Social Work Student Draws on Experience to Support Student Athletes’ Mental Health

Practicum; Social Work; Students

Ali Margherio was five years into a stint as a St. Louis area wedding planner when the COVID-19 pandemic started to roll across the globe. A return to higher education and a career change was always the plan. But the time never seemed right.

Her job impacted by the pandemic; Margherio enrolled in the Brown School’s Master of Social Work program in 2021. “I took stock of what I was doing and my joy level and realized it was time for a shift,” she said. 

The bearer of a history degree, Margherio thought she would be a history teacher. Conversations with her teacher wife and social work friends made her realize that she didn’t want to teach, but instead wanted to help people who were struggling.

Fast forward and Margherio is a second-year master of social work student with a focus on mental health. A former Division 1 athlete, Margherio is interested in working in mental health with collegiate student athletes. She is currently completing a practicum with Washington University’s Department of Athletics. In fact, Margherio created the practicum with WashU Athletics after not finding any existing placement that met her criteria.

She pitched the idea to Ryan Lindsay, associate professor of practice and the chair of the mental health concentration, who she said was instrumental in facilitating the practicum and supporting her through the process.

While a lot of students don’t typically go the build-your-own-practicum-route, Lindsay wasn’t surprised Margherio took that option.

“Ali isn’t afraid to build something without knowing how it turns out,” he said. “When Ali approached me to explore how she could combine her lived experiences as a college athlete and her desire to promote mental wellness, I was more than happy to support her in this endeavor. Ali is truly a compassionate, driven, and thoughtful student who will take this learning opportunity forward to create even greater impact.”

Lindsay said students at the Brown School are encouraged to explore and find opportunities to fill gaps and establish practicum sites with new stakeholders.

Margherio jokingly reflected on the process of creating her practicum: “I went to the athletic department and said this is who I am, this is my background, this is what I’m passionate about – please let me work for you for 600 hours for free. And they were like, OK.”

A rower in college, being a student athlete was a huge part of Margherio’s identity. She understands the complexity of balancing school, sports and a social life.

“It’s becoming more and more apparent that athletes in general, and specifically college student athletes are struggling to figure out the balance. When you get to the point where you’re a collegiate student athlete, you’ve been an athlete for most of your life and at a very high level. It’s a little bit of an identity struggle of ‘I’m a student and I’m an athlete, but where does me as a human fit into that?’ I think that causes a lot of anxiety.”

Additionally, she notes that a low percentage of collegiate athlete students go on to play professionally. Meaning, their journey and identity as a competitive athlete typically concludes at the end of college, potentially causing stress, anxiety and depression.

She feels it’s vital to support student athletes during these critical transitional points – entering college and leaving college.

“These are important shifts that weren’t talked about very much when I was a collegiate student athlete,” Margherio noted.

“We kind of accidentally started a business”

Margherio’s pivot to social work wasn’t the only career-related change that happened during the pandemic. Margherio and her wife founded a small Spanish-immersion learning collaborative called Casco Learning. Located in Chesterfield, Missouri, it serves to support homeschooling families. What started as a pandemic pod school for nine students has grown to 35 enrolled students and a waitlist.

“We kind of accidentally started a business,” she joked. She describes her role in Casco Learning as doing “all the business-y things.”

Margherio continues to wear her dual business and social work hats at the Brown School.

“One of the things that I really liked about the Brown School was that I could take classes in other schools,” she said. She enrolled in a business course with Doug Villhard, Professor of Practice in Entrepreneurship and Economic Director for Entrepreneurship at WashU’s Olin Business School.

Last year, Villhard encouraged Margherio to enter Casco Learning in the Skandalaris Venture Competition (SVC), which provides mentorship to new WashU ventures and startups to ready them for commercializing their idea, launching, and pitching to investors.

Margherio made it to the semifinals. While not a winner, she said it was a great learning opportunity. Ultimately, she would love to be a clinician, working directly in a mental health setting with collegiate student athletes. Her goal is to normalize mental health discussions among student athletes.