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Gina Pursley -- University of Maryland, Baltimore

Gina Pursley had no plans to be a social worker -- and she never planned to need the assistance of one, either. But both have come to pass. The crumbling economy and illness afflicting her husband have left the 51-year-old as a single mother of three without a source of income. Her family lost its Hereford farm, and she had to shutter her Parkton antique store and rely on food stamps to feed her three daughters. She hopes to turn things around starting Friday, when she graduates from the University of Maryland, Baltimore with a master's in social work. "I can't wait for some normalcy," Pursley said. "This degree has offered me that." Before everything changed, Pursley was content as a mom, operating her antique shop during the day and making it home each afternoon in time to have dinner for her family. In the 1980s, she worked for banks and alongside her husband at biotechnology companies in Boston. But when her husband became unable to work because of liver disease, she had to make a decision. Unable to care for him while also supporting the family financially, Pursley began exploring careers in social work. Her husband moved to Ohio with a daughter from a previous marriage to care for him. At the University of Maryland, she was able to gain experience through internships at the Baltimore County Detention Center and Wellspan Behavioral Health in York, Pa. She is now looking for jobs at local hospitals caring for patients in mental health crisis. "If I wasn't accepted into this program, our lives would have taken a very different turn," she wrote of her family in a letter to Richard Barth, dean of the social work school. "I am so proud of myself and this school to afford me the opportunity to change our lives forever." Barth said it was an encouraging letter to receive, given that Pursley can use her degree to help others in situation just like hers. "We prepare them to be instrumental in helping others to overcome odds," Barth said. --Scott Dance
Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun
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