What My Experience as a Social Work Student Taught Me

social work student

“God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Since childhood, I have always known that I would grow up to find a job where I could make use of my natural ability to empathize with others and my strong desire to help people ease their pain. This is why, after completing college, I made the decision to apply to social work school and channel my energies and efforts into helping those less fortunate than I.

Graduate school was simultaneously a wonderful and terrifying experience. Wonderful in the sense that I was finally studying something I truly cared about and believed in; gone were the days of endless hours studying calculus and French literature, replaced by classes on social policy and family therapy. I met awesome new friends from vastly different backgrounds than myself, people I never would have had the opportunity to meet during my childhood in a beautiful but largely homogenous middle-class neighborhood of families with two college-educated parents and an average of 2.5 children.

But grad school was also terrifying, in the sense that I finally had the opportunity to discover what my decision to enter this field would truly entail. To say that social workers are under-appreciated and underpaid is putting it lightly. Over the course of my two-year master’s program, I had supervisors – supervisors! – who held at least one other job in addition to their main, full-time job, just to be able to pay the bills. It had never occurred to me that an employed adult putting in 40 hours a week might still not take home enough of a paycheck to cover her and her family’s basic needs. The fact that the US was in the midst of a recession only sought to make this problem even more relevant and apparent.

By this time I reached my second and final year of the program, my knowledge had increased exponentially – as had my stress level. Here I was, with all sorts of lofty plans for my future, and I didn’t even know if my choice of profession would allow me to pay rent. I was already working two part-time jobs on top of my full-time class schedule, plus three full days a week at my internship. If this was how difficult things were as a student, I didn’t even want to imagine what it’d be like trying to support and care for children, as many of my classmates were doing.

My second-year field placement took place, at my request, at an outpatient treatment center for chemically addicted men, women, and teens. The work was frustrating, and usually by the time I got home, I was not in the mood to see or speak to anyone for several hours while I unwound.

Weeks went by, then months, and soon enough it came time to start planning for graduation and my future licensing exam, which was drawing ever closer. I reminded my clients of my last day working at the center, and began the process of saying goodbye to them. They wished me all the best with my exams and my future. It struck me that after 10 months together, I would be leaving; some of these clients had been in therapy for years, while others were just starting out their respective journeys and had a long road ahead of themselves in their recovery – particularly for the majority of clients who had yet to accept that they did, in fact, have a problem.

The juxtaposition of my clients’ real, potentially life-threatening challenges with my own needless anxiety was startling. Don’t get me wrong – there is a very real concern in not being able to make enough money to support oneself and one’s family. But since I was not actually in that situation at that moment in time, there really was no need for me to be stressing.

The famous Serenity Prayer, often quoted in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, implores God to: “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference”. That day, something finally clicked for me, and it became clear just how much I needed to let go of trying to be in control of everything. The decision to stop stressing, and the ability to carry it out, are two very different things, but at last I had a name to my goal – I needed to gain serenity.

Life throws a lot of challenges our way, some that we had anticipated and many that we had not. In worrying about the future, however, we all too often miss out on the present. Over the years following my experience as a social work student, there have been many trying times, but I always keep in the back of my mind the realization that there is a difference between the things I can change and the things I cannot – and that that’s ok.

Sometimes when we set out to help others, the experience ends up helping us in turn – have you ever experienced such a situation in your own life?

Photo by Francisco Osorio

3 thoughts on “What My Experience as a Social Work Student Taught Me”

  1. Great Article Rachel! I enjoyed reading about how you followed your passion to help others. I also enjoyed reading how at one point you had the realization that your career path my not held the lifestyle you dreamed about. I recently had a friend who is much younger then I am decide to go back to collage to study for a new career. He came to my house with his computer in hand and all the salary stats on the different career paths he had chosen. He and I looked through them all and I asked questions about the courses and got him to clarify his interpretation of the information. At the end of our discussion he asked me what I would do if I were making his choice. The only question I asked him was “which course focus gets you excited?”
    Being someone who has worked in a field that didn’t excite me, I can tell you it is draining in a different way. I will tell anyone I come across to first be true to your hearts calling. You will never feel unsuccessful by learning and focusing in an area that fills your spirit with joy. You will also find that when you focus on something that creates joy for you, then you can begin to innovate within that area. First take care of your own passions and then you can guide others to find what they are passionate about. Thank you for the read and the opportunity to comment! Cosimo

  2. Wow you sure know how to use your words. Brilliant rendition of your journey and experience. I can say that I truly enjoyed the experience of returning to higher education after a half a century in doing stuff to get me by. I graduated with my bachelor of Social Work and wish now that I had done it before… however I can’t change that!!! So forward I go and know that I make a difference each and every day to my clients who have had serious health conditions and now need to rethink their “normal”… it fills my soul to be apart of their journey, the tears and the smile! I have no regrets and with my job the $$$ are very good…. If you work in non-profit it is less but in a government system its very good money! Do you live in USA?

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