A woman wearing a hounds tail print sportscoat
Brittany Watson, a graduating Master of Social Work student who also works with new and expecting parents as a doula, hopes to use her skills as a clinical social worker to address the health care needs of the parents, infants and families she works with as part of her business. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Class of 2022: Brittany Watson, a doula and two-time VCU grad, feels grateful for the unexpected paths her life has taken

Earning a clinical degree in social work through VCU’s online program has offered Watson flexibility, knowledge and perspective she hopes to bring to the parents and families she serves as a birth doula.

Share this story

Virginia Commonwealth University student Brittany M. Watson has taken many paths to where she now believes she was meant to be all along.

Watson will earn her Master of Social Work in the clinical concentration of the VCU School of Social Work’s online program this December. With the skills she has learned through the program, she will expand her birth doula business to offer even more services to expecting parents and newborns.

“It’s been a lot of bouncing around,” she said. “But I’m here now, and I realized this was where I belonged the whole time; I just need to be redirected a couple of different ways in order to find it.”

After starting as a pre-med student during her undergraduate years and changing course when she felt it wasn’t for her, Watson earned a B.S. in psychology and a B.S. in health, physical education and exercise science from VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences in 2013.

After graduation, Watson worked for health departments throughout Virginia’s Hampton Roads region, focusing on chronic disease management, physical education and health education. During that time, her desire to work with families and children to prevent chronic conditions grew, and she began taking classes in nursing while working full-time. However, in the end, a degree in nursing wasn’t meant to be.

“I basically had to reroute everything,” she said. “Nursing was where I really thought I was supposed to be because I wanted to work with babies.”

In 2018, Watson started a role with a home visit program called Healthy Families Virginia Beach where she worked with social workers. It sparked a new interest for Watson, one that would result in her enrolling in the online M.S.W. program at VCU in 2019 while working full-time. And, to continue pursuing her dream of working with babies, she began training as a doula, overcoming her apprehension around a lack of representation among doulas in the process.

“It took me a long time to find someone who looked like me in the profession,” she said. “It was pretty discouraging because I looked around, and I didn’t really see anyone that looked like me at first. I finally ended up taking that leap and going to the doula training, and then the pandemic hit less than two months later. I was still within my first year of my master’s program, still starting the business and all that, and then the pandemic hit too.”

At the health department, she shifted to working six to seven days per week in public health emergency response. She worked with her advisers in the M.S.W. program to become a part-time student. Then, after a family emergency in 2021 helped her put her priorities in perspective, Watson decided to quit her job and devote her time to finishing her degree.

“After that (family emergency) happened, I was like, ‘It’s now or never,’” she said. “I really had to take that leap and, with the support of my family, everybody was like, ‘Go for it. You have to jump out on faith sometimes.’”

In August 2021, she moved back to Richmond, living near campus to take advantage of the resources offered at VCU. She found the flexibility and support of the professors and staff involved with the program particularly encouraging, especially as she dealt with the loss of her grandmother this spring.

As part of the program, Watson conducted research around pregnancy, childbirth and parenting, focusing on the challenges facing fathers as they support their partners who’ve given birth and are facing postpartum depression. Her research project culminated in her delivering a presentation — titled “Who Supports the Support System?” — at the VCU Graduate School’s Three Minute Thesis competition.

“As I started getting more into birth work and realizing how strenuous it was on me with trying to juggle so many other things, I realized that I am a support for the families that I interact with,” Watson said. “So I just started thinking about it like, ‘If I’m overwhelmed sometimes with supporting families, along with working on my own things, I can only imagine how the family must feel.’”

Her research will play a role in her vision as she expands her doula business after graduation to incorporate the new mental health services she can provide as a soon-to-be licensed clinical social worker. She plans to stay in Richmond and continue partnering with the organizations she’s worked with during her time at VCU, such as Nurture RVA, where she works on a team of moderators with a virtual breastfeeding support group for Black and Brown parents.

Whatever comes next, she’s grateful to have continued pursuing her dreams and wants other VCU students to know they can do the same.

“Stay the course,” she said. “A redirection is not a failure, and it took me a very long time to learn that. A redirection is not a failure; it’s just rerouting you into what your purpose is. And I’m thankful for those reroutes because, without them, I probably wouldn’t have gotten to where I am now.”