Don’t Blink!

Greta Bellinger Photo   By Greta

Without a doubt, there is a resonating theme about the first year. Where did it go? It seems as though it was yesterday that I was making plans to move to Houston, attending foundation days and completing foundation semester. Here I am at the end of year one and what a great ride! The GCSW has proven that you can be as involved or uninvolved as you want.

Being an ambassador has been an extremely positive experience. It excites me to talk to others regarding their pursuit for graduate school. One of my passions has been to promote education and this program allows me the opportunity to achieve that goal. The program not only allows me to meet some great students from various parts of the U.S. but also create new connections with fellow ambassadors.

Becoming involved with research through the GCSW is another added benefit. Many professors are more than willing to allow you to develop your goals to explore research. I have been fortunate to volunteer with Dr. Parrish’s GEAR youth anxiety study this semester and found the knowledge valuable as I think forward in my own research goals.

Choosing to become a member of the Policy Insiders Advisory Committee has been instrumental in building my knowledge and desire for more macro in my life. Making the connection between policy and practice is essential for my development as a social worker. Struggling for the majority of the first year over my clinical concentration vs. macro, it allowed me to have the macro side I felt I was going to miss. It has also been an asset in developing relationships with community partners and understanding the various opportunities for social workers.

Many of you reading this blog are on your way to the GCSW! In so very many ways, I don’t think you will be disappointed with your decision. If I could encourage you in any way, it would be to build relationships with your cohort members. They will be instrumental in celebrating the highs but dealing with the lows. Also, get involved. It might sound overwhelming to engage in outside activities; however, I truly believe it will make your GCSW experience richer.

On one last note: take the Self-Care portion of your foundation semester seriously. I developed what I thought was a realistic self-care plan. I found each week presented challenges to sanity and physical health. I had to tweak it on a weekly basis to fit the schedule. Give yourself permission to take time for what you love and nurture you!

Note to Self

Anna Johnson Photo    By Anna

The final test has been submitted on Blackboard, all of my papers have been turned in, and the graduation rehearsal has come and gone. In the midst of planning a graduation party and finding a job I’ve been reflecting on my two years at the GCSW, which right now feel like a blur. When I started in Fall 2013, I thought that I would become a clinical social worker, getting my LCSW and opening a private practice one day. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Today I am graduating with a macro concentration, having served as the Director of the M.A.C.R.O. Student Network for the past year, and looking into jobs in program management and training. Funny where life takes you, right?

I know some of you reading this are prospective students, wondering where the journey is going to take you at the GCSW. To give you an idea of what’s to come, here’s the advice I would give myself as a first-year student.

  1. Get involved…sooner!

When I began the program I was apprehensive at first about joining an organization or doing outside activities. While I think it was helpful to give myself a break and find my rhythm, I also felt that I was missing out on opportunities to enrich my grad school experience. When the announcement was made that they were seeking Ambassadors, I jumped at the chance to join. That led me to join the M.A.C.R.O. Student Network, seek a job as a Graduate Assistant, and make connections that will benefit me throughout my career. Because of my involvement with student organizations, such as Student Association, I will be introducing the speaker at this year’s Convocation Ceremony! If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t waste a second getting involved.

  1. Don’t be afraid to pursue your passion.

My first semester was spent mostly worrying about staying on the clinical track or going to macro. For so long I thought that I would be a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and have a private practice, but every time macro topics were mentioned in my Foundation classes my interest was piqued. It was difficult letting go of the vision I had created so long ago, but when I imagined my career after graduating, the idea of doing macro work excited me more than anything. Fortunately, I was able to combine my clinical and macro skills along the way, and because I followed my passion, the jobs I am applying to now are incredibly fascinating to me.

  1. Take time to enjoy it all.

At about the mid-point of each semester, I inevitably told someone in my life, “I just want this to be over!” Any graduate will say the same thing. Grad school takes work, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Looking back I’ve done some amazing things in my classes, from advocacy projects to presentations to community stakeholders. Even in the grind, it’s so important to enjoy those moments. They will be over before you know it!

That’s my advice for any first-year or prospective students. You get out of this program what you put into it, and I suggest you take advantage of all this school has to offer.

