Skip to Main Content
Chico State

Social Work Alumna Finds Way to Give Back

Social work alumna Bekah Qualls smiling against brick wall.

In November of 2018, nine days after the Camp Fire started and during Bekah Qualls’ senior year at Chico State, her older brother Christopher was shot and killed. He was 28 years old. Qualls was only 21 and finishing a bachelor’s degree in social work. Though her brother had been in and out of prison for almost half his life, he and Qualls were close and the loss was devastating.

“It was horrific, but the social work department fully wrapped their arms around me,” said Qualls. “So many times, I was in this office or that office crying, but there was just so much love for me.”

Faculty and students donated money, and professors allowed her to submit work virtually if she couldn’t show up. Qualls pushed through and finished her undergraduate degree in 2019, and then went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from Chico State in 2021. She credits the School of Social Work for helping her survive what became her hardest season of college.

Qualls had long felt a calling to the field of social work, and had wanted to work with young people since she was a child. “After seeing my brother’s experience with incarceration, I knew I wanted something different for my life.” said Qualls. “I tell that to kids all the time—even when you grow up in dysfunction, you can choose another way.”

Qualls became part of a legal guardianship when she was just 16 years old. This independent student status qualified her for financial aid assistance for college through numerous scholarships and student programs. Though she found herself working up to three jobs while going to school full-time, programs like TRIO Student Support Services and the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and support from those close to her helped pave the way for her success.

“Having caring adults in my life pour love into me is what made navigating college possible,” said Qualls.

After graduation, Qualls moved to Washington to work in juvenile probation, but she quit after six months—the work was too triggering for her own trauma, dredging up painful memories of her brother’s experience in the juvenile justice system. Qualls has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and finds solace in her current work as a school social worker for students from kindergarten through 12th grade and as a part-time telehealth therapist at a counseling center.

“The work I do is planting seeds, essentially,” said Qualls. “I’m not always going to see the blossom and I may not see the roots. I’m just planting the seeds.”

Now Qualls wants to give back to both the campus that supported her and to future students who might be facing the same challenges she did.

This year she reached out to her mentor (whom she now refers to as her sister/mom), Krysi Riggs, director of annual giving at Chico State, and created the Qualls Footnotes Endowed Scholarship. The purpose of the scholarship is to support upper division students entering the social work program at Chico State. Qualls will fund the first $25,000 in payments over next five years, then the University will maintain the scholarship in perpetuity.

“We know the data shows that one caring adult can change the trajectory of a young person’s life,” said Qualls. “If my brother would have had that, could his outcome have been different?”

For Riggs, it has been wonderful to watch her grow, and the scholarship is just another feature of Qualls’s legacy of paying it forward.

“She moved from someone not sure of her identity and purpose to being someone with healthy self-worth, clear goals, and space to advocate for others and help them discover themselves,” said Riggs.

Qualls envisions the scholarship as a light in the darkness for struggling students.

“One thing that’s really difficult about being a first-generation student is that no one in your family understands what you’re going through,” said Qualls. “But there are a lot of people on campus who want to help you see your potential; you just have to reach out and make that connection.”

Qualls’ hard-earned insight into the very adult challenges that many young people are facing today has made her a safe haven for those she serves, and she says the healing that takes place is reciprocal.

“That’s the beauty of a social work degree,” she said. “I encourage people to ask themselves, ‘Where am I creating the most impact and what does that impact look like?’”

Learn more about Qualls’s inspiring journey, the Qualls Footnotes Endowed Scholarship, and how you can contribute. She currently lives in Puyallup, Washington, and works for the Puyallup School District as a social worker and as a therapist for Grit City Counseling.