On Beginning in an MSW Program

by Jessica L. Faulk

     When you begin graduate school for an MSW, you are not told how the education you are beginning will potentially reorganize many facets of your cognitive awareness. As you integrate your coursework into an existing job, ongoing relationships, and your day-to-day life, you may find that your conversation drifts to subjects relating to your academic focus. You may consider what privileges you had during your upbringing and how they impact the person you became. Putting down your textbook for a moment, you may wonder where you fit into systems theory. Considering the perspectives of strengths and resilience, you may wonder how to define or redefine yourself and others. Out of the NASW value relating to the dignity and worth of the person, the homeless man you had not considered becomes illuminated as you stop at a traffic light. You watch him as he shifts toward the line of cars with his cardboard sign. Before your classes began, you may have thought little of him. Maybe you were uncomfortable and unsure how to respond to his silent appeal. But under the lens of your new education, he is elevated to the status of a person, and this awareness demands a response of you. 

     In your classes and from your books, you will read about the superhero you are anticipated to be to at-risk populations. As you consider policy, research, micro and macro impacts, and the wide expanse of human behavior, you may wonder at your direction on this enormous frontier. Who will you work with? What will you advocate? Where can you serve as a pillar to support this powerful helping profession? As you react to people, situations, thoughts, and emotions, you may wonder at your ability to do the work you are asked to do. When you walked through the doors at your university, you knew you wanted to help people and make a difference. It was easier to say than to realize. 

     A graduate level education in social work has the potential to reorganize your world. As you move through your education, if you allow what you learn to reach into the farthest places within yourself, you will find you reevaluate the co-worker you don’t like through the lens of the strengths perspective. As you drive through disadvantaged parts of your town, you might wonder at how systems theory plays a part in the lives of the people you see at a gas station in the early morning hours. As students self-segregate in the classroom according to race, you may wonder about social justice, and you may find yourself responding to a desire to lessen the divides. 

     The education you will receive will challenge you in ways you did not expect. You anticipated a heavy course load, little sleep, extensive reading, and writing papers. What you didn’t imagine would happen is occurring within you as you evaluate the fabric of society, relationships, and the dynamics of the individual. The potential clients you saw in your mind have become a lot more complicated. It was easy to see them from the viewpoint of the behavior they brought into your imagined office, but a person is enormously more than you thought. The person that comes before you is uplifted and burdened by a number of biopsychosocial influences. He or she will tell you truths and untruths out of the realm of personal experience, and you will glean from your education this person’s environment and history, the tangible strengths, the factors that limit opportunities, and the potential pathways out of adversity. The person before you is a person. The person is not an object, not a manifestation of the influence of any single factor. The entirety of the person is before you, and you made a commitment to walk with that person as far as you can.  

     For now, your classes are just beginning, and you realize you have a lot more to learn before you are ready to help anyone. The hubris of being a new graduate student is replaced by your personal resilience as you shoulder the responsibilities of your profession. The work you are doing is hard work, but it is good work. As you turn each textbook page, as you challenge yourself in interpersonal relationships, and as you evaluate your cognitions in response to others, you think you understand, at least, the start of the path before you. It’s okay that there is a long way to go. It’s an incredibly important journey.

Jessica L. Faulk is an MSW student at Winthrop University, with a BA in psychology from Arizona State University. She intends to earn her LCSW and practice psychotherapy.

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