A Promise to Change

Emme Bozone Photo      By Emme

During the foundation semester, it was hard to go a week without hearing a professor tell us how different our thought pattern would be by the time we walked across the stage at graduation. Out of stubbornness and a bit of naivety, I scoffed at the comment thinking the only thing that would change in two years was the amount of experience I would gain, the social work knowledge I would gather over the two years, and learn tangible ways to assist clients in therapy and practice.

One of the most profound moments of change I had this year was during my field placement with Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston in the Meals on Wheels department. One afternoon I took a call from a local hospice agency requesting meals for a client who had a few weeks left on this earth. Our policy dictated we were unable to add him to our route; with a breaking heart I passed the information along and immediately went to my supervisor to seek feedback. Policy said we were not allowed to serve this client, but our intuition said we did.

As a clinical student, I came in with a mindset that policy was more of a nuisance, and would have little direct affect on my future practice. When I encountered this phone call, the effects of policy came to life. I now had a story and a glimpse into what policy has the potential for doing- both good and bad. Problem solving and collaboration allowed us to find a way to work with internal policy and get this client a daily meal.

While there is still a year left before I graduate, my thought pattern, instincts, and awareness to the world around us has begun to take on a new pattern. My practice is influenced by my classroom learning, but heavily supported by my own belief system. My weeks, although busy, have pockets of self-care to ensure that I take care of myself mentally, physically, and emotionally. I have built a network of support to ask questions, be honest about shortcomings, and seek wisdom and comfort. I acknowledge the nuance of policy in practice and seek to understand policies as they actively relate to serving others.

As you begin your MSW, stay cognizant to what is happening around you, both in the program and out. You will encounter clients that present what appears to be impossible needs, become challenged by colleagues, and find yourself stretched by the request from your professors and supervisors. Embrace the challenge and lean into your community for support. No good road traveled presents itself without forks, divots, and bumps. Enjoy the journey!

Field: Unique, but Not Alone

Cassie Manley Photo            By Cassie

When thinking about The Field Experience at the GCSW, I realized that actually there is no such thing. Rather, the diversity of the field sites creates what could be called The Field Experiences. For example, I am at a field site that facilitates (among many other things) court-ordered psycho-educational classes for those who have committed acts of domestic violence. Others in my cohort are in a completely different world at places like the Greater Heights Area Chamber of Commerce, somewhere I would never even expect a social worker to be. And even if the work is the same, the culture of each location can be totally different. For some, there were many hours of training, background tests, preliminary paperwork and other logistical hurdles to clear before they could start, resulting in a more structured work place. For some, all they had to do was show up ready to work, which often was a sign that they would be in a more relaxed atmosphere. This diversity reflects the diversity of the field of social work itself.

Despite these differences, there are some aspects that we all have in common. For one, the Field Education Office placed us all in our field sites. To me, this support is a huge benefit of being a part of the GCSW. When I’ve talked with others in the mental health field about my internship, many are surprised that I had help finding a field site. It seems that in many other programs, especially those in counseling, students are responsible for finding their internship sites on their own. Although I admit I did not end up at a place that I would have chosen otherwise, I am grateful that I didn’t have to take on this task all by myself. With working full-time and going to graduate school, I have plenty else to do!

Even more similarities start to emerge when I look at the diverse field experiences of my cohort through a developmental lens. During our field orientation, there was one slide in the PowerPoint presentation that briefly mentioned the five stages of internship development: Anticipation, Disillusionment, Confrontation, Competence, and Culmination. I barely noticed this information at the time, but as I began to experience strong feelings of frustration and disappointment, I remembered it and did a little more research.

I discovered that my experiences fit precisely into the Disillusionment Stage, as developed by Sweitzer and King (2004). The characteristic “unexpected emotions,” “disappointment with supervisor/co-workers,” conflict with the “operating values of [the] organization,” abundance of questions, and deep feelings of demoralization resonated with me (Sweitzer & King, 2004, p.54). Fortunately, after talking with my Field Liaison, I felt empowered to go and address my concerns directly with my supervisor. I think this moved me into the Confrontation Stage, as evidenced by my “reassess[ing] goals and expectations” and working to resolve “interpersonal issues” and “intrapersonal blocks” (Sweitzer & King, 2004, p.55). I don’t yet feel like I’m in the Competence Stage, and predict I’ll circle back a few times between Disillusionment and Confrontation still, but I look forward to feeling accomplished, motivated, and more balanced when I do reach this next level (Sweitzer & King, 2004).

