Working as a domestic violence prevention specialist, Mariam Salih saw her hours plummet when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and schools closed. The timing couldn’t have been worse. She was soon to begin an unpaid internship for her master’s degree at the Rutgers School of Social Work, and she worried about covering basic expenses.
Then came good news: Salih was chosen to receive the Sheryl Lanman Nichols Memorial Scholarship with a $2,000 stipend. “The scholarship was a saving grace for me,” said Salih, now a licensed clinical social worker in New Jersey.
Salih graduated from the School of Social Work in 2021, the year the scholarship reached $100,000 and achieved endowment status. This means that it will continue to provide annual allowances in perpetuity from interest on the investment. More than 600 people have contributed to the fund.
“I think Sheryl would be thrilled,” Nichols’ mother Sandra Lanman said. Nichols had struggled financially to pursue higher education, especially when she was doing unpaid field work, Lanman said.
After earning her Masters of Social Work (MSW) from the Rutgers-New Brunswick School of Social Work in 2010, Nichols has dedicated her career to counseling victims of domestic violence. Nichols was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, a month before her marriage to Justin Nichols. She had the BRCA gene mutation and died in 2015, aged 34.
The scholarship supports MSW students completing a one-year internship in domestic violence counseling. Recipients are enrolled in the School of Social Work Certificate Program in Violence Against Women and Children.
“It makes me happy to give students the same kind of heart and the same calling as Sheryl,” said her lifelong friend, Marissa Broman, who graduated from Rutgers-New Brunswick alongside Nichols in 2003 and was a generous donor to the fund.
Broman whispered the idea of a scholarship in Nichols’ ear as she flicked in and out of consciousness days before her death. “I hope she took comfort in knowing that she would be remembered and that the work she had done would continue,” Broman said.
“Without the stipend, it would have been impossible for me to do my internship in the field,” said Lia Stone, the first recipient of the scholarship. Stone is blind and had to take a train from New Brunswick to Hamilton and then ride with a colleague or pay for an Uber to Womanspace Inc. in Lawrenceville. “I was spending a lot of money, and I didn’t come from the money,” she said. “The scholarship has been incredibly helpful.”
All five recipients completed their domestic violence counseling internships with Womanspace, where Nichols worked after earning her MSW. Reverend Susan Victor, Director of Counseling and Support Services at Womanspace, said they had done a great job. The internship lasts an entire academic year, with the first month spent training and shadowing the six full-time counselors. The interns start screening callers, then get their first client, chosen by Victor. They ultimately manage a workload of five clients during their three days a week, she said.
“The job requires a higher level of knowledge and skill because clients have experienced trauma,” Victor said. “Domestic violence is when someone gains power and control over someone else. we don‘not tell our customers what to do. Our main goal throughout our work with them is to make sure they are safe.
Stone, who completed the internship in the 2016-2017 school year, said she grew up in a home where abuse happened and recalled how difficult it was to hold her tongue while working with it. his first customer. She listened and helped the client develop a safety plan. Eventually, the client decided to leave her abusive partner.
“It was so rewarding when the light bulb went out for a client, and they realized they deserved better,” Stone said. The 32-year-old now works with blind and visually impaired high school and college students, helping them prepare for jobs and careers.
Salih, 31, had never done individual counseling with a client before the internship. “It was amazing,” she said, noting that she was able to use her native language, Farsi, because Mercer County is so diverse. Salih applies for jobs in domestic violence counseling.
Nichols had worked at Women Aware, a domestic violence nonprofit serving Middlesex County, after graduating from college. Fluent in Spanish, she started the nonprofit’s first bilingual support group, Lanman noted. While in graduate school, Nichols conducted research with the school’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children (now the Center for Research on Ending Violence). She also volunteered with the New Brunswick Domestic Violence Response Team, said Lanman, who retired as media relations director from Rutgers University in 2011.
Lanman credited Lavinia Boxill, now vice-chancellor for advancement at Rutgers-New Brunswick, with setting up the scholarship so quickly. This allowed the family to ask for fraternity donations instead of flowers in Nichols’ obituary, she noted.
“It is truly humbling that Sheryl’s family and friends – in the midst of their sorrow – sought to honor Sheryl’s legacy by providing financial support to students who share her commitment to survivors of domestic violence,” Boxill said. “We are proud to partner with them in these efforts.”
“Sheryl’s family and friends have an impact that ripples throughout the entire Rutgers community supporting survivors of domestic violence while helping to ease the financial burden on students,” added Patricia Findley, MSW program director. “This is especially important for social work students who often graduate with student loan debt equal to or greater than their starting salary.
Stone said she has stayed in touch with Lanman since receiving the scholarship. “I hope it’s meaningful for her to see that I’m here able to do all these cool things, and that it all stems from the initial gift in memory of her daughter,” Stone said.