B.S.W. student wins Social Work’s Brehler scholarship with essay on overcoming prejudice


Undergraduate student Farhana Aktar has won the School of Social Work’s Elizabeth N. Brehler Scholarship with an essay about overcoming the prejudice she has experienced both outside and inside her own culture, and how this has empowered her to help others as a social worker.

Established at the School of Social Work in 1992, the annual Brehler manuscript competition awards $3,000 to the student who best describes how his or her personal and professional values conflict with the professional obligations of social work. But rather than reflect on her personal limitations, biases and prejudices, Aktar (left in image) chose in her winning essay to look at how the limitations, biases and prejudices of others have influenced and shaped her life and career as a social worker.

A Bangladeshi-American woman, Aktar describes the difficult task of simultaneously confronting ignorance and discrimination as a result of being a Bengali and a Muslim from those outside her race and faith, as well as the cultural constraints and sexual subjugation from members of her own family, who asserted her worth as a wife and mother and dissuaded her from pursuing higher education and a career. Empowered and encouraged by her independent-minded mother, Aktar enrolled at Wayne State but nevertheless experienced depression and anxiety as, she writes, “I tried to balance my own internal conflicts with who my culture dictates I should be and my desire to re-story my own destiny.”

Among the many strategies Aktar found to overcome her internal conflict was narrative theory, a social work-derived tool of psychotherapy which emphasizes that people’s identities and problems are often socially constructed, and that people can recreate problematic stories in their lives to give their lives new and meaningful direction. Realizing that she had allowed others to frame her understanding of being a woman, a Bengali, and a Muslim, Aktar became determined to “re-story” these narratives about herself to reassert her own dignity and self-worth and to fuel her determination to succeed.

“I am discovering that it is not the narratives that are put upon us that guide our lives; rather, it is the ones we believe about ourselves,” Aktar writes in her essay. “As social workers, we are charged with the responsibility of empowering clients. Operating from a strengths-based perspective, we do not see them as their problems, but we strive to get them to see solutions amidst their problems.”

Aktar said that while winning the Brehler scholarship was an honor, writing the essay was its own reward.

“I took a risk writing it, and I really thought I couldn’t do it,” Aktar recalls. “When I finished it, I felt relieved and so brave. My whole family was happy and proud. It was the first time they saw me do something like this and they did not expect it.”

M.S.W. advisor Tamarie Willis (right in image), who served as Aktar’s mentor for the manuscript contest, said Aktar “represents the future of the profession.”

“She is a young woman who had to overcome the racial, gender, and religious biases of society, all while fighting against the cultural norms within her own household that wanted to put limits on her education and her value as a woman,” Willis observed. “Her story is one of endurance, tenacity and willpower.”

Students and faculty interested in learning more about the Brehler Manuscript Competition are invited to join previous scholarship recipients and the director of the Competition on Thursday, November 29, 2018 from 2:30 - 3:30 pm in the School of Social Work Conference Room #233 (5447 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48202) for an Information Session to kick-off the 2018-19 competition season. For questions or additional information, contact Betsy Vanderstelt at fq0994@wayne.edu or 313-577-4464 or visit our website

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