Heartbreak inspires career path for Newman social work student

May 25, 2021

Graduation day for Rylee Drouillard meant much more than receiving a college degree.

“Today is really important to me because I made it, and I have someone watching over me in heaven right now — my father. So this is for him.”

Originally from Augusta, Kansas, Drouillard, who earned a bachelor’s degree in social work, was very close with her father, John. He fought a tough battle with stage 4 colon cancer that metastasized to his liver before passing away at age 46 this past November.

“He was always there for me and supported me and cheered me on,” Drouillard says. “And so today is really just to honor him.”

Rylee Drouillard, far right, visits with family members and BSW Program Director Yelando Johnson after Newman’s 2021 commencement ceremony.

When Drouillard chose to study social work, she initially wanted to specialize in addictions because her mother is a recovering meth addict and alcoholic who’s been sober for 16 years. Then when her father was diagnosed with cancer, the family met with a hospice social worker, and Drouillard found a new path she wanted to pursue.

“Of course, as someone who was studying social work, the social worker and I had conversations,” she says. “I was actually in the middle of writing my Master of Social Work application, and I just had this epiphany. I threw my laptop to the side, and I called my mom and I said, ‘hospice.’ … So it definitely had a lot of influence on why I chose it.”

Drouillard will start her master’s degree studies this summer at Newman and plans to graduate May 2022 and start a career in hospice social work.

Rylee Drouillard, courtesy Iconic Group

“That’s a huge first for my family,” she says. “There’s no one in my family who has gotten a master’s degree, so I’m out here breaking generational cycles.”

As she faced obstacles during her undergraduate journey, Drouillard is grateful for the support of her professors.

“They’re very understanding, very lenient and very gracious,” she says. “I’ve definitely had a good experience at Newman.”

One of those professors is Yelando Johnson, director of the Bachelor of Social Work program and assistant professor of social work.

“I remember meeting with Rylee at times because she was really conflicted on substance abuse, addiction counseling, you know, and she didn’t want to steer away from that, but then she realized that that was not a problem,” Johnson says. “So she transitioned to medical social work, and she’s going to be an awesome, compassionate change agent.”

Johnson adds that many students in the program looked to Drouillard for her leadership, which is especially impressive as she remained a strong leader in the face of personal hardships.

“She was just outstanding,” Johnson says. “It was a really tough semester for her, but we are so proud that she’s resilient.”

For Drouillard, the meaning of having a Newman “Degree of Difference” goes back to her breaking generational cycles and making a change.

“I know that Newman’s mission is how it’s transforming lives, and that’s essentially what social workers do; they go and they help those people in need. And so that’s kind of what that means to me.”