Background & Goals Grad Essay

“So you're the one with the human bites!” exclaimed the hospital orderly as he wheeled me to physical therapy. My social work career had just been severed as surely as the nerves in my partially detached finger. Like my finger, it healed and regained function with time.

I had chanced into social work on a paraprofessional level eight years before. A job sorting clothes for Goodwill Industries led to promotion when I excelled at supervising my disabled coworkers. Now a job coach, I trained, supervised and worked alongside people with developmental, physical and psychiatric disabilities in a community based vocational rehabilitation program. In the 1980's sheltered workshops flourished and placing workers with disabilities at regular businesses radically challenged the status quo. I was proud to be one of the first job coaches in Iowa promoting diversity in the workplace and visibility of a stigmatized group. Vocational rehabilitation provided a good grounding in social work skills. I learned assessment techniques, wrote individual service plans, developed time management skills, supervised people in groups while focusing on their individual needs and goals, and adapted to a wide range of community settings. Early on I emphasized basic social skills such as saying “please” or “excuse me” and zipping one's own coat, since many of my employees had led isolated lives in institutions or at home before coming to Goodwill. Employed in teams at stores, hotels, factories and museums my workers approached jobs usually regarded as menial with dignity and enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, I faced my own challenges. My blue collar parents had never personally known anyone with a college degree and certainly never considered sending a girl to a university. My high school counselors were no more enthusiastic about helping blue collar girls go to college. However, the flood of university recruitment letters after my college board exams had their effect. My parents could only afford loans for three semesters, and I will always be grateful to them for financing those despite their doubts about the utility of college. I blossomed in the dorms, took upper division classes for fun, and flirted with theater before settling on psychology. Then the money ran out. I was determined to continue my education but I would not be eligible for financial aid based on my own income until age twenty four. So like many others, I worked and watched my friends from high school have fun on campus and finish college.

At last my turn came, and I returned to my studies with focus and maturity. My first psychology advisor at the University of Iowa told me to quit school if I needed to work for a living because I couldn't do both well. I had gained confidence as a social worker and firmly believed I could prove him wrong. I did encounter stumbling blocks as I worked up to 60 hours weekly and studied full time for six semesters. At the end of spring semester 1994 I fell ill and did not recover in time to finish two incompletes, resulting in F grades. I later retook the classes and did well. I believe that the lesson I learned about respecting my limits and overcoming mistakes taught me more about life success than passing would have. In addition, I only earned C's in classes that I would have sought tutoring in given time and money, which lowered my overall GPA to 3.11. In my psychology major I earned a 3.76 GPA. During my senior year I took loans out, worked fewer hours, made the dean's list both semesters and earned a 4.08 GPA in my final classes. Ten years after I had begun, I picked up my diploma at the post office and cried for joy in my freezing car.

Armed with my shiny new Bachelor of Science degree and Goodwill's 1996 Employee of the Year award, I became ambitious. I went to the big city and found a job working with a man who had severe autism living in a specialized group home. I said goodbye to good friends and Goodwill, and moved to Chicago. Two weeks into the job I was preventing “Mr. B” from banging his head on the wall when he attacked, biting me all over and nearly taking off my right index finger. Six police finally restrained him, but not before one of them was also bitten. Following surgery and extensive physical therapy I prepared to enter the workforce again.

Injured and humbled, I needed a break from social work. Several years passed. I worked in construction, supervised scorers of standardized tests and chauffeured for a remarkable disability advocate, keeping a foot in the door for social work by volunteering with her group of disabled teen girls, the Empowered Fe-Fes. I got married, birthed twins and moved my family to Grand Rapids. After eighteen months as a stay at home mom to infant twins, I longed for the comparative peace and low stress of social work. I had emotionally healed from the attack. I missed professional work and decided I would give my true career another try. Touchstone Innovare hired me in 2002 and I have worked there since.

My five years at Touchstone have widened my skills and perspective. Although the main focus is treating people with serious psychiatric illness, co-occurring substance abuse is common. The majority of my clients at Touchstone live in crushing poverty. Most are jobless, many are homeless and under half have steady incomes or medical insurance. Ingenuity is needed to help fill needs for medication and housing when those resources are absent or pending. My intellect has been challenged as I apply current research in psychology to treatment of individuals in an evidence based manner. Successfully developing treatment plans with individuals requires creativity and the ability to integrate knowledge of psychiatric diseases with unique personal and environmental factors. Electronic record keeping and resulting high standards have improved my documentation skills, allowing me to form thorough and accurate client files. Teamwork and constructive criticism are valued at Touchstone, and I have learned to consult with peers and supervisors regularly to my clients' benefit. I gained an awareness of my strengths and weaknesses which has promoted objectivity and successful treatment approaches. Outreach to unengaged clients has honed my investigative and rapport-building skills.

I have established and maintained therapeutic rapport with hundreds of people with psychiatric disabilities, but I lack the necessary education to fulfill my career goals. A master's degree in social work from Grand Valley State University would give me the knowledge and credentials to practice social work at an advanced level. This would afford an opportunity to work with women experiencing mental illness during pregnancy and postpartum. (See social justice essay.) Poor women face challenges in getting adequate and humane psychiatric treatment and I would like to help solve this problem. Completing graduate work at GVSU could enable me to pursue that goal through several possible avenues. It would allow me to address the problem individually by giving therapy to women in that situation. I could network with fellow students in the macro program and develop a community agency specializing in mental health services for women in their reproductive lives. Or I could pursue further academic work, earn a Ph.D. and research reproductive mental health needs on a state or national level.

Grand Valley State University stands out as the best choice for me. It compares favorably to other programs I have looked at in important ways. GVSU operates in and contributes extensively to my community through faculty activities and the education of new generations of social workers. I would not need to move my family to another part of the country, find another job, and build a new network of supports to attend,a major consideration. Grand Valley has been highly recommended to me by coworkers who are alumni. Your high quality social work program with an unapologetic emphasis on social justice and diversity appeals to me because I want to right inequality and prejudice to the best of my ability. GVSU offers part time study completed during the day, which would allow me to spend more time with my family than a night program would. Your program allows specialized micro study, allowing me to focus on the area where my personal skills fit best but maintain contact with peers with administrative talents.

The most compelling reason to choose GVSU is the chance to study with faculty members whose areas of expertise would be very helpful to me. Joan Borst could teach me much about addressing barriers to health care. Dianne Green-Smith's focus on family therapy, pregnancy and infant adoption dovetails with my interest in reproductive health. I find David Lehker's study of male parenting important because he could expand my knowledge of men's reproductive lives. Similarly, Shelley Shuurman's work in parenting issues and advocacy could be valuable to me since I want to develop advocacy methods myself. No other MSW program I have considered can compare with Grand Valley State University in terms of professors who could foster my development in my particular area of interest.

I once thought that being bitten by a client would ruin my social work career. Time and a sincere dedication to helping others brought me the strength and courage to return to the work I love. Earning an MSW at Grand Valley State University would seal that choice and prepare me for advanced practice. I hope you will invite me into your department.


Bri said...

I am an Australian social worker and I stumbled across your blog somehow (can't quite recall how it came about!) but I have added you to my Google Reader and am looking forward to reading along!


Mary said...

Thanks Bri!