Senior Profile/Rebuilding His Urban Playground: With a Master of Social Work Degree in Hand, Robert Bowden is Poised to Give Back to the Hill District

Issue Date: 
May 1, 2011
Robert BowdenRobert Bowden

Robert Bowden can recall peering at the Cathedral of Learning from his window when he was growing up in the Aliquippa Terrace housing project on the Oakland/Hill District border. He also gazed up at the 42-story structure many times from the Fifth Avenue yard of what was then Frick Elementary School, where he was a student.

“To me, it looked like a monument that soared right up into the clouds,” Bowden says with a faint smile.

Decades later, after enduring the hardship of growing up in the inner city with few role models, Bowden today is graduating as a University scholar with a master’s degree in social work. The achievement stems from long hours of studying in the Cathedral, honing his skills in nonprofit management and community organizing.

“I can’t honestly say this is something I’ve worked for all my life,” Bowden says. “In fact, I’m absolutely stunned to be in this position. I was the underdog—the long shot.”

Raised by his mother, who worked two and three jobs to support Bowden and his two sisters, the Hill District native graduated from Schenley High School and began working as a custodian in a Downtown jewelry store. Early on, he had developed the habit of reading the dictionary and thesaurus to help him better express himself in conversation. While on a break in the store basement one day, he was engrossed in Webster’s Dictionary when his boss came downstairs. Furious, the man flung a wet toilet brush at the book, splashing Bowden, and said, “That’s your job! Don’t bring any books in here!”

For Bowden, who was 21 at the time, it was a defining moment. He left Pittsburgh shortly afterward to enroll in Howard University in Washington, D.C. But he said he took his “inner-city baggage” with him and struggled in class. Eventually he returned home.

Bowden held a series of jobs and kept “pushing through the fodder,” as he says, trying to figure life out. It was Emma Lucas Darby, a Hill District neighbor and then-director of Carlow University’s social work program, who finally reignited Bowden’s interest in academics. He attended the Community College of Allegheny County and then Carlow, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in social work in 2008. The following year, he applied to the Pitt School of Social Work’s master’s degree program, and he entered as an advanced standing student—that is, he received credit for his foundational studies he completed while earning his BASW.

Bowden says he blossomed at Pitt. Two fulfilling internships with the Hill House Association put him squarely back in his old neighborhood. He earned a stipend and had scholarship support while logging 24 hours a week in the community as a Hill House Fellow. The Provost-funded fellowship helped Bowden accelerate his studies. He worked on the Find the Rivers! initiative, an effort to connect the Hill District with Frank Curto Park on Bigelow Boulevard, to redefine trails and green space and to build Cliffside Park, which is evolving into a community gathering place. Bowden says the project taught him how important community space is to one’s health and well-being.

“If you come out of your house in a good space, there’s an attachment to the space, the neighborhood, and the community,” he says. “You want to contribute to it and make it better. People take on the dynamics of their own physical space.”

Bowden’s second internship gave him insight into local politics. He contributed to the Hill Consensus Group, which hammered out the Community Benefit Agreement regarding the Pittsburgh Penguins’ new hockey arena in the Lower Hill. Bowden helped get people to meetings, collected data, gained insight into policymaking, and learned who the community leaders were and how they got things done. During his time at Pitt, he also compiled focus group information for the Homewood Children’s Village, recruited participants for nutrition programs, and helped counsel individuals on recovering from drug addiction.

Bowden says he relishes social work because of its wide array of professional possibilities and because he has always enjoyed helping people.

Tracy Soska, director of continuing education and chair of the community-organizing arm of Pitt’s School of Social Work, is impressed by Bowden’s enthusiasm.

“He has a sense of urgency about him that fuels his passion for study, as if making up for lost time in his life,” says Soska, who was also his adviser and one of his instructors. “His dedication to learning, coupled with his passion to do good work, makes for a successful social worker.”

Another important part of Bowden’s development involves becoming a role model for young Black men. When he tries to connect with them occasionally on Hill District streets, he says he “can see the longing in their eyes.

“I say to them: ‘Whatever it is you think you’re winning, you’re not winning. You can get out of deep dark holes. You can overcome barriers.’”

Bowden and a younger sibling reside with and care for their elderly mother, who worked 47 years at Children’s Hospital and is now impaired by a stroke. But she has watched and understood every step of his journey, he says. And he admits he owes a lot to the woman who fed, nurtured, and loved the little boy who was looking out his window at the tall building that soared into the clouds.

“I’ve learned that no matter what stands in front of you—racism, domestic problems—you have to navigate it nonetheless,” says Bowden. “And grinding away at it taught me character, humility, great maturity, and a mandate . . . to give.”