Army veteran finds a greater understanding of service and advocacy through SAU’s MSW program


Advocacy is embedded in Leslie Waddle's '24 MSW DNA. After 23 years in the military, she knows how to stand up for herself and - more importantly - how to stand up for others. But she felt like a piece of the puzzle was missing.

"I've done advocacy in practice, but I wanted to get the education behind it, learn more, and delve deeper," the St. Ambrose University Master of Social Work graduate said.

Originally from Kentucky, Waddle earned her undergraduate degree in communications in 2003. While in school, she realized she needed help paying off her student loan debt. She joined the Army and turned it into a two-decade career. Waddle worked in logistics and public affairs. She's been to more than 55 countries and served three combat tours.

Nearly 20 years after completing her undergraduate degree, Waddle found herself back in the classroom seeking out answers to help her take the next step in her life by gaining a deeper understanding of advocacy and social justice. She knew she was in the right program when she took the Trauma Informed Care class.

"I've been in the military 23 years and know hundreds of soldiers with PTSD personally, and the fact that we don't hear about the effects of trauma on the body is insane," the retired Army major reflected. "We're in fight or flight for a whole year - some people. Not everybody has the same job and does the same job over there. But some people are in fight or flight for a whole year. We're not made to go on that long in fight or flight. You're made to be in that for like 20 minutes."

She says this information connected a lot of dots for her. She began to understand that you cannot effect change in a person's life if you don't understand what they have been through.

"That moment was like, ‘Wow, yeah, you can try to help people, but you can't if you don't take the time to find out what they have been or are going through. If you don't understand prolonged exposure to trauma and how to care for it, how are we helping them?' If you went through prolonged trauma, a lot of times you have to reconnect that brain-to-body connection that has been severed."

"This doesn't just apply to social workers, this should be common knowledge for teachers, doctors, soldiers, policemen, or anyone in a career with a responsibility to help others."

From this understanding, she began to see social work as more than just advocacy. Social workers affect policy change, they are school counselors and researchers. They affect change in their communities or with individuals.

"That really helped me to see that the options are endless of what I could do. And it's not just one thing or this group of things. It could be anything. Social work could be anything."

Waddle made the most of her time at SAU. Despite remaining active duty military until December 2023, Waddle completed the full-time two-year social work program through St. Ambrose. It includes two fieldwork experiences and she added on two winter term study abroad trips.

"I just thought it was awesome that I could take advantage of that," she said of her trips to India and Ecuador. "Both trips were impactful in different ways."

Through her study abroad trips, Waddle learned how other countries implement social work. In Ecuador, she studied the country's social service policies. In India, she learned about their approach to mental health. These experiences, and her fieldwork placement, further shaped her understanding of social work.

In her final semester, Waddle's fieldwork placement was at Wright House of Fashion, a non-profit organization in Iowa City, Iowa, that engages youth in collaborative partnerships with the fashion and design community. There, Waddle was inspired by the organization's founder, Andre Wright. From him, she learned the importance of taking a leap of faith. If the resources aren't there, create them yourself.

"Don't let red tape barriers get in the way of trying to help people," she said. "There's tons of work that can be done. Don't let anything get in your way."

Since Waddle is retired, she isn't planning to take on a traditional role as a social worker. Her interest is in helping people. Though she's not exactly sure what that will look like, she knows her St. Ambrose education has provided the tools she needs to make an impact wherever she lands.

"I'm more looking to just help the people that I can help. Provide a space where people that need healing can come and heal and get back on their feet. We all see a lack of resources anytime we look around. You don't have to take on the world. You don't have to try to change a policy or a law or, you know, things that take years and years and years. Or they may never change. You can just take action and affect the people immediately around you. And hopefully, that will grow and impact others."

Leslie Waddle ’24 MSW

Master of Social Work

“Don’t let red tape barriers get in the way of trying to help people. There’s tons of work that can be done. Don’t let anything get in your way.”

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