Alumna's Job is a Salute to Her Parents

College of Charleston Magazine, Alumni

The daughter of sharecroppers, Capt. Stephanie Felder ’04 is honoring her parents’ sacrifices with her role in the Public Health Service.

Alumni Capt. Stephanie Felder

For more than 10 years, Capt. Stephanie Felder ’04 has crisscrossed the country with the Public Health Service doing everything from helping hurricane evacuees to providing aid to immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

As a social worker and captain with the PHS, a commissioned corps, she’s supported a variety of federal agencies, ranging from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to the Department of Defense. Last fall, Felder took on a new leadership role researching traumatic brain injury with the Defense Health Agency.  

But as the daughter of sharecroppers who dropped out of grade school to work in the fields of Florence, S.C., Felder grew up watching her parents work backbreaking hours only to struggle to make ends meet. 

Because of that, her work means more. It’s a calling to help others. It’s a way to honor what her parents sacrificed so that she could do more. 

“It makes me angry sometimes because I wish they didn’t have to go through that,” says Felder. “But then it also gives me passion because I know that everything they sacrificed was for me. And I have to use that to be better.” 

So, when an admissions packet offering scholarship opportunities from the College showed up in the mailbox her senior year of high school, Felder applied with her parents’ full support. 

At the College, she quickly found inspiration in English professor Valerie Frazier ’91 (M.P.A. ’94), who Felder notes was “the first African American Ph.D. I met and took an interest in my learning and growth. She was so amazing, and it fueled my beliefs that I could obtain a Ph.D. one day as well.” 

As she pursued a psychology degree under the guidance of Professor Vincent Spicer, Felder did internships with two abuse prevention nonprofits. “I fell in love with the work,” she says.  

Felder then earned a master’s in social work before landing her first full-time job as a social worker in North Carolina. She chose the location to be close to her terminally ill father. 

“He was able to see me earn two degrees, and he was so proud,” says Felder, who keeps a picture of her father, who died in 2008, in her home office. 

She went on to work with teen girls before shifting to homeless veterans. And then, in a twist of fate, Catholic University of America accepted Felder into its doctoral program in social work in 2012 at the same time the PHS offered her a position in Washington, D.C. 

Since then, Felder, who earned her doctorate in 2019, has served in a variety of roles with the PHS supporting mental health initiatives. Her work also includes deployments during emergencies, such as in 2020, when she led the behavioral health team at the Javits New York Medical Station in New York City at the height of the pandemic. 

“It was life-changing to be in the epicenter at that time,” she says.

Her work at the Javits Center and later with Afghan refugees and the PHS’ Social Work Professional Advisory Group earned her the agency’s 2022 Senior Social Worker of the Year Award. 

It’s tough work with a lot of responsibility, but the little acts of kindness keep her going.

“There are these small moments where you’re providing a service to someone, and they give you this look of just true gratitude,” she says. “Those moments make it worth it.” – Amanda Kerr

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