Social Work

A Good Problem To Have

When I started grad school last year, I had no idea what kind of job I wanted when I graduated. I was fine with that uncertainly. Coming from the other side of the desk, when I did the grading and they skipped the readings, I spent a lot of time telling undergraduates that it was ok not to know what they wanted to be when they grew up. That’s the purpose of college, at least the liberal arts variety. It’s one of the dressing rooms of life. In between sobering up and scrounging for free pizza, you’re there to try things on and see what fits. One of my greatest delights was to inform college seniors who were on the track to becoming doctors that they were actually writers. Surprise! Such discoveries fall under this exhilarating and terrifying truth: you can’t know until you know.

I approached my Master’s program with the open mind cluelessness I had preached about. I knew I wanted jump into the social work pool and I was pretty sure I wanted to work in child welfare. I also knew I didn’t want to be a mental health counselor, so I signed up for the macro track. Macro social work encompasses nearly everything except one-on-one therapy: administration, fundraising, publicity, advocacy, policy – jobs that support or change the systems in which those therapists try to help people. I like to think of it as the prevention wing of the profession.

Two semesters later, I still can’t say exactly what I want to do when I graduate. The reason: now there are too many jobs that might fit.

I’m fine with this uncertainty, too.

My courses and internship have exposed me to issues I didn’t know existed, problems I didn’t know needed fixing and solutions I didn’t know I could be part of.

Like what? You ask.

Like this, I tell:

*Close to half of all Massachusetts foster children have been placed in two or more homes after being removed from their parents. That’s about 10 percent higher than the national average. Neuroscience tells us that this kind of instability is very bad for normal brain development and psychological well-being. They need more and better foster homes so they can stay in one place while their families try to heal.

*Child welfare social workers earn low incomes and work in gross offices (not always?) so they can protect kids and heal broken families. This requires spending time with those families. In reality, they spend a good chunk of their time carpooling children from foster care to day care to doctors’ appointments, and sitting in courthouse hallways waiting for client cases to be called. They need fewer cases or fewer tasks.

*Fathers of foster kids are often disregarded, as if they could never get their acts together. This is 100% false.

*People who donate to charities don’t want their money going to salaries. They want it going to people in need. Fair enough. But they don’t seem to realize that you can’t help people effectively if you can’t hire and/or keep qualified people. See low pay and gross offices above.

*Most people don’t realize what’s going on in the child welfare system, both good and bad, except for the tragedies. Claiming that children need confidentiality, as if they’ve done something shameful, is part of the problem. Their stories need to be told.

Those problems aren’t going to solve themselves. I’d be thrilled if my second career gives me the opportunity to approach any of them. Not knowing which one I’d most like to be part of is a good problem to have. It makes me sort of a utility player, no?

I have a year to go on this side of the desk. A year to go before I grow up, part II.

What do you want to be when you grow up?