The Jobs Report: We Are Social Workers
11:30 am, November 21st | by Sarah Devlin
This is the third installment in an ongoing series we’re calling The Jobs Report. In light of depressing statistics about unemployment, especially for recent college graduates, the task of finding a job you love — or finding a job at all — can seem insurmountable. We want to challenge those numbers and offer an antidote to the depressing data, so we’re asking women we know who have found jobs they love to share how they got their gigs and what challenges and rewards them about their careers.
Leslie Rosenberg and Sheena Marquis are social workers living in New York City.
1. When and how did you decide you wanted to be social workers?
Leslie: The short answer is that I was sitting on my best friend Molly’s bed sometime around early 2010, really lost and confused about what I wanted to do next in my career, and frustrated at how horrible my GRE practice scores were. She looked at me and said “How about social work? You’re really good with people, and those schools don’t require the GRE.” Because Molly’s advice had consistently led me toward some of the best decisions I had made throughout the previous decade, and since I hate standardized tests with all the rage a human being can muster, I was sold.
The longer answer is that it was a realization that came about as the result of being raised by two physicians who literally made it their business to serve others, and who spent much of what little free time they had left advocating on behalf of their patients at every level of government. At age 16, I read Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace and quickly realized that the New York City that I had spent my life visiting to see family and friends was far greater than the glitz and glamour of Manhattan. I became simultaneously fascinated and appalled by the living conditions of the South Bronx at that time and decided that I wanted to go there, to meet the people and to fight to improve their lives. Always one to jump at the chance to drive around a dangerous neighborhood aimlessly, my father eagerly gave me a driving tour of the area, which included all the blocks and streets I had read about. I couldn’t believe I was seeing the same stores, hospitals, and public housing complexes where all these characters I had followed lived.
Probably my final push towards social work was when I decided to take our newly-elected President up on his challenge to young people to start volunteering once a week. Molly and I started tutoring with Horton’s Kids in Washington D.C., and I quickly realized that I was happier during those two hours a week than at any other time. The more research I did into the profession, the clearer it became that this was my calling, so in May of this year, I left Washington, D.C. after five years of working in politics, and packed up for my first “Smith summer” (our classes are all in the summers so we can have full-time work placements during the academic years). In late August, with a mere two semesters of clinical social work classes under my belt, I moved to New York and started working with FEGS. Other than the obviously terrible consequences this decision has on my personal finances, I haven’t looked back since!
Sheena: I’ve always wanted to work with kids, and that age range just increases as I get older (Now, I’m convinced that post-college is still part of childhood!). Up until I graduated college, I thought I would be a pediatrician. After deciding medical school was not for me, I taught science for a couple of years in several different capacities. I enjoyed teaching high school chemistry the most, but realized as I was in the classroom that I didn’t particularly care if my students learned the difference between the anode and cathode, or the formulas for all the polyatomic ions. I wanted to know about their lives — what was going on besides schoolwork. This
realization was a natural path to social work, which focuses on the whole person and the influences of their environment.
2. How did you get the jobs you have now?
Leslie: Since I am still in graduate school, I’m actually doing a full-time internship with the NYC Agency FEGS, which was a placement found and secured for me by my program at Smith College School of Social Work. I truly lucked out, because I could not have asked for a more stimulating and inspiring work environment! My co-workers, supervisors, and administrators are some of the most loving and genuine people I have ever known.
Sheena: I’m still in my second (and last!) year of graduate school at NYU, so my “job” is actually an “internship” (I.E. there’s no money involved, but I also am not responsible for finding it by myself). My internship is at Euphrasian Residence, a Rapid Intervention Center for high-risk adolescent girls. The girls are in our care for about three months until a recommendation is made for their next best step. During this time, I meet with each of my clients regularly for counseling and communicate with other staff, mental health professionals, the girls’ families, lawyers and other involved social workers in the city. I really enjoy working with all my clients, but it can be emotionally draining.
3. What’s something challenging about social work that you didn’t know about before having these jobs?
Leslie: At times the helplessness that comes out of not knowing how to remove someone’s mental and physical pain, and having to accept that you can’t, is difficult. I think social workers often have to watch their clients’ circumstances worsen significantly before they can improve, and it can be tough to stick with the process and accept all of its stages. I’m also learning that therapy is often not about having the perfect response to every question or statement, but rather about a willingness to embrace the silence, and to just be present in a difficult moment with the other person. I have been surprised to find that it is those moments that often yield the strongest connections with clients.
Sheena: I enrolled in a master’s program with a strong clinical focus thinking that I wanted to eventually open a private practice. While this is perhaps still a (very) long-term goal, I am in no rush to get there. Witnessing the pervasive effects of poverty and racism in the lives of my clients has had a huge impact on me. I’ve always felt a compulsion to advocate for individuals less
fortunate than I, but I now feel that a push to help make larger, structural, perhaps political changes to improve the lives of my clients.
4. What’s something great about social work that you didn’t know about before having these jobs?
Leslie:The only time it ever feels like work rather than something I’d love to be doing anyway is when I’m doing paperwork and dealing with the burdens of reporting to insurers and providers. Aside from that minor inconvenience of the work, I get to experience the power of raw human connection almost every single day. Knowing that your visit is the highlight of someone’s day, or being able to laugh with someone in the midst of their nearly unbearable suffering may not make my bank account swell, but it sure makes me feel like a millionaire! In the women’s group I run, I’ve been amazed to see how generous the members are in the face of their own poverty. Despite their own circumstances, after Hurricane Sandy they came to me with a plan to volunteer for victims and to collect donations for those affected. It is moments like these that make this professional experience by far the most consistently fulfilling, inspiring, and moving of my life so far.
Sheena: The “strengths-perspective” is an underlying theme of the social work profession that has strongly resonated with me. As its name suggests, it involves looking for and drawing out strengths in clients. This world view has affected not only my impression and work with my clients, but also has helped me restrain judgement on other individuals I encounter in my life.
Other social work tenets have pervaded my non-professional life. I very much appreciate the focus on “self-care.” It is equally important to care for yourself as it is to care for your clients; the latter cannot come before the former. I have a long-standing excuse to drop
everything and go for a run, bake some cookies, read for pleasure, or have a glass of wine!
Do you know a woman who has a cool job that she loves? Are you that woman? Nominate yourself or someone else to be featured in The Jobs Report at email@example.com.