A licensed clinical social worker, Stephanie Gangemi ’06 has provided mental health programs and therapy for jail inmates in El Paso County, Colorado, for the past nine years. In 2018, she won a major prize from the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute for her work to help law enforcement better respond to mental health issues in jails.
Gangemi is a born-and-raised Staten Islander who came to Wagner to stay close to family and attend a small school. A violinist, she received a music scholarship and planned to major in music.
Her First-Year Learning Community started her down a new track. It combined sociology and philosophy and focused on contemporary social issues. By learning to debate and take positions on issues, and interacting with students of different beliefs, she started to develop her own thoughts, her own voice, and her own sense of purpose. She also experienced working with at-risk youth.
“I think I really felt a challenge to serve the people,” she says. “I left with a sense that I could make a difference in people’s lives.”
Other courses that influenced her outlook included her Intermediate Learning Community on the history and literature of New York City; a biology class that looked at plagues and biological warfare; courses on criminal justice and gender studies; and an economics course on poverty and discrimination. “Everything combined and made sense,” she says. “That’s when it all came together for me.”
She learned about prison issues from a former visiting professor at Wagner, Steven Lybrand. Sociology professors John Esser and Jean Halley were also major influences and mentors. Two internships helped shape her path: one with a law firm, and the other with domestic violence survivors. She preferred the latter.
After college, Gangemi earned her master’s in social work at Columbia, interning at Rikers Island jail. She then went to work as a social worker for the El Paso County (Colorado) Sheriff’s Office. At the end of her tenure there, she served as the director of mental health for the El Paso County Jail. She oversaw a team of social workers and therapists, provided therapy for serious-need inmates, and led programs for suicide prevention and other issues. She developed a training program for law enforcement officers, and she built a co-responder program where social workers go out with deputies on calls.
Her paper on those programs won the $15,000 Seidenberg Prize from the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute. The prize money was funded by a law firm that led a successful pro bono federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of inmates dealing with mental illness in the Illinois Department of Corrections system.
Gangemi resigned from the sheriff’s office last year, and is now working to complete her doctorate in social work at Smith College, teaching as an adjunct professor, and consulting with law enforcement and jail administrations nationally.
“Wagner has a way of supporting you in thinking, in a big way and in an abstract way, but then also bringing your thinking down to reality so you can apply it,” she says. “It’s not thinking for thinking’s sake. It’s, ‘How do I act now, because I’m able to think.’ To me, that’s the most important thing I took away from the Wagner Plan experience.
“I think there’s a lot of rhetoric these days about higher education and criticism of the liberal arts being not practical, but I found Wagner to be super practical. They taught me that no, not only can you act, but you better act now that you have this information.”