I’m grateful to know that I’m not alone in my feelings; commonalities unite the interns from the GCSW as well as countless other interns, in social work and otherwise. Yet, the unique details and settings that bring about these feelings remain diverse, mirroring the diversity of the profession and combining to create what is your field experience.

Source: Sweitzer, H.F., & King, M.A. (2004). The successful internship: Personal, professional, and civic development, third edition. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Reflections on Year 1

Claire Crawford Photo     By Claire

As cliché as it sounds, the first year of my graduate program flew by. It seems like such a short time ago that I was looking around the room during the first days of Foundations wondering which of the faces around me would become new friends (the answer: all of them). Though not without its challenges, this has been one of the best years of my life.

After consulting with students in other graduate programs, I have learned how very unique my experience has been as a Master’s of Social Work student. In this environment, we are not only studying subject matter; we are examining ourselves. In every class I have taken, the students have been asked to look within so that truths about our passions, biases, assumptions, histories, values, beliefs, relationships, and goals will be revealed. As we practice introspection, we are also asked to listen attentively to the findings of those around us. What matters most to the classmate sitting next to me? What assumptions do I have about a peer who talks or dresses a certain way? What can I learn from the perspective of someone I have never spoken to before?

Another unique component of studying to be a social worker is the pervasive and, in my opinion, profound emphasis on self-care. I was recently the only social worker in a room of other students studying in fields such as medicine, biology, dentistry, and public health. When the leader asked who had ever been asked to practice self-care in their academic programs, I was the only person who raised a hand. When asked who knew what self-care was, I was again the only person to raise a hand. And yet, here at U of H, we are encouraged every day to take steps toward excellent self-care practices; we make self-care plans, we have other students offer suggestions, and, in my case, sometimes we suggest personalized plans to our significant others to increase the happiness of those around us.

I am so grateful to have learned what I have from this program so far not only because I’ve seen how much it has already benefited me on a professional level through my internship at Baylor College of Medicine, but also because I realize that these are skills I will need to keep me resilient in my personal life. To use one of the terms I’ve learned in the program, here’s a little bit of appropriate self-disclosure: this year, I’ve gotten engaged, received a prestigious fellowship, and learned that my mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Navigating the complex intricacies of joy, pain, excitement, and other combinations of overwhelming emotions in conjunction with classwork would be much more difficult without the values of the social work profession instilled within me. And now, strengthened by my own spirit as well as the support of the cohort and classmates I’ve grown so close to, I’ve emerged from my first year of the program: awakened, anxious, resilient, reassured. As I look forward to the next and final year of the MSW program, I cannot know what joys and challenges I will face academically and personally…but I can be empowered to confront each with openness and humility.

Self-Compassion: The Doorway to Self-Care

Cassie Manley Photo     By Cassie

“Self-Compassion: The Doorway to Self-Care”

I am so grateful that we talk regularly about self-care at the GCSW and that is a regular topic in social work education in general. In fact, I found a great definition of self-care from the University at Buffalo’s School of Social Work which says that self-care, “refers to activities and practices that we can engage in on a regular basis to reduce stress and maintain and enhance our short- and longer-term health and well-being.” (The school has a great “Self-Care Starter Kit” if you are interested in more resources.)

As self-care began to come up in classes and discussions at the GCSW, I was reminded of a complementary concept that I learned of through the work of Dr. Kristin Neff: self-compassion. We know as social workers that part of our jobs is to serve as a compassionate presence to others, but I think that we may often forget about how we must also offer compassion to ourselves. Dr. Neff offers a three-part definition of self-compassion. I see it as three simple steps:

  1. Notice that you are suffering.
  2. Recognize that you are not alone; suffering is a part of the human experience.
  3. Be kind to yourself.

