Jason Merrick was penniless and homeless when he checked into the Grateful Life Center, an addiction recovery facility in Erlanger, Kentucky. Thirteen months later, in May 2010, he began to reclaim his life and pursue his true calling.
"Recovery comes in many forms. Mine took the form of education," he said.
After the Columbus, Ohio, native earned a GED while in rehab, he enrolled in the Bachelor of Social Work program at Northern Kentucky University and worked full time as a residential monitor for Transitions, Inc., the agency that runs Grateful Life Center.
"I like to help people — especially ones I connected with in some way," he said. "It turned out to be those who were suffering from similar situations I had been through. That took the form of social work at NKU."
Merrick became a student activist and helped form a Northern Kentucky chapter of People Advocating Recovery, a nonprofit community organization to help break down barriers to recovery and addiction.
In 2015, the group helped get Senate Bill 192 passed to allow for the use of Naloxone, an emergency narcotic overdose drug, for the general public and third-party prescriptions.
"It was unique and important to the region, but to me, especially, because I was studying a lot of the same things at the same time," he said. "I was working a real-world crisis and implementing these interventions that were lifesaving.
"At the same time, I was learning principles and practices in academia. It was uncanny how the parallels presented themselves. It was an opportunity I wish everybody could have in their experience."
After graduating from the bachelor's degree program in 2015, Merrick enrolled in the Master of Social Work (MSW) program at NKU and graduated the following year.
"There was no doubt I needed to continue on through the MSW program and gain that credential so I could better serve those in our community," he said.
After earning a master's degree, Merrick landed a position as director of addiction services at Kenton County Detention Center, where he recently celebrated his five-year work anniversary. In 2018, he became an adjunct professor at NKU.
"I had thought about teaching when the professors I worked with in my undergrad and graduate programs, including Dr. Tara McClendon and Dr. Megan Lindsey, gave me the opportunity," he said.
"They knew I was still in the area, because I had students I supervised here in jail who were in the practicum.
"I am a big fan of the practicum experience because it helps a student to better find where they're going to take their career. The practicum and internships are a big part of that process in the master's program."
Merrick said his life experiences and education readied him to face the challenges of working in the social work field and teaching the subject in the classroom.
"It's a unique field because you practice what you preach," he said. "As a professor, you're practicing social work as you're teaching social work. It's a read-between-the-lines sort of understanding. Once you get that, you learn from the professors' examples and from the way they teach you how to be a better social worker.
"Our faculty at NKU gets that. They use it to teach by example and to apply the official capacity of what's required by law. They demonstrate those values and ethics in the way that they interact with students. I was beyond prepared for the field by NKU's social work programs."
Like a Phoenix
The school of life played a major role in shaping Merrick's educational pursuits. Drug addiction took almost everything away before he got his life back.
"Substance abuse disorder kept me from being able to commit to anything, from being able to hold gainful employment to housing. It pretty much affected every aspect of life — family relations, intimate relations. It controlled every single thing you could possibly imagine having to do with human life and wellness."
Merrick found his footing on the road to recovery and his calling with the help of friends and family, including his uncle and godfather, Pat Keenan, who is also his mentor.
"You see what it is that compels you, speaks to your heart, intrigues you and stimulates your mind where you're ready," he said. "You figure out what really captures your interest and which pathway you want to take based on your past experience. As many unique individuals as there are on the planet, there are different pathways for addictions and disorders.
"A lot of times students aren't able to process that until they have a parallel experience. That's what we try to recreate in our classrooms to give students a better opportunity to discover what speaks to them and which direction they want to take their degree."
Merrick enjoys the online teaching experience, which moved to the forefront because of the coronavirus pandemic. He incorporates the same philosophy into those courses that he would in an in-person setting.
"I have tried to recreate that experience in my traditional and online classrooms, so students can have the ability to read and learn in a textbook or on a discussion board, but to also gain that real-world parallel," he said. "It carves a unique experience where you bond with the people and the field itself."
A Sense of Service
As much as Merrick loves social work, he is eyeing a different career path inspired by his experience with the legal system.
"I have an interest in combining my social work experience and credentials with an understanding of the law," he said. "Going to law school for either a Master of Laws or a Juris Doctor might be the next step for me."
No matter which direction Merrick takes his career, he will never stop drawing on his vast life experiences to help benefit and inspire others.
"The practical experience along with the credentials and training I received through Northern Kentucky University have prepared me to be of maximum service to the men, women and children of this region and do the best I can to help people have a better life," he said.
"That's what I do and that's what the people around me do. We work together to make this a better place for everybody. It's pretty awesome."
Learn more about the NKU online Master of Social Work program.
Have a question or concern about this article? Please contact us.