A fortunate first job introduced Jason Echols to his passion — gerontology.
“All I knew is that I wanted to do something I could feel good about,” he says.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., Echols was hired as a program assistant at the Council of Social Work Education’s Center for Gerontological Social Work Education.
That exposed him to a number of Brown School alums as well as several Brown School faculty. WUSTL was an easy addition to his list of possible graduate programs, and it was the campus visit that sold him on the Brown School.
Echols, who graduates with a master’s degree in social work May 21, says he was drawn to gerontology because it represents a sector of the population that receives limited attention despite its large numbers.
“I think that we’ve put so much focus on younger children and, while that’s very much needed, we haven’t really done enough to talk about what happens when people grow older,” he says. “People’s needs change, and they want to explore new things about themselves and new learning opportunities.
“Gerontology is wonderful because it focuses on the whole life course,” Echols says. “It’s about what type of life a person has led and how society has shaped your life to that point as well as the life you will live going forward.”
Growing up in Chilhowie, Va., may have planted the seed of interest in gerontology for Echols.
“The continuum of life was very evident when I was young,” he says. “We lived in the same town as my grandparents, and older people were very much a part of our lives, whether through church or daily activities.”
Echols quickly made an impact at the Brown School and became active in the Gerontology Student Association (GSA) immediately upon arrival, serving as co-chair for a year.
“Jason has been a great spokesperson for our gerontology concentration,” says Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, the Ralph and Muriel Pumphrey Professor of Social Work. “He understands that the aging of the population affects all aspects of social work and he has influenced a lot of students at the Brown School.”
Echols’ work with the GSA resulted in a winning YouTube entry for a contest on “This is Social Work and Aging,” sponsored by the John A. Hartford Foundation Geriatric Social Work Initiative.
“We thought we’d be very fact-based about aging around the world,” Echols says. “We presented statistics and images of older people from a number of countries. It was a simple project, but it had a big impact.”
The GSA took the prize money and gave it back to the Brown School community by offering two scholarships for two first-year MSW students who wrote an essay on aging issues in their practicum, whether or not the practicum agency focused on gerontology.
“It was great to see that project come full circle,” Echols says. “Students would talk to me about the older adults they encountered at their practicum, and you could see stereotypes breaking down.”
Outside of the classroom, Echols worked in both micro- and macro-level social work practicum positions.
“I did home visits and case management with HOPE (Housing Options Provided for the Elderly),” he says. “It was a great and challenging experience. I would meet with an older adult about finding an apartment, and we would end up speaking about many other issues, such as budgeting and access to medical care.”
He received overall policy experience through his work with the Alzheimer’s Association-St. Louis chapter.
“It’s been really interesting to dive into Missouri state politics, especially this year with the budget issues,” Echols says. “I’ve come to respect both the one-on-one and public policy social work roles. You need both.”
After graduation, Echols would like to stay in St. Louis and work to strengthen communities by including older adults.
“I hope to find something that helps foster connections between all generations,” he says.