By: T.J. Rutherford, MSW
Editor’s Note: Now that T.J. has graduated, we have changed the title of her column for this final installment. Thank you, T.J., for sharing your MSW student experience with us! We wish you the best as you continue on your journey as a new social worker!
May 12, 2010: As I begin my final column, it has been four days since I walked across the stage to receive my diploma after earning a master’s degree in social work. I finished classes in late April and had finals the following week. I also had an exam for the child welfare agency where I will begin working in mid-May. My mother-in-law traveled to be with us on my special day, and she left three days ago, so I have basically been without obligations of one kind or another for two full days.
In a perfect world, I would have at least the remainder of the month to rest, go to the beach, read novels, sleep late, and nap often, but that is not the case, as I will be working in five days. I have barely had time to unwind so far, and I am still emotional from the weekend’s events. In addition to the graduation, I also had a catered party with 30 of my closest friends—people who have been there for me over the past two and a half years. Mostly, they have been there in spirit as I have not been available to play, dine, walk, or even talk on the phone very often. A Facebook post here, and an infrequent meal there, are all anyone has heard or seen of me for quite some time.
May 17, 2010: Today was my first day at work. I walked into my office and it felt right. I spent most of the day in orientation with workers from all over the region. I enjoyed the time with other excited “new hires,” as we are all filled with high hopes. Those with master’s degrees have the title of Specialist. I am a Social Services Specialist. I like the sound of it! I look forward to the days ahead, and I hope to bring good things to the table.
As I am no longer a graduate student, this is my last column for The New Social Worker. That doesn’t mean I won’t query the editor with story ideas; it just means that the time has come to end this chapter in my life—the chapter when I was a student. Now my days will be filled not with papers and readings and projects and presentations, but rather with real life social work. I know that textbook case studies mirror real-life scenarios, and I also know you can’t practice social work by talking about it and writing about it: You must do it!
Am I scared? A little bit. Do I feel confident about my abilities? Yes, I do. I know it will take me a while to put my philosophy into practice, and I know that this MSW will not fail me. I started my day with a prayer for selfless service, and I will end it with a gratitude list. I know that I have all the tools I need to do this work and I can always ask for help if I need it.
This column and my blog have been more important than I could have anticipated. Some of the readers’ voices have become like friends to me. I opened myself up and was often vulnerable in my posts, and I have been humbled by some of the kind responses I’ve received over the (gulp) years. Often the well-timed words would pop up when I was in the most difficult places, and I was buoyed by the thought that I was helping someone. In turn, I was soothed, or my heart was gladdened, or I was given the energy to keep going—knowing someone might be counting on me.
I asked my husband to give me some tips about re-entering the workplace. His simple wisdom reminded me that I have chosen a great life partner. He told me to work reasonable hours (as close to eight as possible) and to get to bed by 10 p.m. I have been such a late-night student that this will be my biggest challenge. I may have to start with 11 p.m. and work my way down, as I am not sleepy at 10:00 yet. This will likely change! I told him I felt the need to “walk it off” after work and he suggested I pack my walking gear, change before I leave work, and then stop at a nearby park before I come home. (I started today!) I talked about packing healthy snacks (nuts, fruits, cheese, peanut butter, veggies) each day to prevent myself from skipping meals. The five to six small meals work best for me, anyway, and that way I will not be tired.
Relaxing when I get home will also be a challenge. I need to chill out! I know I will soon be putting together a schedule for studying for the LMSW exam, and I am seriously considering NOT studying during the week. I can devote larger portions of the week-end to study, and then I will let myself relax during the week in the evenings. I haven’t had much of a break since school let out, and the thought of studying is not very appealing right now. It’s like going on a healthy diet and then allowing yourself to enjoy some treats one day a week. I can handle it if it’s not all the time. I can manage some studying, but with a new job, I do not want to burn out. And, I definitely want to pass this exam—and soon! So I am trying to approach it in a realistic way.
My classmates and I are cheering each other along as we get jobs, start jobs, and go on interviews. I know that I have made some lifelong friends. One of my closest friends gave me a beautiful ceramic piece of artwork that has the serenity prayer written on it. She told me to take it to my office and place it where I could look at it when things got rough. It was the first thing I brought to my office today. I put it up on a shelf and will look at it often, I am sure—not because I am having a rough day, but because I will remember her and our friendship, which was a special one all through my grad school experience. She taught me more about African American culture than any book or diversity class. She showed me that there are differences between our cultures, and many of the differences were handed down and imprinted upon us by those who came before us. I will always remember how she announced to the class that I was her first white friend. She said she knew I was her friend when I invited her to stay at my home on the weekends when she commuted. I knew she was my friend when she came and found me when I was lost (and late for class) in a circular library. I kept going around and around, and suddenly I heard her call my name. These are such small things—with enormous emotions tied to them. These are the moments I hope to remember.
During graduation rehearsal and on graduation day, several wonderful memories were created. I had my now-familiar (and welcomed) Canon Rebel hidden in my bag at rehearsal, and when I pulled it out, everyone started posing, resulting in a collection of photographs that we will cherish for a long time. On graduation day, one of our classmates was commissioned as an Army officer. She struggled to remain stoic, but she is a social worker, after all. Her tender heart was so moved by the appearance of her husband, who was on leave from Afghanistan, that the tears kept rolling down her cheeks. In our class, there was barely a dry eye, and we stood in her honor after her presentation. I’ll admit I had full-body goosebumps from the experience! The combination of her, her husband, and our class made for a circle of love and respect, and as we helped her get back into her graduation gown, cap, hood, and stole, I felt a connection among us that was truly special.
At the end of the ceremony, we said our good-byes and scurried through the crowd with our families, stopping here and there for photographs. Once inside the car, which had been cooled down before I got in, it was as if I was dreaming: Could it really be finished? Was it over? Since I live so close to campus, soon I was at home and in the company of friends and family members, and a glass was raised in my honor. We enjoyed great food, and I received many gifts, hugs, and kisses. For almost five hours, we made merry. Then my husband and I went to another graduation party, where I was able to decompress, take on some nourishment, and celebrate my friend’s achievement. I slept like a rock that night!
Now, less than ten days since graduation, I am once again filled with gratitude for all the gifts I have been given: a master’s education, friendships both new and old, support from my husband and other family members, prosperity, and good health. Writing for The New Social Worker has been a godsend to me. It forced me to look at myself, to prioritize, and to remain the writer that I will always be. My journalism degree can only complement my social work degree. As I have said many times—the skills are very transferable: research, interviewing, and writing. All of these are required to be an expert in both fields. I have done more writing while in school than I ever did as a newspaper or magazine editor! And, I have been published as much or more, too.
If you are a new student, hang in there! You can do it, and it will be worth it. If you are in the middle of your education, I wish you well, and remember to take care of yourself. If you are nearing the end of your degree, this may be the most challenging time of all. To you I say: Stay the course. For so many reasons, you will be glad you did.
Thank you to my editor, Linda Grobman, who has been encouraging, professional, and honest. And, thank you reader, for making it all worthwhile!
T. J. Rutherford finished her final semester of graduate school and received her MSW on May 8, 2010. She began her first job as a social worker the same month and currently works in a child welfare agency in the family preservation services unit. T. J. shares her life with her husband and an eleven-year-old rescue dog.
This article appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER (Vol. 17, No. 3).