In an unprecedented year of crisis and uncertainty, I started my first year of graduate school as a budding social worker. It seems counterintuitive to begin something as challenging and demanding as a graduate school program in the midst of a pandemic; however, I am of the generation that grew up under the teachings of the wise and gracious, Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers).
I’ve always wanted to be a helper. So, despite the country being in the throes of upheaval and economic insecurity, I made the choice to become a social worker.
This decision was not made lightly. I’m a first-generation student who was born and raised in one of the poorest cities in the country.
For me, undertaking higher education is a privilege and a calculated risk that could lead to destitution.
Before I applied, I had to make a plan for how I would continue to support my family, prepare for how grad school would disconnect me from my community, and plan for how I would repay so much student loan debt with a career notoriously known for underpaid workers.
Honestly, I still haven’t figured it all out.
The deciding factor was a realization that my passion for helping stems from something much deeper than a quote from Mr. Rogers.
My drive to become a social worker is rooted in an obligation to use my talent to address the needs of my community and bolster its assets.
Social work is more than a career path. It is a lifestyle shift and a labor of love. It’s an arduous journey, though, and there have been many times where I’ve wanted to quit. Here are a couple of things that I keep in mind to stay motivated and focused on the goal:
We have the unique opportunity to train for the field of social work at a time when social justice issues are front-and-center on the world stage.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed us how pervasive the disparities are in healthcare, housing, and employment.
Right now, social workers are examining the policies that created these gaps, critiquing research practices that perpetuate discriminatory policy making, brainstorming solutions to help our clients navigate barriers caused by these policies, and developing the advocacy skills needed to effectively disrupt inequitable systems.
The heavy lift of raising widespread awareness to achieve critical mass is being executed by the media, which gives us the space to cultivate change at a more rapid pace. Our education has expanded beyond case samples and vignettes to real-world scenarios and applications.
We are actively changing the system while we move through it, and that’s powerful.
It’s ok to not be ok. Helpers need help too.
Grad school is a highly competitive setting and all of us are vying for limited opportunities that are easy to miss if you’re not “on top of things.” Additionally, social work is an inherently onerous profession and the empathy required to examine sensitive issues and be effective with clients can be draining.
The hardest obstacles I’ve faced have been learning to advocate for myself as a student and practicing self-care to prevent burnout. It can feel like personal failure to need support, ask for an extension on an assignment, or to take a mental health day to avoid burnout.
It is not.
If we deny ourselves the space to be imperfect, we face the possibility of being crushed by our own unrealistic expectations. We are living through a collectively traumatizing experience and have to treat ourselves as we treat the humans we are dedicated to serving. Combating burnout and vicarious trauma is an essential part of the development of the professional self. I am consistently working to develop coping strategies and use resources like The Shrink Space to support my development.
It is true that the cost of graduate school is steep, but it’s also true that it leads to an enriching experience that is priceless.
I have gotten the opportunity to think creatively about how I want to contribute to the field of social work, engage in deep learning about topics that move me with renowned scholars, and connect with a network of like-minded peers who are likely to become lifelong friends.