“I would like to know about what my clinical professor Kathy Armenta is up to these days!” A few variations of this request came with readers’ responses to The Utopian survey last fall.
As a member of the clinical faculty at the School of Social Work for the past 19 years, Armenta has accompanied hundreds of students in their journeys to become social workers. One year, students in her cohort pasted photographs of Armenta’s smiling face on top of their graduation caps – surely a mighty view from above! We chatted with Armenta about life, books, social work, what she is up to these days, and we condensed all that in the collection of entries below.
SHE LIVES with her husband in Manchaca, in a ranch house on three acres that they bought sixteen years ago and named Rancho Mariposa. “When we were looking at the place the monarchs had covered it, and it was gorgeous! It was a sign.” The Armentas visit often their two grown children and two grandchildren in Houston.
SHE LOVES gardening. She grows some vegetables and has a few fruit trees, but she gets the most enthusiastic when she talks about flowers — day lilies, zinnias, roses. Over the years she has created what she calls a peace garden. “I have a little Buddhist temple, Our Lady of Guadalupe, symbols from various other worldviews, and I just spend some time out there and offer that time for peace in the world.”
SHE IS READING Sandra Cisneros’s A House of My Own. She is a fan of Cisneros’s Have You Seen Marie? “It’s little tiny book that you would buy and give to someone who is recovering from a recent loss. It’s the story of a friend of hers who comes to visit, and when she comes the cat gets out, so they spend time wandering around San Antonio looking for Marie, but it parallels looking for her mom who had recently died. And the paintings in this little book are beautiful. I love Sandra.”
HER OFFICE is very tidy, with filing cabinets arranged in rows and color-coded cards on the front of each drawer. Her Mac’s desktop is unfussy – a monochrome image and a few folder icons. “I like to file things so I can find them later!” she says. But please don’t imagine a Spartan office: Photographs of students, colleagues, friends, and family are everywhere, and conscience-raising stickers cover the door and spill out onto the hallway walls.
SHE WAS BORN in Arizona to a Mexican-American family who had been in the same area for seven generations. “I was raised by a single mom and a grandmother in a home where Spanish was spoken. But I was not allowed to speak Spanish for fear of, you know, getting disciplined on the playground. I had to answer in English so I lost the conversational piece. That was the era,” Armenta says.
SHE DEFINES HERSELF as Mexican American. “My father was a first generation Scott, he gave my brother his red hair and gave me my fair skin, but we didn’t have a connection with his family and he passed away when we were young. So my upbringing and my background are steeped in my mother and grandmother’s Mexican-American culture.” At the time of this conversation, Armenta was planning a tamalada for Thanksgiving.
SHE WORKS CLOSELY with the Social Justice Action Coalition, a student group at the School of Social Work committed to activism at UT Austin and the community around issues of social justice. Social action has been part of Armenta’s life from early on – after all, she grew up in the 1960s, and to a mother who believed in helping others through church and community activities. During high school, she channeled some of that energy into writing: “I found myself writing op-eds for the school newspaper and that sort of thing. This was before Title IX so I was always upset about injustices like girls not being able to play sports and other issues that we noticed and got riled up about.” In college, she helped with the Robert Kennedy campaign and was active in an organization that raised scholarship funds for Mexican-American students.
SHE MAJORED in social administration at the University of Arizona in Tucson, after realizing that not many journalism jobs would be open to women. “Social administration was then what a bachelor of social work is now. I really loved it.” After a working hiatus, she got her master of social work degree from Arizona State University.
HER FIRST INTERNSHIP was with the welfare department. “I learned so much! Tucson is pretty diverse, 60 miles from the border and surrounded by three Native American reservations. I saw so much need for families and children.”
SHE WAS THE FIRST school social worker at Round Rock Independent School District. That was in the 1980s, once the Armentas had moved to Texas. “I soon became a field instructor for the School of Social Work and started hosting interns. I got to know Bonnie Bain, Jean Avera, Deena Mersky, Jane Kretzschmar and other individuals from the school.” In 1997 she became a field faculty member at the School of Social Work.
SHE WAS ECSTATIC this past February to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Texas School Social Workers Conference. Armenta has been involved with the organization of the conference since the very beginning, in 1990, and has chaired the conference committee for the past 16 years. “This event is so special to me. I loved being a school social worker for many years and I know by experience that practicing in school settings can be a challenging, humbling and inspiring experience. The folks who attend our conference are excited to learn new ways to help youth, families and teachers and to network with colleagues from all over Texas and beyond.”
SHE IS ALL ABOUT forming leaders through field education: “In my days it was not discussed that a big chunk of being a social worker is being a leader: An individual whose opinion is sought after, an individual who can help facilitate and manage things. That was not part of the curriculum but in field, and in every job I got afterwards, that’s exactly what it was. Learning the skill of how to assess what is going on with the interactions, how to intervene, and get people on the same page. Field is the living laboratory for leadership development.”
SHE TELLS STUDENTS from the start that there is a hidden agenda in social work: “Each of you, whether you perceive yourself as a leader or not, are going to be one. You will have to find your leadership skills and use them right away from day one. You will have to find your voice.”
EVERYDAY, SHE IS EXCITED about helping her students realize what an honor it is to accompany clients in their journeys. “Students are surprised, and shocked at times, by the depth of pain and trauma that nearly every individual or family they encounter has experienced. But they are also surprised at how resilient human beings are, and how people learn to cope with and handle adversity. The exciting part for me is when they wake up to realize what an honor it is that we social workers even get to be a part of that: To share some time and energy with this person who has been surviving before we came into the picture, and to walk alongside them even if it’s for a brief period. It’s such an honor. I always look to see if my students get that.”
By Andrea Campetella | Spring 2016