Aja Ellington is a MSW candidate at IU South Bend and an advocate for youth and families in underserved communities. Aja shared how she overcame adversity to pursue a life of service.
Why did you choose social work?
My goal in life was to become a nurse. This was my dream in high school as well as college. Throughout high school and even some college, the medical field was my area of focus. I completed all my nursing prerequisites and applied for the program. While waiting for my acceptance letter, I stumbled across the Human Services department at Ivy Tech Community College. After speaking with an advisor, I immediately changed my major from nursing to human services. That day, that moment in time, I found my passion, my calling, my dream. I graduated with an associate degree in Applied Science of Human Services then obtained my Bachelor of Social Work from Indiana University South Bend.
I did not choose to become a social worker. It chose me. Social work chose me because of my story, experiences, abilities, and my passion to help underserved youth and families. I was born into absolute poverty in East Saint Louis only to move to many different cities, couch surfing with my sisters, brothers, and father. Many of my childhood experiences consisted of homelessness, hunger, trauma, the incarceration of my mother, mental illness within the home and more Adverse Childhood Experiences than I can keep track of. The odds of me being alive were extremely rare let alone obtaining a high school diploma and college degrees. I beat the odds and I understood early on the power of giving back and uplifting others once I became able to do so.
How would you like to use your social work degree?
My social work degree will be utilized to enhance the quality of life for underserved youth, families, and communities. I will open an income-based counseling practice titled Free Your Wings Youth and Family Counseling to serve Saint Joseph County individuals. Another goal of mine is to provide awareness and implement programs that demonstrate the importance of the need for the criminal justice system to collaborate with the social work system to promote much needed change, trauma based services and unity within not only underserved populations but specifically the African American Culture.
What are you most passionate about learning (professionally and academically)?
I am passionate about learning the psychology of the human brain as it relates to trauma, poverty and mental health is in fact science. I am an expert on my past experiences as they relate to poverty and struggle, but to become a therapist, I must fully understand the science, methods, interventions, etc. when assisting individuals with life altering changes. Education is crucial when working with the different developmental stages of individuals.
How are you currently practicing social work (participating in events, projects, outreach opportunities, etc.)?
I currently practice social work at many different levels. I will highlight a few: I am Founder and CEO of Free Your Wings Youth Mentoring, Inc. We empower youth through mentoring, education, and community engagement in efforts to elevate and engage youth, families, and communities. We utilize evidence-based methods that support physical, mental, and social development. Our recent community event consisted of handing out over 200 COVID-19 awareness packets and masks to underserved youth and families near the south side area of South Bend.
I sit on the committee of the National Youth Advisory Council (NYAC) in advocating for homeless the voice of youth. Compromised of formerly homeless youth, my colleagues and I partner with the National Network for Youth (NN4Y) to develop policy recommendations and remove barriers to homeless youth accessing what they need. I am a contributing author to Love Letters to My Girls, a book and movement to inspire, uplift, motivate and empower black women and girls around the world. I am an advisory board member for Futures Without Violence, a new project research initiative designed to better understand how teens experience economic abuse and its impacts on their education, employment, and finances.
Words of wisdom/lessons learned
“Never let anyone cage you, never dim your light to make anyone else comfortable. You were not given wings by accident, therefore, utilize them to soar and be the best YOU, you can be. I am a proud, educated, product of Black excellence.” I have learned that the cards that I have been dealt in life were not only for me, but more so to assist me in guiding others to be the best version of themselves. Sometimes I amaze myself with my level of resiliency, drive, ambition, and courage to continue to change the image of where statistics said I would end up. I have beat the odds and I encourage everyone to invest in themselves mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and physically to ensure that you are able to continue your journey to success.
“A Beautiful Ellington Mind.” A quote by Rowland Ellington, father