Impersonating a Social Worker Word Cloud
by Julie Claypool, MSW
Have you ever told a lie so many times that you convinced yourself it was true? If I met you at a party or the grocery store, and you asked me what I did for a living, I would repeat my well-rehearsed lie. “I’m a social worker.” I told myself that it was not really a lie, because I actually worked as a case manager in a social service agency. It was irrelevant that my undergraduate degree was in journalism. Eventually, my white lie caught up with me, and I found myself beginning graduate school in my 40s.
Getting a master’s degree was not on my bucket list. I had children attending three different colleges, and I was content. I had successfully survived having three teenagers in high school at the same time and was prepared to continue with my job in social services until all my children graduated. My life was running smoothly. Then I hit a major career roadblock.
I worked for a service coordination agency that contracted with the Illinois Department of Human Services. However, after Illinois was mandated to convert its grant programs to Medicaid waiver to receive federal reimbursement, my degree in journalism/communications was called into question. The government didn’t care that I had spent 20+ years working in human services. I was told that for my agency to continue to bill for my services, I needed to take a minimum of 15 credit hours in a human services-related field. It came down to five additional bachelor’s-level courses in psychology, human behavior, or social work. If I successfully completed these courses, I would be qualified for the position I already held.
My agency appealed the decision and provided the state with proof of 752 hours of Continuing Education Units (CEUs) that I had completed since becoming their employee. After repeated denials, it became evident that I would need to return to school or take a non-degreed position. I love to clean, so I strongly considered giving the janitor a run for her money, but found out that I wasn’t qualified for that, either. Who knew that handling toxic cleaning agents required HAZMAT training? I reluctantly agreed to return to the halls of academia, and my employer offered to pay for my classes.
I chose social work courses, because as a case manager, I already considered myself a social worker. Never mind that I didn’t have the degree.
I initially considered the local junior college, where I believed I could knock out the 15 hours in one semester. When the school counselor found out I already had a bachelor’s degree, she looked me dead in the eye and lied. She said I could attend my alma mater and earn my master’s in a mere two semesters. The program was called Advanced Standing. I found this news outstanding. I believed that only an additional semester stood between me and an MSW.
I returned to the same college I had graduated from more than 20 years earlier and ran into the second roadblock. The junior college counselor had failed to mention that to be eligible for the MSW program with advanced standing, my bachelor’s degree had to be in social work. I was now looking at 64 hours instead of 15. Not outstanding at all.
While I contemplated returning to the junior college and signing up for the HAZMAT course, I stumbled upon the perfect loophole. It began with two simple words in the graduate school brochure—life experience.
I believed I had found the yellow brick road. My beloved college, unlike the state and federal government, was going to give me credit for life experience. Forget all that nonsense about years of school ahead of me. I had discovered a shortcut. I excitedly explained to my new counselor that I had two decades of life experience. I waited for her to type that into her computer and transform my journalism degree into a social work degree.
She cheerfully pointed out that I didn’t have life experience as a social worker. I showed her my trump card—752 hours of CEUs. She said she was impressed with all my hard work, but informed me that none of the hours were in social work. It was time to stop living a lie. I begrudgingly signed up for the MSW program and resigned myself to earning a degree in a field that I believed I knew everything about to keep a job I already had.
Fast Forward Two Years
I could write a book about my social work education adventure, but I will keep it brief. I admit that I was not a willing participant in the beginning. I felt that I did not belong in a program with starry-eyed amateurs who wanted to change the world. I worked in the real world, and I was only here to satisfy everyone else. I was disappointed when I discovered that I had a lot to learn and that social work was hard work.
Yet, the hard work was also fascinating and rewarding and promised more than a career at its conclusion. I had phenomenal internships that provided me with experiences at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. I developed a passion for policy and found myself drawn to the business side of social work—administrative practice.
My 20 years of life experience was essential to my growth as a social work professional, but it was not enough. Once I stopped resisting, I could see that my social services experience perfectly complemented a career in social work. The knowledge I gained in the classroom flowed seamlessly into the real world experiences of my internships. I began to appreciate how my journalism training would enhance my work as a social work practitioner.
As I utilized my social work knowledge from my courses during my internships, I felt I was no longer living a lie. What I initially viewed as a career detour had become an amazing opportunity. In my social work journey, I learned about the history, ethics, theories, research, and the practice of social work. I learned how to think and even how to think about my thinking. I learned an invaluable life lesson about shortcuts. If you can avoid them and take the longer route, you often find yourself enjoying the ride.
Now, when anyone asks me what I do for a living, I can respond honestly, “I am a social worker.”
Julie Claypool is a May 2013 MSW graduate of the University of St. Francis and holds a B.A. in Journalism/Communications from the same university.