Image: Tom Boon
[Aaron Hurst | Contributing Writer]
We conducted an interview with University of Hertfordshire alumna, Fiona BeLieu Williston, who graduated from Hatfield Polytechnic in 1986. While at Herts, Fiona completed a degree in Applied Social Studies with a Certificate of Qualification in Social Work, and is currently working for the Cumberland-Perry Drug & Alcohol Commission in Pennsylvania as a Prevention Program Supervisor.
TM: We were intrigued to hear that you graduated from Herts back in 1986! Did you enjoy your time there?
F: Very much! I was at the Hertford campus and it was quite a lovely setting. I really enjoyed my course and fellow students. I looked at a lot of other campuses before deciding on Hatfield Polytechnic; the small town life and small campus appealed to me.
TM: What kind of skills did you develop while studying for Applied Social Studies with Certificate of Qualification in Social Work? And do they still hold value now?
F: Individual and community assessment skills, interviewing skills, social work practice, advocacy, writing, outreach and community relations, policy change initiatives. I use all of these skills now. I expected to work primarily in a casework setting but my career for the past 18 years is mostly about change at a community level. Hertford gave me a good grounding for my professional life. I still have most of my course notes and only recently gave away some of the books and texts that I used in classes.
TM: How was your course set up in terms of its teaching and classes? Was it more practical-based, made up of lectures or a mixture of both?
F: Lots of practice but a good blend of theory too! The first year of four years was almost all classes except for a community study that we did. For the remaining three we spent a lot of time in the field. I had four placements; a social services department in North London, residential facility for children with developmental needs in the Oxfordshire countryside, a community mental health facility in Banbury, Oxon, and a workplace substance abuse program at a United States Air Force Base. Lots of variety and it was easy to customise placements to suit my interests and where I wanted to be (I got married after my second year and my husband lived in Banbury)! I loved the classes too especially law. After taking maths and science classes through school to please my parents studying the social sciences felt like coming home.
TM: How easy was it to make friends while studying at Hatfield Polytechnic?
F: There were only a few other majors at the Hertford campus which included business and surveying. I felt my course was a little odd man out because we all tended to be ideologically opposed to the mostly conservative pro-business majors during the Thatcher years! There were lots of heated debates! We also spent a lot of time off campus so almost all my friendships were within my course. I still keep in contact with a few.
TM: Hatfield Polytechnic was granted university status in 1992, and is now known as the University of Hertfordshire. It is now based over two campuses, each with its own multi-storey LRC filled with computers, study cafes and mac suites. Could you tell us about what the learning facilities at Hatfield Polytechnic were like when you studied there?
F: Pretty basic. It was just the start of computers and we were supposed to get a 6-week course but ended up getting a two day blast right before graduation. It was thought at the time that social workers wouldn’t have much use for computer skills!! So funny as I use technology all day long now. The campus and classrooms were lovely however especially the mansion. I had most of my law classes in the mansion and it felt very appropriate to be studying the law in that imposing environment. I also took advantage of the athletic facilities. I swam most mornings, played badminton, ran, and had my first introduction to kayaking. I still enjoy kayaking to this day!
TM: What did you do right after graduating?
F: I worked for a large social services department in Milton Keynes. I had a job secured months before graduation unlike a lot of graduates today. I was lucky as there was still a lot of support for the goals of social work at the time. Despite the thoroughness of my course and the placements, it was quite a shock to enter real life and I was thrown in at the deep end!
TM: You’ve been living in the United States since 1988, why did you decide to settle there?
F: I married an American, actually my high school sweetheart! I had spent four years in Northern Virginia as a teenager. My husband was in the service. We stayed in the UK for as long as we could but eventually the USAF wanted him stateside. We lived in California for three years, five in the Maryland suburbs of DC, and Pennsylvania for the past 20! My family of origin remains in the UK so I am home often. From time to time I have considered returning to live in the UK but feel that now my professional skills may not be so transferable.
TM: You’re now a Prevention Program Supervisor for the Cumberland-Perry Drug & Alcohol Commission. What does this role involve, and what aspects of the role are rewarding to you?
F: I love my current job! In a nutshell, my role is to plan and implement a comprehensive prevention strategy for residents of Cumberland and Perry Counties. We work closely with the State of Pennsylvania who in turn work with the Federal Government on Substance Abuse Prevention priorities. There is a lot of variety in who I work with and what I do. Every day is different. Recently, we have been moving to more data-based decision making and I really enjoy this piece of my work. For years, we thought we were doing good work but now we can use data to demonstrate and improve our outcomes. My favorite part of my job is probably working on policy changes. I get to spend some time working with local, state, and federal legislators on initiatives that are important to the field. I was particularly involved in helping to get tobacco control measures passed in PA. Right now, we are in a battle to prevent the State Liquor Control Board from being dismantled and the introduction of medical marijuana. Pennsylvania, with its Quaker and religious heritage, has a very well-developed commitment to prevention and sobriety compared to other states.
We’d like to thank Fiona for agreeing to this insightful interview. This just goes to show that the University has a history of providing subject-specific employability skills in order to prepare graduates for the world of work. It also shows how much the University has changed and evolved with the times in the last 30 years!