By Jerry Duggan
Ashley Chapman has always felt called to work with the less fortunate. Her experiences as a student, educator and social worker have only reinforced that deeply held desire. Still, it took Chapman a little while to figure out exactly what utilized her talents and allowed her to serve others in the most impactful way.
She has found her passions best applied at Loyola Academy in St. Louis, where she is able to care for the whole student, in accordance with the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis.
Her journey to this role was not linear, and the path that got Chapman to this point not always easy.
Growing up in St. Louis, Chapman attended private school and decided to attend the University of Texas at Austin while her then-boyfriend (now husband) went across the country to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Chapman looks back on this difficult decision to continue her relationship long distance throughout her college and young adult years as her first major faith-based decision.
“We knew there would be difficult times and sacrifices to make, but we both had faith that God would put us where we were supposed to be in the end,” she said.
Her original career goal was to become a teacher. Chapman joined Teach for America after college and taught predominately low-income students at a charter school. She enjoyed her work but began to recognize another call.
“Many of my students were in the foster care system, and as their teacher, I quickly got a sense of the challenges they faced growing up,” she explained. “I sensed that there was a need for social workers to help with the more structural problems these children faced before they even walked in the classroom.”
To facilitate this career change, Chapman returned to her hometown and earned a master’s degree in social work at Washington University in St. Louis. Next came a job opportunity in Washington, D.C., as a social worker at KIPP DC, a college preparatory public school system.
In this role, Chapman felt a greater sense of fulfillment but still felt that she was not able to express herself in what she felt was her most profound way.
“As a social worker, you are supposed to teach coping strategies to those you work with,” she explained. “What I found, though, was that my best coping mechanism was my faith, and in a public school system, I was not allowed to utilize that with my students. I felt somewhat limited in my effectiveness because of this.”
In 2015, she moved back to St. Louis with the goal of becoming a social worker at a faith-based institution of some sort. The mother of one of Chapman’s friends had done philanthropy work with Loyola Academy and knew of an opening for a social worker at the school. Chapman interviewed for and was offered the position almost immediately.
“God’s timing is divine,” Chapman reflected.
In 2015, she began at Loyola as director of social services. In this role, she was able to combine everything that she had always wanted to do professionally – to serve young people from socio-economically disadvantaged households while incorporating her faith into her day-to-day work.
Loyola, an all-male, Jesuit middle school in St. Louis city, serves predominately African-American young men from socio-economically disadvantaged households. These young men have the potential to do college preparatory level work but have been hindered by circumstances out of their control.
Even though Chapman thought this was “it” for her as far as career changes, God had something even bigger in store for her at Loyola. In 2017, the school needed a new principal . Loyola Academy’s president, Dr. Eric Clark, informed Chapman that the school would be conducting an external search for the position, but that he would like her to apply.
Chapman was hired before the start of the 2017-2018 school year and has served as Loyola’s principal ever since. Because Loyola’s students are from low-income families, Chapman relies heavily on her background as a social worker.
“I still kind of see myself as a social worker who dresses up as a principal every day,” she joked.
Chapman sees it as Loyola’s job, and her job by extension, to bring out the God-given potential in each of her students. One way she does this is by leaning on her faith.
“At Loyola, I can talk openly about my faith, and that’s what I love the most,” she said. “Whenever a difficult situation comes up, I have that to lean on and to guide me.”
Still, she admits that she is still growing in faith herself.
“I am honest with students and parents that I do not have it all figured out, and never will.”
Chapman sees a lot of overlap between her work as a social worker and an educator, and feels that the Jesuit way of doing things, particularly the emphasis on caring for the whole person, is applicable to both fields.
“All of my work has been working with young people, but it goes far beyond teaching them school subjects or leading them,” she said. “Caring for people on the margins of society is holistic. Here at Loyola, I am able to use my faith – my best coping mechanism – to truly care for the whole student.”