A dark-skinned male presenting person with a beard and braids wearing a gray suit standing outside

Derek Nettingham

AM '21
Fields of interest
Global/International Social Work, Academia

The Crown Family School prepared Derek Nettingham to be an advocate for marginalized populations

Derek Nettingham had received two degrees and worked for seven years as a university employee in Colorado when he began considering new career options. Then he asked his mentors what they thought about the idea of him returning to school at the age of 30. 

“Funny enough, a lot of my campus mentors were University of Chicago grads. I’m like, OK, so what’s up with this University of Chicago place?” Nettingham said. The show of camaraderie and relationship-building that he experienced during a campus visit sold him on the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. Now an alumnus, Derek was a full-time student in the Master’s Program in Social Work, Social Policy, and Social Administration, with a concentration in Social Administration.

His work at Colorado State University (CSU) made him realize that he needed more schooling to make himself a more effective advocate for marginalized populations.

“I worked primarily with marginalized students from all over the world, whether it was through admissions or through a living-learning community on campus,” he said. “While doing that work for all those years, I have to say I noticed a pretty clear gap in my expertise when it came to working with students in regard to mental health.” 

Also impactful were his CSU experiences working with students from a multitude of nations and cultures. One such experience occurred after he hosted an etiquette dinner at CSU that included many international students. While facilitating the event, Nettingham mentioned to students that slurping food is usually perceived as bad table manners. But in an effort to acknowledge that not all folks in the room grew up with the same norms, a student pulled Derek to the side with some food for thought. “One of my wonderful students informed me that in some locations around Asia, slurping is not only appropriate, it is encouraged,” he said.

That started his interest in looking at the world from something other than a Western viewpoint. Outside of work, he solidified that interest as a volunteer for Arms of Love International, an organization that provides a home and a loving family for children who need a safe place to live and grow. The work took him for month-long stays to Nicaragua and the Philippines.

Such experiences motivated Nettingham to apply to the Crown Family School’s Global Social Development Practice (GSDP) program of study. “Approaching a lot of conversations I was having from a strictly Western lens was not beneficial,” he noted. “Having a more global outlook at advocacy was imperative to be successful.”

Being a student in the GSDP program enabled Nettingham to attend a United Nations conference in Thailand. He envisions someday serving on the board of directors of a non-profit such as Arms of Love International. Career-wise, he considers pursuing a government position devoted to child welfare, or perhaps a return to higher education in a dean of students’ office or student advocacy office.

As he ponders his options, he reflects on the intellectual leadership and publication records of the Crown Family School faculty. “Having professors who are literally the leading voices in a lot of conversations within social work is awesome. It’s invaluable. It’s something that I don’t take for granted,” he said. “Choosing the Crown Family School and applying for the GSDP certificate are decisions that have paid off exponentially.”

He also has felt the impact of his field placement with Chicago LIFT, a non-profit organization that works with families to break the cycle of poverty. “That was a fantastic experience,” Nettingham said. “We did one-on-one meetings with folks from the community where we did coaching in regard to education, job placement, and finances. Being able to have those conversations, learn about the community and lend as much support as I could in however that was needed was extremely important and a vital part of my experience thus far.”

In addition to his Crown Family School program of study, Nettingham loaded his schedule with co-curricular activities. He served as a Crown Family School Ambassador for the School’s Admissions Office, a Crown Family School Graduate Council Representative, co-chair of the UChicagoGRAD Diversity Advisory Board, and worked as a graduate assistant for the University Community Service Center. Nettingham had asked for a role in the UChicagoGRAD Office of Diversity and Inclusion and impacted its operations even before he set foot on campus.

“Derek Nettingham is not just a person, he is a verb!” exclaimed Dana Bozeman, his former supervisor and director of the office. 

Later, with fellow board members, Nettingham created a peer mentoring program called Maroon Mates that connected first-year PhD students with PhD students in their second year and beyond to create community for graduate students. “The program has expanded to include master’s students. Now, there are almost 100 students in this community,” Bozeman said.

He also led a Diversity Advisory Board initiative to create a slate of diversity awards specific to graduate students. 

“I am excited to see all of the contributions he will leave as his legacy,” Bozeman said.