I know for me that I can default to a “toughen up, push through” attitude towards myself when I am having a difficult time, so much so that I may not even label what I am experiencing as suffering. If I feel sad or frustrated with my lack of expertise in my internship and I am criticizing myself for how I interacted with a client, Dr. Neff would say that this is a moment of suffering. She would go on to encourage me to take a moment and mentally note that this is the case. Then, she would tell me to remind myself that I am not alone, both in my struggles when learning something new and in my pain in response to my criticisms of myself. Lastly, she would gently push me to be kind to myself either through supportive self-talk messages and/or doing a small kind action for myself like taking a short break to enjoy a few peaceful minutes alone or to taking care of my body through drinking water, eating a snack, or even going to the bathroom (important self-care practices that are easy to neglect in the busy-ness of life).

Because of this process, I have come to see self-compassion as the doorway to self-care. I believe the first step, noticing our suffering, is required in order for us to go on to actually practice self-care. Dr. Neff offers a simple series of sentences that one can use as a mantra or prayer to help remember the parts of self-compassion. I have found it to be very helpful in my own life. She says,

“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I give myself the kindness I need.”

I hope this information is as helpful to you as it has been to me! If you are interested in learning more about self-compassion, you can do so by visiting Dr. Neff’s website at self-compassion.org.

Well-needed Break at Home

Lauren small pic    By Lauren

One of my favourite aspects of the social work profession is the importance of incorporating self-care.  Professors within the GCSW will sporadically remind us of the significance of looking after ourselves, to ensure we are able to work at our optimum.  While on the winter break, I am taking every opportunity I can to enjoy relaxing with my family and friends.

Texas is my home for most of the year, however I get to go to my homeland for Christmas and New Year.  In Scotland, we enjoy a good party and for Hogmanay (New Years Eve) and I was lucky enough to attend the Hogmanay party in Edinburgh.  It was a great experience with fireworks, music, and 75,000 people from all over the world.  While on the street I heard an assortment of accents/languages including Polish, French, Japanese, American, Australian, Chinese, and many more.  It was fantastic to experience a party in my home country that was attended by people from all over the world.

In between all the eating, gift exchanging, and reuniting there has been room for discussions.  One interesting aspect about being at home, is hearing the opinion on world issues from those experiencing it in a different country.  Throughout the year there have been a number of news headlines from Ebola, to Ferguson.  It has been refreshing discussing all the top stories from the last year with a British twist on it.  There are a few highly educated family members who enjoy sharing their opinion and it was empowering to have them value my opinion, as they were interested to hear where I was coming from.  In past times, at home, I generally kept out of the discussions but I have realised the importance of having confidence to open my mouth.

My whole time at home has allowed me to recuperate and recharge for the last year of my MSW.  I look forward to returning to Houston, but for the next couple weeks I am all about self-care with my family, no treble.

Foundation Semester

Greta Bellinger Photo   By Greta

As the semester comes to a close, I am in awe of all I have learned, experienced and gained the past four months. Serendipity is the word that comes to mind regarding the foundation semester at GCSW. This semester has been one of solid preparation, from the classroom to professors to field placement to support through a cohort. How do you describe a first semester graduate school experience that has exceeded your expectations?

When I think of the foundation of a building, I think about the hidden beams, concrete, and partitions in place to make that building strong. The foundation establishes the strength of the structure. Every portion of the Foundation Semester is important to producing a competent, prepared and ethical social worker. The knowledge obtained in textbooks, classroom lectures and activities provided me with the essential tools needed to be effective in my field placement. The support I have received from my peers, in addition to encouraging and readily available professors, provided much needed confidence and strength when questions or weariness arose.

The encouragement, support and knowledge I gleaned from the social workers at my field placement, The Council on Alcohol and Drugs, have been extremely positive.  My field supervisor exceeds my expectations as she diligently works to provide me her time, along with opportunities for exposure to a diverse client base, research and the policies affecting the population seeking treatment through the CRADLES program.  My desire to work with addiction, women, pregnancy and postpartum depression is being fulfilled through my field placement.  Fully aware that not everyone gets their dream field position, I consider myself fortunate to be placed where my interests are fulfilled and knowledge and skills are challenged.

Last, but not least, being an Ambassador for the GCSW has fulfilled one of my dreams to encourage others to pursue graduate school. Addressing the challenges and rewards of this program and the University of Houston, I look forward to another great semester of promoting a career in social work through the GCSW.

