By Doug McPherson
In October 2015, Ley-Lonni Marie Woodruff was at a breaking point at the tender age of 16 when she sat down in front of her guidance counselor at Aurora’s Hinkley High School.
She and her older sister, who at age 18 was Woodruff’s legal guardian, had just had a falling-out, and Woodruff desperately needed a change. “I was ready to quit school and just move on to something else,” she said.
But she had no idea that something else would put on her track to turn her life around for the better.
“The counselor pulled out my list of credits, and she said, ‘Wow, you can finish high school at the end of your junior year,’” Woodruff said. “I had been taking a full load with no off periods, plus I had taken a lot of upper-level and honors classes, so the counselor was right. I’ve always loved learning. I hate homework, but I love learning.”
Woodruff suddenly saw a better future even though she was technically homeless and couch-surfing. She finished high school in spring 2016. During that summer, she turned 17 while looking over some college options and settled on Metropolitan State University of Denver.
“It was close, less of a commute; it was cost-efficient, and it offered good programs. The Social Work program was really strong,” she said.
So in fall 2016, just 10 months after that fateful visit to her counselor, she was in class starting her journey toward a bachelor’s degree in Social Work.
“My first year was a little strange – being in classes with a lot of nontraditional students, middle-aged people with rich histories,” Woodruff said. “I was just a baby. It took about a year, but I’d say I felt better by my sophomore year.”
But while her academic life was progressing, she was still struggling in her personal life. “I ended up in foster care in a situation that wasn’t good,” she said. “I just didn’t have a strong support team; my childhood-welfare team wasn’t helping me.”
After turning 18, Woodruff was able to find her own apartment, buy a car and settle her personal life enough that she could focus on her studies.
She clearly did that, graduating in 2020 with a 4.0 GPA. What’s more, she earned acceptance into MSU Denver’s Master of Social Work program. And more good news: She got into the advanced-standing program, which had to feel like déjà vu because it allowed her to finish school quickly. She completed her master’s in one year. She graduates this month and has a job waiting for her that appears to be tailor-made, working as a case manager for the homeless population at Mile High Behavioral Healthcare in Denver.
“I’ve worked with students who were experiencing homelessness, but this new job is like the next level,” she said.
Woodruff said she loved the Social Work program at MSU Denver for many reasons.
“I identified with Social Work’s core values, the mission statement, the principles and the framework because they all focus on seeing the person in their environment – taking time to realize what’s going on, what’s influencing their life,” she said. “It’s about offering people a kind of wraparound service that helps them as a whole person.”
She also liked social work’s flexibility. “As I was going through the program, I learned that you could work with practically any population. I wanted to be so many things within the profession, and I realized I could be all those things. I could work with immigration, criminal justice, work as a clinical social worker – all of it.”
Woodruff said looking back at the past five years, she did feel some remorse. “I think my biggest regret was putting school as my top priority,” she said. “I mean, it’s bittersweet. I loved learning, but also at times I neglected my self-care because of school.”
At the end of her bachelor’s program, Woodruff said, she could feel herself burning out.
“You learn a lot about yourself in college,” she said. “I learned to practice better self-care, to give it the best you’ve got no matter what and don’t compare your story to other students – just focus on your own stuff.”
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