When social work alumna Melissa Pappas (B.A., ’85) arrived at Colorado State University, she was a first-generation student and one of only a few out-of-state students on her dorm floor. “It seemed like everyone knew kids from high school or had siblings who attended CSU,” said Pappas.
“I was far from home, and felt pretty alone,” she added. Pappas had grown up on the south side of Chicago. “My parents couldn’t share their own experiences, explain what to expect at college, or provide ideas for integrating into the college community.”
Yet her parents consistently reminded her that education was key to a better future. “They always impressed upon us the importance of working hard, and being honest,” Pappas said. “We were frequently reminded we could choose any profession in the world, from astronaut to President of the United States.”
Thriving in social work as a first-generation student at CSU
This lesson had a profound influence on Pappas. She persisted through her freshman year as a first-generation student, but it took time to get adjusted. “The second year immediately improved,” said Pappas. “I was taking more social work classes and connecting with my peers. I began to grow and thrive at CSU. I loved being surrounded by other people who wanted to learn and explore our interests.”
Her immigrant family had modeled success through hard work. For her studies, Pappas focused on eliminating the cycle of poverty in the U.S. “When I was in high school, I read a statistic that the income of individuals with limited work experience or education would not exceed public assistance,” Pappas said.
“It struck me that our social safety net was not helping individuals gain self-sufficiency, but contributing to a life of poverty,” Pappas added. “I wanted to learn about the factors involved in helping individuals obtain education, training, meaningful work, and life skills.”
Pappas earned her M.S.W. from the University of Chicago, where she continued to focus on public welfare policies impacting vulnerable families and communities. “My interest was in understanding infrastructure and breaking generational cycles of poverty,” she said.
After graduation, Pappas saw a job for a policy associate at the American Public Welfare Association in Washington, D.C. “It was my dream job,” said Pappas. “The job was to analyze federal welfare laws and policies and work with the states to shape the laws to improve service delivery and program outcomes. I couldn’t believe such a job could exist, and I wanted it badly.”
“I sent in my resume then sat back and waited. I told my parents I was waiting for my dream job. My dad said, ‘if you want the job, go get it.’” Pappas’ father ran a business moving factory machines—far outside the world of professional corporations and formal hiring processes—so she initially discounted his advice, but eventually called the hiring manager at APWA.
“I delivered a writing sample and said I would work hard and be dedicated to doing a good job,” said Pappas. “They hired me in a 90-day status as a policy assistant, one level down. I immediately dove into my work at APWA and loved it.”
As the expiration date of her job approached, Pappas again consulted her parents. “My dad said if I had exceeded expectations, I shouldn’t be afraid to look the boss in the eye, and ask for the job I wanted,” said Pappas. “I knew I had provided outstanding work, so I asked for the title of Policy Associate, and retroactive pay. I was granted both.”
From social work to successful businesswoman and philanthropist
It was a bold career move, and certainly not her last. In 2002, Pappas launched ATHENA Consulting, a staffing agency that specializes in health, human services, and behavioral health, with one employee. Today her company has nearly 400 employees working in agencies across the mid-Atlantic region. “I have spent the last 32 years working in and around the field of public welfare, by helping our most vulnerable citizens achieve self sufficiency and develop healthy, thriving communities,” said Pappas.
“I have worked with state legislatures that fund public welfare departments, with state and county public welfare agencies shaping their policies, procedures, and programs, and I now provide human service professionals to work in state and county programs.”
Pappas recently established a scholarship for first-generation social work students to honor her parents’ values of hard work and higher education and their consistent encouragement to dream big.
“I believe in those principles to this day, and I have raised my three sons with these values,” Pappas said. “Sending us to college was not a sacrifice for my parents. It was viewed as necessary and important, just like brushing your teeth.”
“When people ask me about my keys to success, I tell them my entire business strategy is simply to get up, go in every day, and work hard to make progress,” added Pappas. “I don’t have formal business training, but CSU’s social work faculty taught me how to dissect problems and develop solutions.”
On her company website, Pappas quotes poet Anatole France: To accomplish great things we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe. It’s apropos for someone who “stresses the importance of acting and planning,” said Pappas, “but also the importance of dreaming of what is possible and believing it is achievable.”