The Field Placement You Did not Know You Needed

Emme Bozone Photo

By Emme

Every student has dreams and expectations when they enter school. I remember the first few weeks of school; classes were filled with chatter about what we dreamed of using our degree for. We had our dreams, but professors and second year students cautioned us to not get caught up in them. As we got further into the semester we became antsy to find out where we would be spending time training to be a social worker.

The day finally came! It felt a bit like the first day school again. There was so much unknown, yet a sense of certainty. For the past ten years I have worked with children, and figured I would get a field placement working with them in some capacity. My dream is to work with children in an educational setting.

The excitement of finding out my placement rapidly deflated. My placement was working at Interfaith Ministries in the Meals on Wheels department. I was so upset that I had to spend my first internship working with the geriatric population, one of the few populations I had never dreamed of working with.

As we finish our first semester, I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to have been pushed out of my comfort zone. Working with a different population has given me the ability to learn new skills, view social work from a new perspective, and discover new things about yourself.

We often ask our clients to try something new, to reframe their situation, or to think in a different way. As a social work intern, I had to do the same thing. If I had not opened my mind to the possibilities of what social work can do with different populations, I would have been stuck. Instead I’m learning about Meals on Wheels, the clients we serve, the many agencies in Houston, and how to help seniors live independently for as long as possible.

I would have never picked Interfaith Ministries, but I am glad it was picked for me. Graduate school brings about a lot of uncertainty, but there is a lot to learn when you trust in the process. You may not get the class you want or the field placement you dream of, but when you trust in the process you grow as a person, as a social worker, and a colleague.

Choosing the MSW Program That’s Right for You

Claire Crawford PhotoBy Claire

I spent two years trying to decide where to get my MSW.

The first year, I applied and got into a good school but became too ill the month before school started, so I was too sick to attend. I spent all of this last year researching the best MSW programs, spending absurd amounts of money on transcripts, applications, the GRE, etc., visited my favorite programs face-to-face, and making one of the biggest decisions of my life. And that’s how I got to the GCSW.

Honestly, UH wasn’t on my list the first year and hadn’t really crossed my mind as an option until late in the game; I’m from a town of 20,000 people, and Houston is HUGE, far from home, and way out of my comfort zone. However, I figured that since I had another year to apply, I might as well broaden my options and look into schools outside the Southeast. I still wasn’t sure if it was really a viable option until I visited the school in February 2014; but as soon as I walked off the campus, I knew exactly where I would be getting my graduate education. Everyone takes their education seriously—I mean, we’re paying for this—so we’ve all put in plenty of time to decide exactly where we belong. Here are a few of the things that factored in to my final decision:

1.The faculty. I highly suggest requesting to meet with a faculty member who shares your interests when you go on a school visit. I met with two professors during my visit, and they were passionate about their research, listened closely to my goals and what I hoped to accomplish in both graduate school and in a career, and one eventually offered me a graduate research assistantship with her—one of the things I most hoped to accomplish. The faculty in my classes have been fantastic, and I feel that my assistantship has allowed me to form a tighter connection with professors.

2.The Medical Center. U of H is about 4 miles away from the largest medical center in the world. How cool is that?? The Med Center offers opportunities not just for people like me who are interested in a very specific type of medical care, but also to any students interested in health, medical social work, research, and really anyone who wants a job (the medical field desperately needs good social workers). I made an appointment with a social worker at Texas Children’s Hospital when I visited U of H in February, and she was so excited to have a social worker interested in her topic of healthcare. I ended up doing my first field placement in the Med Center, and I’m hoping my next placement will be there too.

3.The students. When I visited campus, I talked to a really helpful GCSW Ambassador who gave me honest opinions about what it’s like to be a student here. She told me about life in Houston, graduate classes, her field placement, and her overall experience. She, along with two extremely knowledgeable and passionate alumni I spoke with, helped guide my decision. Just as I had hoped, the students in my cohort now are inspiring individuals with unique goals and interests who have been with me every step of the way as we’ve begun this program together. I can’t wait to see the difference they will make in a couple years after graduation.

A year ago, I would never have guessed I’d be living in Houston, TX.  Somehow, through a series of unexpected events, I have ended up exactly where I believe I am supposed to be—and I couldn’t be happier about my decision.

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