's always more paperwork that has to get done, there's always more people who need to be called, there's always more education programs I can schedule. And covering six counties, I have to somewhat accept that I'm never going to serve every person who needs services. Maybe I can with support of volunteers and as we build up this robust system. But in any field you're never going to be able to do every single thing. You can only do as much as you can do. And if I burn out and get sick or whatever it may be, then that's not going to be good for everyone. So yes, not on call 24/7, but wanting to be able to do as much as I can and reach as many people as I can by being healthy and energized and productive while I am at work and able to do those things.


Joe Galura (27:59):

Thank you Ashley. Thank you for helping us to imagine a world without Alzheimer's through the lens of CASC.


Ashley Elliston-Cowher (28:07):

Yes. Thank you for having me.


Amber Williams (28:12):

Thanks for listening everyone and check us out next week for the next alumni interview. We'll be on Apple Podcast and also Spotify.