Frustrated? Advocate (for yourself)!

cassie-photo-    By Cassie

I was happy to have been able to help with the summer orientation a couple of weeks ago. Among other things, it prompted me to reflect on my first year and what I wanted to pass along to new students at the GCSW. There were many things that came to mind, like the importance of self-compassion or the many opportunities for social justice. Ultimately, I decided that one of the biggest messages I wanted to pass on was advocate for yourself. Part of our mission as social workers is advocating for change with and on behalf of others in need, and in focusing on that critical aspect of our work, I think we can sometimes forget that we must also advocate for ourselves. In fact, I think that we can most effectively advocate for others by becoming skilled at doing this for ourselves. Fortunately, the GCSW offers a supportive training ground to learn and practice these skills.

I would describe my Foundation Semester as primarily a process of recalibrating expectations, of the program and of myself. During that process, I met and corresponded with several members of the staff and faculty to express concerns, seek guidance, and provide feedback. Members of the department were notably receptive and available throughout. Sharing a concern or an area of frustration can often be met with defensiveness or justifications. However, this was not the case with the individuals I met with at the GCSW. On the whole, they were remarkably curious about my perspective and open to my thoughts, and they utilized their social worker super powers to validate my concerns. I was also grateful that they made themselves so available. Because I work full-time, I sometimes couldn’t meet during their regular office hours, so they would stay late or meet on the weekends in order to accommodate my schedule. In addition to being receptive to feedback that is offered by students, the college is consistently seeking feedback from its students and implementing its findings. This ongoing process of continual improvement and growth is one of the primary things I appreciate about the GCSW.

The self-advocacy skills I have today were hard earned through years of experience and mentorship, but no matter the current state of your skills, you can put them to good use at the GCSW. If you are an experienced self-advocate, use your skills in order to help the program continue to improve and better meet your needs. If you are strengthening your abilities, know that the GCSW is a great place to practice and that self-advocacy can happen in both large and small ways. In fact, something as simple as replying to an email from the college can produce change. I mention this example specifically because it is a “self-advocacy success” I experienced this past year. As a result of mine and others’ emails and the college’s receptivity, Career Services began holding workshops at times that accommodated the Weekend College’s schedule, giving us greater access to information and resources. This is a small victory, but it is the accumulation of these small victories that shape the GCSW in ways that make it better meet the needs of all its students and in turn result in better prepared future social workers. As with all change, it starts with you. I encourage you to use all your experiences at the GCSW as opportunities to grow and hone your self-advocacy skills. You and your future clients will be better for this work.

Social Justice Everywhere

cassie-photo-      By Cassie

I have a confession: when I applied to the GCSW, I wasn’t really sure what social justice meant. I admit to asking my friends how they would define it and even googling it in order to wrap my head around it enough to write my application essay. It was such a broad and abstract term that I didn’t feel like I fully grasped its meaning.

Nearing the end of my first year in the program, I’m happy to report that I have a much better understanding of what social justice means and that I feel affirmed that I am in the right program because, among other reasons, I now realize that all those issues I’ve been passionate about for so long are in fact social justice issues. I still, however, find it a hard concept to sum up. If pressed, I would say it is “equality for all,” but that doesn’t really feel like it quite captures it. Fortunately, I have been introduced to the work of author and scholar John A. Powell this summer, and he defines social justice in a way that really resonates with me. He says, “It’s an expression of caring, just caring about people and saying that you are connected to people…and then giving it voice.” I like his definition because it seems to break the idea down into two concrete and equally important parts: empathy and action.

My experiences in my first year at the GCSW have also led to a heightened awareness of all the many areas in which one can work for social justice. I’m a full-time Montessori teacher, and I originally didn’t see a great deal of connection between what I do in the classroom and social work, much less social justice. However, my studies at the GCSW have reinvigorated my passion for education because I now see the classroom as one of the frontlines of the fight for social justice. I work for social justice through educating adolescents and also through equipping them to go out and continue the fight themselves. Additionally, I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work at Bo’s Place this summer. Even with my new understanding of this concept, grief support groups were the last place that I expected to see opportunities for social justice. Luckily, GCSW alum and former Ambassador, Flor Guevara, introduced me to the work of Alesia K. Alexander Layne. In her book Tapestries, Alexander Layne reminded me that there are differences in which communities’ losses are acknowledged and also in which kinds of losses are honored, and through giving voice to these injustices, we can move toward greater equality.

There are definite and obvious areas where social justice is painfully needed, and this is never clearer than in current times. I would offer, however, that the need for empathy and action is everywhere, and maybe even where you least expect it. I’m so glad that the GCSW has helped to give me the opportunities I needed in order to be able to see this.

(P.S. I can’t encourage you enough to follow the link above and get acquainted with the work of John A. Powell. He has some amazingly insightful ideas about what is needed for greater racial social justice, and I think all people, but especially budding social workers, would benefit from considering them.)

Don’t Blink!

View More:   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

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

View More:   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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.